Catalog and Direct Mail’s Slippery Slope: The Environment, Some Facts and Mail Suppression Files

I’ve been getting a lot of comments to my last article on the evolution of our industry. There’s been some back and forth about going green and its impact on direct mail — the typical “direct mail kills the environment” issue.

Does direct mail really destroy the environment? I don’t think so. The Direct Marketing Association, on its DMAchoice Web site, has published the following information about direct mail being the “green” way to shop:

“Facts About Direct Mail:
Some people come to the DMAchoice mail preference service planning on completely stopping all the direct mail they receive, because they think that doing so will help save paper and the environment. But before you do this, here are some numbers you may find interesting.

  • Direct mail is a green way to shop. If Americans replaced two trips to the mall each year with shopping by catalog, we’d reduce our number of miles driven by 3.3 billion, a 3 billion-lb. reduction in carbon dioxide and a savings of $650 million on gas alone.
  • Mail represents only 2.4 percent of America’s municipal waste stream.
  • The production of household advertising mail consumes only 0.19 percent of the energy used in the U.S.
  • Mail is made from a renewable resource. The vast majority of paper produced in America today comes from trees grown for that specific purpose. The forest industry ensures that the number of trees each year is increasing, so trees are not a depleting resource. In fact, forest land in the United States has increased by 5.3 million acres in the past three decades.
  • Direct mail is critical to the economic well being of communities, businesses and charities throughout the U.S. Last year it represented more than $686 billion in sales, supporting jobs at more than 300,000 small businesses across the country.”

Makes sense, right?

That said, I do support the availability of mail preference services, such as DMAchoice and Catalog Choice. The goal of all direct mail, of course, is to be as relevant as possible. After all, every catalog or direct mail piece sent that goes in the garbage is a waste of your money; it lowers your response rates.

So, having a database to merge against is a good thing. Less wasted mail, right?

Not necessarily. Maybe this holds true for straight customer acquisition programs, but what about inquiry conversion and retention programs in your regular catalog circulation plan? Here we have a slippery slope, as I’d never, ever use a suppression file on my own customers and databased prospects. As far as I’m concerned, they all opted in.

As a mailer, I’m not going to leave that potential revenue on the table. End of discussion.

Let’s get vocal here. I’m deliberately putting an “oil and water don’t mix” issue out there. Feel free to agree, disagree or challenge me to a duel over my opinions (they ARE facts actually, LOL). Post your comments below.

Jim Gilbert is president of Gilbert Direct Marketing Inc., a full-service catalog, direct marketing and social media agency. His LinkedIn profile can be viewed at You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter at or read his blog at

10 thoughts on “Catalog and Direct Mail’s Slippery Slope: The Environment, Some Facts and Mail Suppression Files

  1. Neil O'Keefe says:


    Thanks for clarifying some facts around catalogs and direct mail.

    The primary purpose of is to allow consumers to remove their names from prospect mailings. In fact states that “if you request to stop receiving mail for an entire category (for example, you don’t want to receive catalogs anymore), companies are required to remove you from their prospect list.”

    It is not the intent of to have mailers use this file to suppress customer names or inquiries. However, does provide information for consumers to contact the mailer directly if they want to be removed from a specific list and here we do ask that the mailer suppress these particular names from all commercial mailings. At no time do we expect a mailer to impact their billing or order communication mail.

    We do see some mailers using the suppression file against their customer files in situations where they are mailing deep. Perhaps catalogers should consider testing this against names that are 24 months or older in recency of last purchase. We also recommend that catalogers consider an opt-down strategy where a customer can opt to receive fewer mailings as opposed to none at all. This worked well in the email environment and I’ve heard good reports from those mailers who have incorporated these options into their policies.

    Providing choice is becoming more important in everything we do. And allowing a customer to choose fewer is a better option than only letting her choose NONE.


  2. Dale Filhaber says:

    Jim – hi

    In terms of direct mail as a green way to shop – that’s the beauty of well-targeted direct mail – reaching out to households that have a predisposition / probability to purchase a particular product.

    Marketers who carefully select their list criteria are not only environmentally conscious, they are saving their very precious marketing dollars by not wasting resources on “improbables”.

    By the way, did you know we have a select on our database called “GreenAware”, which lets marketers target eco-friendly consumers…and conversly (perversly?) reach out to those households who are totally not green. It’s a fabulous new tool for marketers looking to reach this important segment.

    You can visit the Dataman Group website for more info on our GreenAware overlay at

  3. Eric Schneider, Huron Paper Stock, Chicago says:

    As an owner of one of the oldest running waste paper dealers in Chicago, I would say that it does not “kill the environment”. Throwing recycables in the garbage does kill the enivorment. Direct mailers, printers , die cutters, etc are some of our biggest clients. For 55 years we have been servicing similiar type companies. Now, whether they do this for environmental reasons, I can’t say. What I can say is they do it because it HAS VALUE. Throwing paper waste in the garbage costs money…selling it to a reputable waste paper dealer not only reduces garbage costs, it also adds revenue to their bottom line.

