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Raz Godelnik headshot

Postmaster General Talks Sustainability in Durban While Junk Mail Continues

US Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe is a busy man, working incessantly on securing the future of the Postal Service. Yet, last week he found the time to attend the COP17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, where according to a USPS press release he “heralded the U.S. Postal Service's sustainability successes, making the business case to go green.”

Donahoe talked in an international media roundtable that was hosted by the International Post Corporation (IPC) and the South African Post Office. He mentioned some of the Postal Service’s green initiatives and announced that "this is a powerful story and makes the business case for sustainability." He only forgot to mention that the Postal Service is mainly making money from delivering junk mail and is losing billions of dollars a year. It is a powerful story, but not on how you succeed when you are sustainable, but probably more on how you lose when you aren’t.

I wonder if any of the participants in that roundtable had the chance to read Elisabeth Rosenthal’s article ‘The Junking of the Postal Service,’ which was published last Sunday.

If they did, they would have learned that the U.S. Postal Service delivered 57.2 pounds of mail per person in 2010. Out of that, 30.3 pounds were what the Postal Service calls ‘standard mail’, the low-cost postage category available to mass advertisers. The rest of us call it junk mail. So let me do the math here – 53 percent of all the mail delivered in the U.S. is junk mail. In total, we’re talking about 9.3 billion pounds of junk mail versus only 3.7 billion of first-class mail that were handled by the Postal Service last year.

Not only does the Postal Service deliver junk, they are losing money doing so. A lot of money. Last year it reported on a net loss of $8.5 billion. What does Donahoe want to do about it? Rosenthal reports that “to compensate for projected declines in “real” mail, the Postal Service has been aggressively promoting the use of new services for advertisers like Every Door Direct, which allows local retailers to place unaddressed promotional material in every mailbox in an area for pennies a piece, with a few clicks of a mouse.”

I bet that’s what Donahoe was talking about in Durban when he said “leaner, greener, faster and smarter is our sustainability call to action. It's environmentally responsible, as well as a very good business decision." Makes sense, no?

The USPS press release wanted to make sure we understand the context of the talk and explained that “the Postal Service's vision is to be a sustainability leader by creating a culture of conservation throughout the Postal Service and leading the adoption of sustainable business practices by employees, customers, suppliers, the mailing industry and U.S. federal government peers.”

It’s interesting to see that they mention stakeholders, because in the real world it looks like some of these stakeholders do whatever they can to reduce junk mail due to its environmental and economic impacts. Rosenthal mentions for example the growing number of localities that have hired Catalog Choice to create a user-friendly online platform to allow residents to opt out of mailings, as less junk mail translates to less waste and less costs on putting it in landfills. “It’s not just about recycling your junk mail at the end of the day, it’s about stopping the waste before it starts,” explains Eric Lombardi, Executive Director of Eco-Cycle that brought Catalog Choice to Boulder County, Colorado.

It’s only fair to mention that the Postal Service does take steps to green up its operations. Donahoe talked in Durban about the Postal Service's 400 Lean Green Teams, comprised of cross-functional postal employees who collaborate to identify and implement green initiatives. For example, these teams, according to Donahoe helped recycle more than 222,000 tons of material, which generated $13 million in revenue and saved more than $9 million in landfill fees.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Postal Service has sustainability performance goals, including reducing facility energy use by 30 percent and vehicle petroleum use by 20 percent by 2015, increasing vehicle alternative fuel use by 10 percent each year through 2015 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Yet, both the current actions and the future goals are far from making the Postal Service a sustainable organization. The Postal Service right now is a business that is based on a very unsustainable practice: handling junk mail. When this is the case, what the Lean Green Teams do is very nice, but it’s still small change.

Catalog Choice executive director Chuck Teller has an alternative offer for Donahoe and his teams on how they can really green up the Postal Service. “The USPS's sustainability call to action is missing the impact of unwanted mail - billions of pounds a year.  The USPS can reduce municipal waste disposal costs and natural resources by requiring that mailers adhere to the Do Not Deliver requests for their Every Door Direct saturation mail program and encourage advertising mailers to maintain and adhere to consumer requests to opt-out of their mailing lists.  There are tremendous cost savings and huge environmental benefits to be gained by giving consumers choice,” he told me.

I doubt Donahoe will be willing to consider it. No matter what he said in Durban, the fact that the Postal Office chooses to encourage advertisers to send more junk mail instead of finding ways to reduce this unsustainable practice indicates how far it is from being sustainable. I have a feeling that even the people in the roundtable who listened to Donahoe know that we are no short in examples that make the business case to go green, yet the Postal Service is not one of them.

Image credit: Cokeeorg, Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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