From One Liberal to Another, Shame on You: 10 Flaws in the Latest Do-Not-Mail Initiative
Before I delve into a touchy environmental issue, let me be totally up-front about my own political views as a consumer (without my chief editor hat on): I lean heavily to the left.
I voted for Sen. Obama in the New York primary (although my finger was leaning on Sen. Clinton’s key in that booth just before it moved to Obama’s). I wanted to put that out on the table publicly, because the tone of my column might seem to go in the opposite direction. You have been warned.
That said, if I’m turning off any of our right-leaning readers, I hope you’ll understand that I’m a smack-down-the-middle independent when it comes to the catalog/multichannel business. Issues affecting catalogers rarely involve hard-core partisan politics. But the whole issue of sustainability and the environment, and how it affects catalogers, can get a bit dicey. Enough on me. Here’s what I’m presenting this week:
Flaw 1: Curiously Short Notice
I received an e-mail at 1:35 p.m. EST on March 10 alerting me that the executive director of the environmental organization ForestEthics, which maintains offices in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Toronto; Vancouver, British Columbia and Chile, would be leading a teleconference in just 20-and-a-half hours the following morning. I was sure to call in to the conference, which the director, Todd Paglia, led along with Vermont State Rep. Christopher Pearson.
The subject? ForestEthics’ initiative to influence consumers and the federal government to create a national do-not-mail law five years to the day after the Do-Not-Call Registry became law.
The timing was dramatic, but the short notice meant that only about 20 people tuned in to it. And the presentation was hardly dramatic. Neither Paglia nor Pearson gave a particularly compelling presentation. Bottom line was fairly simple: They want to use Do Not Call as the model for a Do Not Mail.
Flaw 2: Saving Which (and Whose) Forests?
At the risk of sounding like I couldn’t care less about all Al Gore has done in the interest of saving the environment ever since George W. Bush stole the White House away from him (quite the contrary, I admire Gore greatly), ForestEthics’ dual concern of losing precious virgin timber (grown primarily in Canada) while heeding to consumers’ long-standing distaste for disposing of unwanted junk mail is seriously flawed.
Speaking only on behalf of the millions of catalogs mailed around the country every day, and not the assorted bulk letters, fliers and other direct mail distributed, I can safely assert that a sizeable portion of trees cut down for the purpose of making catalog paper has been grown and harvested by paper mills for just that purpose.
So to say that catalogers, their printers and paper mills are marching into precious rain forests and ruining them is, I feel, off base. ForestEthics’ message to its constituents is misleading in this regard.
Flaw 3: Hollywood Antics
As if ForestEthics didn’t feel it would generate enough clout or interest in taking on this industry, it boasted a “star-studded” cast of characters backing the effort to play up the Peter Finch in “Network” I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore! angle. The announcement read as follows:
15,000 Petitioners Say it’s Time to Take Our Mailboxes Back, including Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage), Aaron Douglas (Battlestar Galactica) and Paul Hawken (environmentalist, entrepreneur and author).
Here’s a little Hollywood back atcha to illustrate how silly this is: Go back a little more than 10 years to Oct. 30, 1997, episode No. 161 of “Seinfeld” called “The Junk Mail.” Kramer, that hilarious character whose every action represented how silly life could be if you basically didn’t have a worry in the world, storms into a Pottery Barn store in New York with a stack of Pottery Barn catalogs, dumps them at the front door and says he refuses to accept them anymore.
Sure, you remember that episode, right? Kramer then gets interrogated by the Postmaster General (portrayed deadpan by Wilford Brimley) for his refusal to accept his mail. Pure theater of the absurd.
If there were ever any life lessons one could take away from “Seinfeld,” it was just how silly people’s actions could be. And this episode played up what a joke it is for consumers to kvetch about having to go through all that effort to throw out mail they don’t want.
Flaw 4: Apples to Oranges
The absurdity of that “Seinfeld” episode also brings to light ForestEthics’ flawed approach to this initiative: to use the creation of the Do-Not-Call Registry as a model. It’s one thing to receive unnecessary and annoying phone calls during dinner time. It’s another to receive unwanted catalogs in your mailbox.
Companies that rely on telemarketing can find other ways to sell their wares. Catalogers that rely on mailed books can only partly rely on the Internet or their stores (if they operate any) to keep business thriving. And if killing off the catalog forces them to open more stores ... Well, let’s not get into the fact that consumers drive about 3.3 billion miles a year back and forth to stores, using all that gasoline and giving off all those fumes.
I found Rep. Pearson’s response to this even more absurd, particularly for an elected official whose state is home to numerous thriving catalog companies. “The way we interact with advertising typically empowers the consumer,” he said. “We can turn the car radio down and flip over the newspaper. But with mail, we’re forced to pick up the tab for disposal, to say nothing for advertising costs and landfill costs. There’s a big distinction between the different modes of advertising to support this project.”
