An Important Announcement to ALL Environmentalists & Direct Mail Haters (no political correctness here)…

“No trees were killed in the sending of this email. However, a whole bunch of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.”

The above is the email signature of a friend of mine. While meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it actually makes a strong, yet entirely off base point: Electronic mail is somehow less harmful to the environment than paper-based mail.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the sending of email does kill trees (I’ll discuss this more below).

Whenever I write about direct mail here, the environmentalists come out to visit. Well, visit may not be the right word; maybe I should say they come out to hate. They must be trolling the internet looking for anything positive about direct mail to take a shot at, like drive-by haters.

So I’m going to set the record straight. And you environmentalists take note, please.

Here’s my question: Which is worse for the environment, direct mail or email? I think email, and here’s why.

  1. Every email sent generates power consumption. Think of all the routers, servers, internet service providers and PCs involved. Consider all of the big-box companies that sell and service PCs. Maybe someone out there has done the math, but I’m sure there’s a hard cost in terms of power consumption per email.
  2. Same goes for time trolling the internet looking for direct mail folks to hate on. If a computer’s on, it’s using energy.
  3. Now here’s the tricky part: Where does the energy that email and computers use come from? It’s not very clean at all, is it? Our electricity is still very much powered the dirty old way, thus the energy consumed by email and the internet isn’t very clean — something environmentalist, direct mail haters don’t really talk about; truly their dirty little secret.
  4. Most people recycle their direct mail, catalogs and newspapers because it’s the right thing to do.
  5. The paper industry — the backbone of the direct mail business — is heavily involved in reforestation (i.e., the planting of new trees to replace ones used for paper). In fact, and I hope some paper merchants will respond to this, reforestation efforts are usually at a ratio of two to one or greater.

Just to let you know, I recycle, and I believe in a future with clean energy, not because it it politically correct, or supports a particular political agenda, but because it just makes sense to do. But to say that direct mail is destroying the planet? That’s a weak and opportunistic argument. Direct mail is still one of the most powerful tools in a marketer’s tool bag if done according to principles.

Got comments? Post them below.

26 thoughts on “An Important Announcement to ALL Environmentalists & Direct Mail Haters (no political correctness here)…

  1. jdschulte says:

    I’ve always thought the anti mail people are very hypocritical. I don’t see them complaining much on all those phone books being dropped on millions of doorsteps. I don’t see them complaining much about all those newspaper tabloids I see in plastic bins along the street corners or thrown on my steps each day. Compared to these forest wasters Direct Mail is god send for being green. JDS

  2. Lyn Layton says:

    I have to agree with you. Not only is direct mail ecofriendly, it is more effective. Wall Street Journal just published an article (Tuesday 1/12/2010, Small business segment: First Hold Fast to Snail Mail Marketing) which states that many companies have tried to go it with web based marketing efforts alone and have come up empty when it came to responses. They still need to integrate their efforts – being smart and using the right amount of targeted market efforts utilizing all available resources like email and direct mail together – using direct mail to drive people to your site is most effective and measurable.

    Lyn Layton
    The Market Builder Inc.

  3. Craig says:

    Direct Mail may working for the time being, but with anyone under 40, Direct Mail goes straight into the shredder for recycling – most often without even opening the letter.
    As the 40 and under generations age, Direct Mail will become less and less relevant…and one day die – unless one can get the USPS to start delivering Direct Mail to SmartPhones.

    Get the eulogy ready for Direct Mail…..

    • Jim Gilbert says:

      Craig, I wouldn’t cry for direct mail yet. Mobile marketing is in its infancy. And I am not sure I agree that direct mail is not relevant to anyone under 40. Got any proof? Please share.


    • Rob B says:

      I’m not sure if 40 is the magic cut-off as a 41 year old, but I know that I look at some kinds of direct mail and not at others. When I get catalogs from Fannie May, Eddie Bauer, Crate&Barrel or Think Geek I spend time thumbing through them.

      I think you’re forgetting the power of convenience. Once a catalog is in someone’s hands, if it’s properly targeted, they’ll probably want to look at it. Maybe you personally don’t look at direct mail, but most people will pay attention if the direct mail piece speaks to them and their interests as a consumer.