    On a side note, most paper waste collected from the printing industry is sold to tissue mills where they make items such as toliet paper. So thank you Direct Mailers… I love my Charmin

    Eric Schneider
    Huron Paper Stock, Inc.
    2545 W. Fulton Ave.
    Chicago, IL 60612

  4. Larry Karkos says:

    This is going to sound haughty, but I am not a true believer in the efficiencies presumed by adherinig to many opt-out lists, especially when the justification given is that they can always “find you an the web if they are interested”.

    Some consumers are actually (surprise) a bit lazy and will gravitate to the easy solution rather than the best solution when pressed for time. Even ubiquitous brands such as Coke and Miller Beer experience slides in sales when they try to cut back on sales. If you are hot anf thirsty, you’d assume that you’d reach for your well known brand out of habit. But lo and behold, that is not the case.

    In contrast, we do not have such a high-frequency relationship with our customers and our relationship is even more tenuous. Our prime sales proposition is that we carry unique and unusual items. Our customers and prospects can not possibly know to look for our merchandise when they need it, because they won’t know what to look for until they see it. Serendipity is essential to our business model.

    If all businesses waited until a customer was ready to initiate a sales dialogue, many many businesses would close their doors from lack of sales. Sales communication is as much about educating the consumer about the marketplace as immediate selling. Often times, it develops the mental environment that establishes a reference point for a reasonable transaction even if no transaction occurs at that time.

    To say that all consumer preferences should be automatically respected would fly in the face of 50 years of opportunistic and intrusive, yet ultimately effective, TV advertising not to mention space and billboard advertising.

    As a consumer, I recognize that timing and targeting are crucial to how I percieve and accept a marketing message. As a marketer, I have 30 years of experience that says impulse will trump reliance on diligent consumers doing their part to make a rational buying decision more often than not. Of course, I am speaking at a populational level, not a personal level

    People don’t always perform the way they profess they act.

    My point is, I’m not sure we, as marketers, can accurately assess whether or not the consumer wants to receive our communication or merely thinks that they might want to receive our communication. And that is complicated by how long that preference remains constant. I may have no interest in buying a gizmo today, but I just might be needing an upgrade in a couple of months when buying a present for a graduate I didn’t think of when you asked about my interest.

    I participate in and observe the preferences professed by our customers and prospects, because it is the politically expedient thing to do at the moment. But I fear where permission-based marketing is heading.

    Single point opt-out preferences are just as unreliable as single point opt-in preferences. A single purchase doesn’t mean a committed buyer of like merchandise. That is why longitudinal confirmation of interest areas (like those found using mailing list co-op activities) are much more actionable.

  5. Marjorie Bicknell says:

    Jim, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    First DM is green…and frankly traditional marketing that forces you to hop in the car and drive to the mall is not. I love to use this example: drive to the mall on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. and look around. You’ll see lights blazing, air conditioning blasting and three senior citizens mall walking as scores of mall and store employees wait in vain for someone to buy something. Now THAT’s a waste of valuable natural resources!

    Second, while a suppression list may be a boon to me in new customer acquisition mode, taking customers off my list for a CRM communication des not help my results and does little or nothing for the environment. All those suppressed customers now have to jump into their cars and drive to the mall to make the purchase that should have gone to me or my client. Not smart thinking at all. Of course those employess waiting hopefully for a Tuesday morning sale will be mighty happy to see them.

  6. Margotb says:

    I would just like to respond to Marjorie’s comments about going to the mall. At we advise members to stop shopping from catalogs altogether so that once they get a off mailing lists they remain off them and their privacy remains in tact. The one sure fire way to get back on the lists is to order, or opt in to a catalog. Even adding your name to the DMA’s mail preference list will at some point come around to bit you because in 3 years time the DMA will turn around and use your name to start marketing again. Consumers unwittingly agree to this because the terms say it is valid for 3 years, it does not say anything about removing your info does it? I would really like to know the answer to that one. What a nifty way to collect data, and data is the most valuable asset a company can have in any business.

    But back to my point about shopping locally. If a consumer shops locally they are paying local sales taxes which goes to your local government to improve the roads, build schools, parks, transport, community facilities and so on. A lot of catalogs are exempt from local tax because they do not have a store front in a lot of states. I would prefer to spend my money where I am most going to see my tax dollars work and instead of making a special trip to the mall I combine trips. I go to the grocery shop, the library and the mall all in one visit, it’s not rocket science. It just takes a bit of planning.

    I read a post the other day about “catalog sharing”. How some ladies get a catalog and place it in a coffee shop or hair salon or pass it on to friends to read (but not order) just to see what is new on the market. What a great way to save the environment and make sure you do not get on more mailing lists. Maybe we should have catalog libraries! What a concept.

    • Jim Gilbert says:

      Thanks Margot. It’s nice to hear from the other side on this issue. I have done a lot of research since posting this article. In a nutshell, what I have learned is that is that the direct mail industry gets much more blame than credit. Sure, it’s easy to pick on them because of all that mail that gets sent MUST be killing the environment. But in truth, the direct mail biz, most notably the paper companies that supply direct mail are heavily involved in reforestation. In fact many paoer companies plant 3 trees to every one that is used.

      So the next time people jump into their car to go to the mall, consider the impact on the environment by NOT shopping in the comfort of their own homes.

      Thanks again,

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