Flaw 5: Recycling
Before I go into an all-out assault on ForestEthics, let me attack my own message first. By now, some readers are thinking I’m unsympathetic to excessive waste, overflowing landfills and the like. Quite the contrary. Catalogs can and should be recycled. All of them.
While I’m hardly one to toot the Direct Marketing Association’s horn, it has done a noble job encouraging members to take an active role in its “Recycle Please” program, which urges catalogers to place a logo on their books and consumers to put their unwanted (or already used) catalogs into recycle bins for proper recycling. More on the DMA further down, and it’s not all quite as pretty.
On top of that, recycling agencies are stepping up more every day. In the community where I live, Westchester County in New York, we recently received a stern warning from our refuse collectors that we must separate our recyclables and clearly wrap our newspapers and catalogs. If we don’t, they won’t pick them up. BUT if that happens and we try to dump them in the trash, we’ll be fined. Certainly a good idea, and I’m sure that stiffer warnings lie ahead.
Flaw 6: Show Me the Money!
As one of only four people who asked questions of this group during that rather sudden March 11 teleconference (and actually, one of the other three was my colleague at Catalog Success, Senior Associate Editor Joe Keenan), I grilled ForestEthics’ Paglia on just where the money is coming from to support this initiative. He couldn’t have been more vague in his response: “It’s funded by individuals and foundations in the U.S. and beyond.”
So after the teleconference, I asked him (via e-mail) to be more specific: How much money is behind this effort, and who are the individuals and foundations providing it? “Like many things, this is a work in progress,” he replied. “I will say we have a many-year commitment to this campaign, and that it is quickly on its way to becoming the largest, most well-funded campaign we have ever run.”
This response was even more vague, so I tried to corner him one more time, but it was strike three: “As a grass roots group,” he said in his e-mailed reply, “we are fueled by volunteers, foundations, and individual donors the vast majority of which are very interested in this campaign. There is no telling how much money or how many people will end up supporting this initiative and these predictions are harder when you consider we are in Day 1 of the campaign but I will be happy to update you when we have actual figures.”
“Day 1?” This was the first day ForestEthics had even thought of doing this? And it had already garnered 18,000 online signatures in its petition? (See www.ForestEthics.org) I’d say this has been in the works for quite some time. Certainly this group must have some sort of budget.
Flaw 7: Paul Hawken
Many of us who’ve been in the catalog/multichannel world for more than decade remember Paul Hawken for co-founding the Smith & Hawken gardening tools catalog in 1979. Per the above promotion showing Hawken on board as a major driver behind this effort, he’d naturally rather be known for what he’s done since leaving what ForestEthics would probably refer to as a “junk mail company” in 1991. He’s written many books, given numerous speeches around the world and is the ultimate environmentalist. In fact, Smith & Hawken’s mantra was always to sell handmade, environmentally friendly tools.
Ah, but those tools continue to be sold through the millions of catalogs Smith & Hawken continues to mail out today. What’s more, and I don’t mean to trash Paul Hawken at all, he also sits on boards of many environmental groups, at least one of which (The Whole Earth Catalog) sells its goods via catalog. When I saw his name tied to this initiative, I requested an interview with Hawken for this column, but never got a response from ForestEthics’ PR rep. Layin’ low?
Flaw 8: Being Realistic
Another question I posed to Paglia centered on his ideas for how the USPS should reinvent itself and not subject poor letter carriers to delivering those nasty catalogs and other junk mail anymore. Paglia referred to a new USPS “2.0.”
“It’s clear that the USPS is in trouble now,” he said. “They’re looking at a $1 billion loss now due to less use of First Class mail. Do Not Mail is one of the many things they need to address. We don’t want people to be out of jobs and have this be a catastrophic event in the life of the USPS. It can give the USPS more flexibility and make them not dependent on not sending mail to people who don’t want it.”
To that, I followed up by asking him just how he can realistically expect the USPS to be reinvented when it took more than a decade to get postal reform signed into law just a little more than a year ago. How would an employer of more than 800,000 be revamped successfully without being able to live off the income generated from Standard mail?
“When 89 percent of people polled support a Do Not Mail service because they are sick and tired of being inundated with junk mail that they do not want and can’t control, we have a serious problem and this is a very precarious (to say nothing of the environmental impacts) business model, and the USPS has put its workers in jeopardy by pursuing it,” he said. “Should the USPS be allowed to annoy a nation, wreck untold environmental havoc, contribute to identity theft, etc., to preserve jobs aimed at delivering unwanted mail or can we find a better way forward? I think we can find a better way.”