      Going forward, I would think that catalogs may get smaller and work harder to leverage web-based media, but I don’t see a real “end” for direct mail. I think it will just evolve.

    • Colin Y.J. Chung says:

      I disagree with this. I’m 29 and I love getting mail. Not because I’m a copywriter that likes reading junk mail but just the tactile-ness of paper in my hands.

      I think my and the younger generation will come to enjoy and respond to direct mail just because it’s being abandoned by most marketers. It’s “special” to get something in the mail.

  4. craig flax says:

    There is actually at least one study that I know of that does a decent job of relating direct mail vs email, and it comes out on the side of direct mail. Quite frankly, there are too many factors involved to do this question justice.

    But the truth is that it just doesn’t matter. Both are capable of driving consumers in an efficient, carbon neutral-ish way. And instead of defending the right to (mostly) blindly mail something that 98% of the people will throw out or (hopefully) recycle, this industry should focus on more efficient use of resources, including improving conversion (obvious, and obviously not so simple).

    Demand to use FSC or SFI certified paper. Demand that your email provider and ISP and host use as much alternative energy as possible. Lobby for the postal service, UPS and Fedex to use zero emission vehicles. SHOW your customers that you care by working for their cause.

  5. Todd Butler says:

    The USPS has been measuring consumers response to direct mail for over 20 years. They call their study the Household Diary Study and it measures 5,000 participants reaction to mail.

    One of the questions asked is what do you do with your advertising mail. This number bounces around every year as you would expect. If you take a five year average you will find that 18% of consumers taking part in this study do not read or scan their direct mail advertising. That means that 82% of recipients read or scan direct mail.

    As for under 40’s not reading direct mail, there have been other studies measuring this and what they found is that as children mature, their acceptance and use of direct mail mirrors prior generations. I guess the more vocal under 40’s haven’t reached an appropriate level of maturity. We can only hope.

  6. Paul Zink says:

    Jim, while I do believe that well-targeted direct mail is more effective than email marketing, I think that saying it’s more eco-friendly is a stretch. I really don’t think that the average person shuts his computer down sooner if he receives less commercial email in his inbox or spends less time clicking through on banner ads. Seriously: Twitter and YouTube will suck up the time saved, and anyway, many people never shut off their computers regardless of the content they receive or search for.

    Finally, we haven’t even talked about the fuel expended to ship and distribute all that weight of paper to mail distribution centers, local post offices and finally to consumers.

    And while I do recycle all my paper, and applaud the efforts of the paper industry in the area of reforestation and commercial use of recycled paper, I cringe when I get a thick paper catalog from a retailer from whom I haven’t ordered in quite some time (e.g. LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, etc.), rather than, say, a “come back to us” postcard. In cases like those, I wish a few more electrons had been spent on data and ROI analysis.

    Mail has an inherent response advantage over electronic media because it is tactile, dimensional and highly flexible. And becasue of this, mail will always have potential to be more environmentally friendly, given the ultimate goal of getting a 100% open rate and 100% response rate (thus reducing number of pieces produced and sent). So perhaps mail has room for eco-improvement that can’t be matched by email.

  7. Robert Groves says:

    Those points seem pretty weak, consider if you will:

    1. Every mail piece consumes power. Don’t forget about those computers that run your data extracts, data cleansing, NCOA, merge/purge and presort processing. Oh, and those rolls of form don’t print themselves either.

    2. Indeed. Nice blog. What kind of server is it hosted on?

    3. See #1.

    4. “Most” is not a statistic. The most favorable number I could find was 45%. “Half,” I would have accepted as accurate, but that leaves the other half of the mail in a landfill (probably right next to a bunch of non-recycled electronics).

    5. The IT industry has been going the green/environmentally sustainable route since 1992. This is right around the same time as the “Statement of Forest Principles” at the Earth Summit (UNCED).

    Let me explain that I am not an environmentalist and that I do work in the direct marketing industry, in IT. I don’t “hate” direct mail in the general sense; meaining I don’t appreciate junk mail (i.e. mail I receive which is not relevant to me), electronic or meatspace.

    I believe consumers should have a choice when it comes to what is marketed to them and that reputable marketers must respect those choices (not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do).

