California Stops Automatic Delivery of White Pages. Will Yellow Pages be Next?

Last Thursday California joined a unique book club, which already includes 16 other states. This book club doesn’t celebrate the release of new books, but actually promotes the disappearance of one. This is still a celebration because we’re talking about a book that is redundant and wasteful, and yet about 6 million Californians receive a new copy of it every year without being asked if they want or need it. If you haven’t guessed yet, we’re talking about the White Pages.

Verizon reported earlier this week that the California Public Utilities Commission has granted Verizon’s request to end the automatic delivery of printed Verizon residential white pages listings to customers in the state. Instead, the company will provide customers with an online, electronic version of white pages residential listings. Customers will also be able to request a free printed or CD-ROM directory of residential listings.

Tim McCallion, president of Verizon’s West region explained why Verizon was happy about this decision:

“The PUC’s decision to allow Verizon to end the automatic delivery of residential white pages listings is good news for California consumers and the environment.  People who don’t use the residential white pages listings will not get a Verizon directory they don’t necessarily want, and those who do use the listings will be able to get them easily online or by asking for a print or CD-ROM version.”

Makes sense, right? This is an obsolete product that almost no one uses anymore, generating mostly waste, costs and environmental impacts. I guess in its heyday White Pages was an important service, which explains why 35 states require that phonebooks will be delivered every year to their residents at no charge, but these days are over.

In the age of the Internet and smartphones most people just have better alternatives for searching residential landline phone numbers. It’s no wonder than that according to a report of the Iowa Policy Research Organization (IPRO), AT&T estimates that in places where they have been allowed to implement opt-in distribution, only 2 percent of the customers have asked for a printed copy.

The opt-in system Verizon will be offering in California not only makes sense, but also shows how unsuitable the opt-out system we had so far was. Basically it was a lose-lose situation where Verizon probably lost money on printing and delivering these phonebooks (no ads..), most consumers saw it as a service that they don’t need or even as a nuisance and of course let’s not forget the waste.

Tim McCallion of Verizon mentioned in their announcement that “moving from automatic to on-request delivery of white pages listings is expected to save an estimated 1,870 tons of material from California’s waste stream.” According to Campaign for Recycling, this step will also reduce 7,293 tons of CO2 from the environment. On the national level, banthephonebook.org estimates that 5 million trees are cut down yearly to print the White Pages.

The fact that in California, as well as in other states that considered similar requests of Verizon and AT&T, there was no real fight about this change is no surprise. Everyone wins here – the state, the phone company and the consumers. If you’re wondering if this is also the case in the discussions on the elimination of the White Pages’ “cousin”, Yellow Pages, then the answer is no. It’s not even close.

Unlike White Pages, Yellow Pages phonebooks are a profitable business and publishers’ profits depend on larger circulation numbers because they allow the publishers to charge higher prices to advertisers. So you can understand why the Yellow Pages publishers are not eager to change their model from opt-out to opt-in.

Not eager for a change might be an understatement. The Yellow Pages Association is suing the City of San Francisco who approved last month an opt-in system, where Yellow Pages can be delivered only to those who request them. The lawsuit, filed earlier this month claims the new law will hurt San Francisco’s “poorest, oldest and least English-proficient” residents.

This is not their only legal fight. Two Yellow Pages publishers, Dex Media West, SuperMedia LLC and the Yellow Pages Association sued Seattle in federal court to overturn a law passed by the City Council last year that lets residents opt out of receiving paper phone books. In addition to setting up a local opt-out registry, distributors in Seattle will need to pay a license fee and fees for each book and each ton of books delivered. The publishers claim the law is unconstitutional violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and will hurt them financially.

At the end I’m sure the faith of Yellow Pages will be just like the White Pages. It’s just a matter of time. After all, just look at the way AT&T referred to the White Pages when they asked Missouri regulators to change the law – “no longer provides the same utility it once did” and “the vast majority of customers neither need nor use these often quite large, bound paper directories.” Couldn’t you use the same words to describe the Yellow Pages?

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.