If you’re receiving Victoria’s Secret catalogs there’s a good chance the paper they’re printed on will not be the part you’ll be most interested with. Yet, I’m sure even those who are more interested in the latest bra models will be happy to know that these catalogs, which for years were a symbol of unsustainability, are becoming more sustainable.
Five years after making headlines for partnering with ForestEthics, Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, reported last week that it has dramatically increased the use of post-consumer waste (PCW) and FSC-certified paper in their Victoria’s Secret catalogues – from 23 percent in 2007 to 88 percent by the end of 2009. This percentage, as ForestEthics noted, is considered exceptional for a large direct mailer. Does it mean these catalogs can be considered now eco-friendly? Probably not, but this is still an impressive progress for a company that only 6-7 years ago was as far as it can get from this level of greenness.
Just a reminder – Forest Ethics ran a ‘Victoria’s Dirty Secret’ campaign in 2005-2006, using scantily-clad models brandishing chain saws to point out that the 400 million or so catalogs sent out each year by Victoria’s Secret require cutting down a lot of trees, many of them coming from old growth and Endangered Forests in the Canadian Boreal. In December 2006, Forest Ethics and Limited Brands reached a landmark agreement to make the lingerie retailer’s catalogs more environmentally friendly.
The 2006 agreement included a couple of substantial commitments on Limited Brands’ end, such as partnering with its paper suppliers to eliminate all pulp supplied from the Boreal Forest and British Columbia, a preference for FSC certification, overall catalog paper reduction and a commitment to continual improvement on environmental attributes of catalog paper and paper use. Transparency was also part of the deal and Limited Brands made a commitment that its progress will be audited by an independent third party and made public.
The company has kept its word and released a copy of an independent review for Victoria’s Secret Direct catalog paper purchases conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. This review confirms that approximately 88 percent of the company’s Victoria’s Secret catalog paper purchased in 2009 was from FSC-certified and PWC sources, compared to only 23.1 percent in 2007.
This is definitely impressive progress for such a short time and given the large number of catalogs we’re talking about, so no wonder ForestEthics was excited about this news. “When ForestEthics strikes an agreement with a company, whether or not it’s at the end of a confrontational campaign, we always hope that we’ll still be doing great work together five years later,” said Todd Paglia, Executive Director of ForestEthics. “It doesn’t always happen, but then again, not every company is as sincerely committed to reducing its impact on forests as Limited Brands.”
The news also got a positive response from Catalog Choice, the world’s largest preference and privacy portal that is at the front of the battle against junk mail. Chuck Teller, Executive Director of Catalog Choice told TriplePundit that “sustainable paper sourcing is a best practice that all catalog mailers should be using. We applaud Limited Brands and ForestEthics for their leadership in this area. We are pleased that Limited Brands also does a good job at honoring consumer choice. Reducing the production and distribution of unwanted mail by not sending catalogs to those who don’t want them is one of the greatest ways we can help the environment.”
Yet, there are some issues that are still left unanswered even with this impressive progress report. First, it is not clear if any overall catalog paper reduction was achieved so far and if so, how much. We also have to remember that even if 100 percent of the paper used for the catalogs comes from sustainable resources, it is still a wasteful practice as long as this is not an opt-in process. I’m also wondering if Limited Brands considers shifting at least part of their catalog operation online – wouldn’t it be more efficient (and sustainable of course) if instead of sending the whole catalog they would send just a special coupon to anyone who is willing to scroll through the catalog online?
In all, I believe that this is a positive step, given the existing model of business. As Gernot Wagner and others suggested, companies don’t pay the real price for many of their practices, which is the main reason why sales by catalog are still worthwhile. I don’t expect Limited Brands to change the rules of the game – that’s the role of policy makers and the responsibility of the people who put them in power. In the meantime, we’re left with fixing the existing model as much as possible, which means we should commend such positive actions that assure us that even if many of these catalogs shouldn’t be printed at all, at least they’re printed on a sustainable paper.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder 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.