How Far Would You Go to Decrease Junk Mail?

junk-mailWhen I read the account of Alan During’s struggle to curb junk mail delivery to his residence, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud; is there anyone who can’t relate? For a solid year, Alan not only kept all the junk mail he received; he also chronicled the amount and type of mail delivered (i.e. 15 pounds worth of phone books!) before attempting to get off the mailers’ lists. His experiment has me wondering: how will sustainability influence marketing in the quickly evolving green business world?

All told, Alan amassed a whopping 50 pound, two-feet-tall stack of mail: the phonebooks, plus neighborhood advertisers (5 pounds), Eddie Bauer, Bike Nashbar, Performance Bicycle, Road Runner Sports catalogues (10 pounds), info-tech advertising (2 pounds), political mail (1 pound), tabloids (1 pound), and other various and sundry randomness (16 pounds). Talk about unwanted weight gain!

Alan faced a choice: reduce, reuse, or recycle. He opted for the first, attempting to prevent future mailings by removing himself from the companies’ mailing lists. (He probably also recycled the unwanted mail.) Doing so required no small amount of elbow grease on his part: the man telephoned, Googled, ad-mail-prevention-service registered, and snail-mailed his way through a painful stemming-the-junk-mail-flow process. He achieved limited success: several mailers could not be contacted, others continued the mailings despite his protests, and a small percentage heeded his requests.

I admire Alan’s publishing of his experiment, since it is something of a window into his personal life (Eddie Bauer meets Bike Nashbar – really?!). But the experiment also raised questions, in my mind, as to the sanity of American marketing techniques. Not only did the junk mailings deter Alan from making any purchases; they also motivated him to cut ties with the mailers. If these techniques alienate other consumers like they did Alan, are the techniques even reasonable? Are direct mailers aware of the growing sustainability movement in the corporate world? Do businesses actually make enough money from Paper Onslaught Marketing to compensate for their advertising costs and environmental damage? Or are marketers out of their minds?

I did a little research of my own. I uncovered a report by Tom Egelhoff, whom I suspect is an old school marketer; his website claims that if half of the 1 to 2 percent of people who respond to well-planned mass mailings actually purchase the product, the mailer will make an adequate profit. On the other hand, many companies (like those involved with the Direct Marketing Association’s “Green 15” resolution) are seeking to reduce their environmental impact, in part by decreasing direct mailing, in an effort to improve their bottom line. Looks like, reports, “direct mail waste reduction… is becoming an economic imperative,” and “direct mail waste reduction is an area where environmental concerns and shareholder interests coincide.” After all, would “mail management” organizations like exist if direct marketing was popular among consumers? It appears that, at least in a limited sense, more marketers are attempting to merge sustainable marketing with profit.

It has me wondering: should the government intervene in companies that market through direct mailing? (The government has, after all, taken a number of other measures recently to strongly encourage sustainability.) While anti-junk-mail legislation could potentially decrease waste and pollution, would it also infringe on companies’ freedom of expression? And, would the risk of long-term profit be worth the risk of loss in an already dangerous economic climate?

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

4 responses

  1. I’m a fan of finding solutions to these kinds of problems without government involvement which often just breeds legal fees and evasive loopholes. Companies like GreenDimes claim they’ve already taken huge chunks out of the junk mail tsunami and I hope that sens a message to companies that people really hate the stuff. Never mind the environmental side of it.

    What might help, I think, would be a more effective feedback mechanism. For example, I get at least 2 credit card offers in the mail every week. Often from a company that I already use. I always wonder, don’t these idiots know I already have the very card they’re trying to send me? It seems like someone isn’t running the right database over there and as I’m not the only one, I’m sure they could save a lot of money by cleaning it up. But there’s nowhere that I can effectively complain to without a lot of bother.

    That kind of experience, along with the fact that I still get a paper phone book delivered twice a year makes me kinda pessimistic that there’s a non-governmental solution. An easy solution would be to simply raise the postal rates for mass mailings. That would kick companies into using them more efficiently. Perhaps non-profits could be exempt.

  2. We’ve all been subsidizing junk mail for way too long. Just yank the subsidy. That will cut it by 2/3 easily.

    But, that will never happen, because politicians raise donation money via junk mail, and all the organizations that lobby raise $$ by junk mail.

  3. A 24 inch yearly stack seems somehow low. I’ll keep my eyes open for studies. Demographic data mining must play a role, maybe mailbox to mailbox.

    Carbon offset is complicated. For example, since banks clearly like him, just how many are now driving off to marry Nick? :-)

  4. It only looks bad because it is tangible. EPA estimates that direct mail accounts for just 2% of landfill waste. It’s this naive notion that mail comes from paper, and paper comes from trees, so your trees in your front yard are going to be cut down for direct mail. The facts are that trees are farmed by paper manufacturers, and the less paper we use, the fewer trees they will plant.
    If you want to talk carbon emissions and GHGs, you cannot discount the server farms that are maintained 24 hours a day to sustain our email. Recent studies indicate the average GHG emission associated with a single email message is .3 grams of CO2, the equivalent of driving 3 feet(McAfee 2009)
    If you don’t want direct mail, recycle it or try to get off the list. Smart marketers are already minimizing mail to better offset costs and startegically target prospects.

Leave a Reply