    I am a proponent for smarter marketing; actually, smarter everything in general. You had an opportunity here, to write a smarter blog post; instead you took the route of creating an entry containing weakly-backed “facts” that can only be chalked up to link bait. (Congrats by the way, after all, I took the bait I suppose).

    “No trees were killed in the sending of this comment. However, a whole bunch of electrons, and brain cells, were terribly inconvenienced.” 🙂

    Let’s be smarter.

  8. Paul Zink says:

    An addendum comment that I had posted to Linkedin (more as a response to Todd Butler’s comment there (and above):

    We’re so often focused exclusively on response rates that we forget the value of the “Click Rate” so described. Even if a prospect decides not to respond (to that one piece of mail), an advertising impression has been made that can influence the prospect’s behavior in the future and affect the response rate of future mailings.

  9. Paul Zink says:

    Re: Robert’s thoughtful comment above

    Well, if you get right down to it, almost all human activity is destructive to the environment, and marketing in general is near the top of the list, promoting as it does consumption of manufactured goods.

  10. Avery Nash says:

    Excellent discussion and good points all. I totally agree with all efforts to make everything more eco-friendly.
    I do think that Direct Mail use will atrophy over time – but it is not dead yet and marketers of big ticket, luxury, leisure, high-end, travel and entertainment, and other “grown up” products should not forget that. As a 40something myself I am even the one that gets the CCS catalog for all the kids’ skateboarder stuff… The Kids dog-ear the pages and circle the products, colors and sizes at their leisure so I can go online and buy it at my leisure. You have to keep your eye on who has the most readily accessible cash – and those folks still like to get catalogs – small, thin, highly targeted ones though… no more Sears and Roebuck please… 🙂 Most emails go to my junk mail folder where I read only the subject line to see if they are offering me free shipping or anything else worthwhile. In closing – I do a very significant percentage of my shopping and buying online but only rarely because of an email. I fill my wish list up before Christmas and my husband buys me stuff from it.
    I think that the real demon is the manipulation of Search Engines. It is bad enough to have “sponsored links” but at least they are up front about what they are. Underhanded efforts to falsely bring a company’s link to the top of the list is just wrong…

    • Jim Gilbert says:

      Thanks to all of you who have responded so far. I wrote this article to basically poke the bear and start a discussion.

      Some call it link bait. I call it debate. There are big issues at play here.

      Great points here. I just want to clear one thing up before it becomes a misconception. I am not advocating any non-green policies. Catalog and direct mail should be recycled when done. All paper should.

      All marketers should use DMA’s mail preference service, and Catalog Choice to merge against and weed out any people who opt to not get advertising mail. I’ve written about this before. I’ll dig out the article with the links.

      Marketers should do their best to use recycled papers and inks. In the early 2000’s I worked for a catalog that led the way on this, and was asked to sit in the environment booth at the annual DMA conference and offer help to marketers who wanted to follow suit.

      My point to all of this is that the mail business is more environmentally FRIENDLY than most people imagine. And I wanted to get that word out there in a provocative way that will stir up communication.


  11. Mark Bayliss says:

    Interesting consideration and certainly we all suffer from electronic marketing both positive and negative. I know myself that most of which we I actually signed up for in some previous trolling through the web. Probable I thought at the time it was a good idea and that I would actually find some time in the day to actually read it. I find that I am mostly to blame for the marketing that I receive and so can only berate myself.
    Your point that electronic marketing is not as energy efficient as traditional marketing does not entirely add up through. We use our computers for so many different non-marketing purposes that the intrusion of some small number of marketing items in our day – self inflicted or not, does not really rate as a statistically significant increase in the time that the computer remains powered on. I know I do not intentionally turn on my PC just with the sole aim of reading the marketing mails I received overnight. So not really sure your arguments are totally valid.

  12. Marjorie Bicknell says:

    You are so correct. Individuals certainly do not understand what is “green.” They see me driving my Prius and think I’m green. It’s not riding a bus is greener (but there are no buses here and that’s another story).

    When I tell people I’m a direct marketer, I instantly hear about all the trees I’m killing. Then I point out that the local mall is killing a whole lot more. Head to yours on any random Thursday – and what do you find. Lights blazing, music blaring, air conditioning – or heat – blasting and a bunch of sales clerks fighting over the three senior citizens and two stray goats who are power walking the corridors.

