June 19, 2015

“Do Not Mail” Legislation and “Junk” Environmentalism

“Do Not Mail” Legislation and “Junk” Environmentalism

It has become fashionable to trash direct marketing mail in the media. Not surprisingly, reporters and editors in the print media, which compete with advertising mail, coined the phrase “junk mail,” and so-called environmentalists have argued that paper-based letter mail is environmentally unfriendly because of the consumption of paper, ink, and energy. (As an aside, I find that these reporters and editors are militantly ignorant about the role direct mail plays in enabling them to have jobs, since the magazines go through the mail, direct mail is used to solicit subscribers, and first-class mail is the way bills and statements get to those subscribers.) In fact, one coalition has recruited an articulate and highly-respected actor, Matt Damon, who recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and passionately argued for the banning of “junk mail.” I understand his frustration and the frustration of others with unwanted mail, but the remedy of banning all unsolicited marketing mail is misguided.

Don’t get me wrong. I think low-quality mass marketing mail diminishes the value of the mailstream. I do not like having to throw out 90+% of what I receive every day, especially duplicates of catalogs I have no desire to get in the first place.

I also recognize that people who try and fail to get off a mailing list have a right to be angry.

But let’s “see a different game” here:

  • Why don’t the environmentalists who want to preserve trees talk to the environmentalists who care about clean air? When people stop shopping by catalog and, instead, go to a retail store to buy the same item the air pollution their car creates is far worse for the environment than the increasingly recyclable paper that makes up their catalog. One of the problems with many environmentalists is that they congratulate themselves for having reduced a particular environmental hazard without asking whether their success has created an even bigger hazard. The reality is that if you took all the paper from mail out of all of the landfills in America, the volume of these landfills would be reduced by only 2.5%, but the additional traffic congestion caused by all those vehicle trips contributes to asthma and an increasing epidemic of serious respiratory conditions, especially for children. If you do not believe people who stop shopping by catalog will drive to retail stores, ask the state sales tax officials who complain that catalog and online shopping are replacing in-state retail shopping that generates sales tax revenues.
  • Some environmentalists will say that everything should be e-mailed. That’s great for the sender, but it stinks for the recipient, and it’s also much more likely than many people realize to have a bad environmental impact. Have you ever received a 50-page attachment to an e-mail? If you want to read it, you will print it, and when you do, you have likely accounted for far more greenhouse gas emissions than if it had been printed by a sender in a production mail shop. Printing e-mails is more common than most environmentalists imagine. Some experts estimate that 40-60% of all e-mails get printed by recipients. Xerox Corporation recently did a study that showed that the average office worker prints 1200 pages of e-mails every month that he or she reads and throws away after reading. Are we better off with locally-printed e-mails and a lower recycling rate on desktop print cartridges than we are with centrally-produced printed material and more sophisticated recycling systems? Someone needs to do objective research on this.
  • Besides, who ever got the idea that pure electronic messages create no greenhouse gasses. Have you ever been to a data center where all those spam e-mails are transmitted and received? The electricity to run the computers and the air-conditioners to cool the data centers and the water coolants use up huge amounts of energy, not to mention the huge amount of wastewater generated.
  • In fact, I would suggest that many processes that are face-to-face and involve a round-trip in an automobile should be converted to mail delivery-based processes. Why shouldn’t everyone vote by mail, as they do in Washington and Oregon? Why should anyone ever have to register a motor vehicle at a motor vehicle bureau to which they have to drive? Why should people wait at toll plazas and spew horrible gasses into the air when we could have completely automated toll systems? Why do we need policemen to catch some speeders with their engines idling while the policeman writes a ticket when photo systems can catch all traffic violators and send them a traffic ticket in the mail? Why should a frail elderly person or their caregiver have to pick up a prescription at a pharmacy when the pharmacy could have it delivered?

But there’s another big issue at stake here. Direct mail is a low-cost medium that enables many job-creating businesses of all sizes to survive. The mass saturation mail we do not like in our mailbox gets enough responses from others that marketers keep generating it. Even web-based businesses need to connect with prospects through the mail to get them to the web site. What happens to the Americans who lose their jobs when a direct mail or catalog operation goes out of business? I can tell you that many of the people who work in our industry are working-class Americans who would drop down into a much more challenged socio-economic environment if they did not have these jobs. I also believe that the small businesses which grow by using the mail would employ fewer people as well if they could not use the mail to reach a broader customer base.

I’m not an apologist for the Postal Service or for the low-quality mail that has led to these initiatives. It bothers me that the Postal Service does not penalize those marketing mailers who make no effort to eliminate badly addressed mail or duplicate mailings that come into the same household. It also bothers me that some credit card solicitors send multiple mailings to the same person. I am particularly offended when I hear stories about marketers who keep sending mail to people they have been informed have died. There are solutions to these problems. The people who truly mail “junk” should pay far more for postage than the mailers who invest in higher quality, better-addressed, better-targeted mail.

However, think of screening mail like having a remote control device for a TV set. We all want the ability to change channels, and, if we have young children, to be able to block specific channels, while continuing to access others. Imagine if there were a few consistently bad channels, and some zealots advocated that everyone should get a remote control with only an on/off switch that, once used to turn off the TV, could not turn it back on without great difficulty. We have TiVo and VCRs because we know that some of what is on TV is content we want to receive. Likewise, some of the marketing mail every one of us gets is something we would want.

What we most need is a workable registry that mailers would be required to check every time they want to do a mailing. You should be able to record your preferences in such a way that you could choose not to continue to receive certain items, to receive them less or more frequently, or to receive similar items. The preference service could even be a vehicle for recipients to say that they like receiving the notification about a particular product or service, but do not like the tone or style of the message. For example, I would like to tell any of the political groups which send me direct mail not to try to fool me into believing that it is an official communication, when it is a marketing solicitation.

Why mass marketers cannot figure out how to execute on a business case to eliminate the 99% of the direct mail that every recipient does not want when they get it is beyond me. Moreover, those mailers who fail to access the registry or to abide by recipient preferences should pay more to mail than those who access the registry and adhere to the preferences of the recipients.

In fact, why can’t a registry prompt people with a particular interest to look for catalogs or vendors they might want, as well as what they do not want, or ask about their preferences relative to how they want communication to reach them in the future? Amazon.com does this very well with the suggestions on other books. A preference service would be far more palatable to marketers if it gave them a roadmap as to what recipients want, as well as what they do not want.

But my biggest problem, having been an environmental advocate who has actually taken concrete actions to improve air, water, and landfills, is the sloppiness of the conventional thinking that passes for environmentalism.

For example, I have visited many coffee shops, and I have observed a lot of well-meaning, so-called “environmentally-friendly” approaches to the container for the coffee. Some shops serve coffee only in ceramic cups because they do not want to add paper or plastic to landfills. However, they have no conception of the greenhouse gasses emitted by the electricity generated to heat the dishwasher that washes the cup, or the hazardous emissions from the cleaning solvents used in the dish-washing process, or the destruction of living things in the waterways where the heated wastewater goes.

Some shops serve coffee in paper cups because they think plastic is bad for the environment, but, as we discussed above, paper consumption increases the cutting down of trees, and consumes energy. Plastics that are not recycled stay in landfills forever.

My point is that, as long as we consume resources, we will have some degree of environmental hazards unless we invest significantly more in reducing resource consumption, re-using and recycling. As a society, we need the political will to put the tough choices on the table.

Most importantly, let’s have the appropriate degree of intellectual rigor on these very difficult subjects.