Then I took him to task to ask just what “better way” he might offer. I’d only be kidding if I were to say that Congress and the USPS Board of Governors ought to look over his answer very carefully. “This is the very beginning of the campaign,” he said. “We want to have a system in place that grants people a right that they should never have been denied: the ability to stop unwanted and annoying junk mail. And if that thin edge of the wedge presents an opportunity to broaden that concern felt by tens of millions of citizens with a plan to help the USPS evolve over time while taking care of its workers, then that starts to sound like a win-win which we would support; and a win-win solution is hopefully the outcome of the campaign and we are just getting started.”
Flaw 9: DMA Defense
A few hours after the teleconference, I chatted with Steven Berry, the DMA’s executive vice president for government affairs and corporate responsibility, who told me he listened in to the teleconference but chose not to ask any questions.
My personal feeling about the DMA’s reaction to the previous aggressive Do-Not-Mail effort, spurred by the Catalog Choice group (CatalogChoice.org), was that it was too reactionary. While lacking enough clout to get in consumers’ faces about how they could cut down on unwanted advertising mail in a non-legislative and self-regulating way, the most noteworthy thing the DMA did was to remove the $1 fee it charges consumers to get on its Mail Preference Service.
But I’m optimistic. DMA and some of its members are at least doing something about this, and Berry told me it has attempted to work with ForestEthics and Catalog Choice to work something out. “ForestEthics took sort of a tired track on this,” Berry said. “It didn’t recognize that our industry has done amazing things in the last eight to 12 months and we are, in fact, addressing many of the issues consumers want on the environment side.”
He continued, “I didn’t see or hear anything in their statements that were particularly unique. We have an educational challenge here and we know we also have some challenges on the consumer side. The industry is starting to step up to that.”
Flaw 10: Consumers’ Responses
I invite you to go to http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/281/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=941, where you can find the ForestEthics petition. There, consumers give their names and some enter comments. Certainly many of them are on the mark. For instance, Frances Twitchell of Key Largo, Fla., wrote, “Such a waste of time, money, services and resources I would not use.” That’s certainly an appropriate comment.
But upon further review, some of them are rather Kramer-like. Take Margaret Bauguess of Sacramento, Calif. “It is an invasion of our privacy.” Oooo, watch out for those catalogs with the hidden TV cameras, Margaret!
Then you get the melodramatic. Here’s what Caitlin Weigand, who identifies herself as being with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va., had to say: “Yes, it’s poisonous to the environment. But worse than that, advertisements are poisonous to our happiness. They are designed to make you feel what you already have is inferior, and that essentially you are inferior! Without them, society would be more free to self-determine for needs and desires. That would most certainly result in less consumption, more money saved in the bank and your wallet, and less waste polluting the land and air.”
Ms. Weigand’s group is certainly a noble one, taking action against the likes of leaking landfills and polluted drinking water to incinerators and hazardous waste sites, among other efforts — all in the interest of consumer health. But when you go to the sign-up form on its site and enter your information, you’ll automatically receive a regular (printed and mailed) bulletin. What’s more, you’re invited to receive no fewer than four other snail-mailed bulletins and yet more printed and mailed information on four other areas.
OK, that may be a stretch, but it’s all consistent with the frequent hypocrisy and absurdity of this endeavor.
A Positive ‘Epilogue’
Finally, let’s shift over to one of the other groups targeting catalogers. Here’s an example of catalogers taking action based on the Catalog Choice initiative: Peter Grebus, who heads Williams-Sonoma’s customer information management group, said in a session during the NEMOA Conference on March 13 in Cambridge, Mass., that the multichannel home furnishings marketer “wants to be ‘the person’ our customers talk to, to develop the right marketing channels” and contacts, he said. “We want to allow them to go to the channels they’re interested in.”
Working off of opt-outs Williams-Sonoma received from Catalog Choice’s Do-Not-Mail effort, Grebus noted that 77 percent of those who opted out of Pottery Barn purchased from Pottery Barn at some point, spending upwards of $18 million. (Uh, Kramer?) What’s more, 53 percent of them had purchased from Pottery Barn over the past two years, spending $4.6 million. The average Pottery Barn opt-out received 9.8 contacts from the company last year.
Also indicative of catalogers investigating consumers’ true objectives — and their lack of understanding just what they’re doing — when opting out, Elizabeth Pearce, director of marketing at Country Casual, pointed out during Grebus’ session that many consumers “have real misperceptions of what they’re opting out of” when using Catalog Choice. “They don’t realize they won’t get any catalogs when they do this. They’re on a site to opt out and sometimes they wind up requesting our catalog.”
Country Casual has received 40 catalog requests from people who logged onto Catalog Choice over the past eight to 10 weeks. Further proof that many consumers don’t truly understand what Catalog Choice and ForestEthics are doing.