    Direct mail is probably the most efficent, least invasive way to sell anything. Okay e-mail marketing works, too. But it’s not as green as it thinks it is.

  13. bicknellcreative says:

    I just added up the spam I got this morning at 3 feet per e-mail, I’ve driven a fifth of a mile … and thd day is young!

    BTW, I am assuming that the fifth of a mile was NOT driven in my Prius!

  14. Kymberly Bennett, MQC says:

    American generated roughly 254 million tons of municipal waste (MSW) in 2007, more than 169 million tons of which were discarded into the municipal waste stream to be disposed of for energy recovery efforts (such as recycling) or to become the contents of the nation’s landfills. However, direct mail does not make up the bulk of MSW. Shown here are some of the items* that contribute in greater quantities to U.S. landfills according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    Standard Mail 2.1%
    Disposable Diapers 2.2%
    Plastic Bags, Sacks and Wraps 2.3%
    Newspapers and Magazines 2.3%
    Glass Beer and Soft Drink Bottles 3.0%
    Clothing and Footwear 4.2%
    Corrugated Boxes 4.9%
    Furniture and Furnishings 5.5%
    Yard Trimmings 6.9%
    Food scraps 18.2%

    *The items shown here do not represent all items in MSW, and therefore do not total 100%.
    Source: 2007 MSW Characterization Report

  15. Colin Y.J. Chung says:

    I think Jim poking at the bear is a good start… but Paul Zink made a good point that this is not a clear study with well-researched numbers. I’d like to see study done.

    The one point that sticks out for me is whether or not the electricity expended to run our computers and networks outweigh the paper usage for direct mail. Most power plants, as Jim noted, are NOT very environmental. Most of them are still running on coal. I was shocked to learn this when i read “When The Party’s Over” a few years back.

    • Jim Gilbert says:

      Colin, I WAS trying to poke the bear. I’ve heard things, and seen things, but don’t have the studies in front of me.

      My goal here was to get everybody thinking about it, especially people who were not in the DM biz (maybe change a few perceptions of non DM’ers too)


  16. 4x6 says:

    If you didnt have people ‘manipulating the search engines’ (these tend to be very small business and one man bands with no advertising budget) you would find that most of the listings in search engines would be those backed by a huge sponsored link advertising budget.

    Manipulation of the search engines in my book is ok, as long as you are bringing valuable content to the person searching for that content and providing a good user experience.

    Sometimes it is the only way that it is possible to get your service or product out there in the listings.

    You cannot manipulate the search engines to show content that is irrelevant to the search performed. It just does not work like that.

  17. Nick Mullins says:

    I love the e-mail signature your friend came up with “No trees were killed in the sending of this
    email. However, a whole bunch of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.”

    With regard to your justification of e-mail vs, direct mail.

    First, each piece of direct mail undergoes electronic scanning and mechanical sorting that consumes perhaps as much energy than an e-mail being sent and received. That could be considered the break even point between the energy consumption of the two using your theory.

    But let’s delve further shall we.

    Before proceeding, and for the sake of argument, let’s agree that the energy consumed in the construction of the devices and infrastructure involved in direct mail and e-mail are equal, i.e. post offices cost as much energy to construct and maintain as the multitudes of server rooms, or that semi-trucks and mail delivery vehicles (and the people who operate them), require as much energy to create and maintain as personal computers, fiber optics, and so forth.

    What we can then look at is the the energy costs incurred in actually mail products themselves. E-mail is a few kilobytes stored and transmitted whereas direct mail is a physical product that required energy to harvest the raw materials for the paper and ink, as well as energy to manufacture them. And lets not forget cellophane. Then we must also make a comparison between electron use versus oil consumption for delivery of the mail as well as the delivery scale for each. Recycling of direct mail requires energy for someone to pick it up and take it the the recycling facility, and then the energy to process it, remake it, and print it again. .Lastly, lets not forget the energy it takes to grow, transport, and plant trees in reforestation efforts.

    So, while you do have a point that e-mail still consumes energy, which can be from any number of sources to include coal and natural gas, direct mail is much more energy intensive on the whole.

    Nick Mullins

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