Guest Post: Debunking the Myth of Trees vs. Direct Mail

Editor’s Note: This week’s post comes from Evelyn Milardo , a direct marketing consultant, whom Jim has hand-picked to serve as a guest columnist in his place this week.

OK, direct mail has an environmental impact. Almost everyone still receives and sends mail, creating a footprint for sure. But what’s myth and what’s reality?

In 2007, there were 212 billion pieces of mail. Of those, households received 150.9 billion pieces — or about 71 percent. The balance of the mail was received by business, government and nonprofit entities. Households also sent 21.1 billion pieces of mail, with the balance of the mail sent by nonhouseholds. In 2008, the average U.S. household received less than three pieces of direct mail per day.

According to the USPS Household Diary Study, 16 percent of households choose not to read their mail. The vast majority (81 percent) of households read or scan the direct mail they receive. Almost all mail eventually is discarded, thus it’s vital to have recycling options available at the community level.

Direct mail is printed communication. Thanks to sustainable forestry practices throughout North America, the amount of forested lands has grown significantly in recent years, providing for a steady, responsible supply of the fiber used to make paper. Trees are harvested and replanted on a continuing basis, with most trees harvested for paper measuring about 8 inches in diameter — it’s more cost effective and productive to use larger trees for lumber or pole production.

Today, we have more forests in the U.S. than we did 50 years ago, and about the same as we had 100 years ago. Old-growth forests aren’t harvested to make direct mail paper, and the marketplace is beginning to certify paper that originates from sustainably forested lands. Only 14 percent of the wood harvested throughout the world each year is used for paper production.

In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission gave direct marketing businesses and organizations clearance to begin including “Recycle Please” messaging on catalogs and direct mail pieces, in large part because 65 percent of U.S. residents have access to local recycling collection options. Discarded catalogs classify as “old magazines,” and are highly valued for the long, strong fiber they contain, making them a perfect candidate for reuse as recycled paper in office papers and newsprint. Discarded direct mail most often classifies as “mixed paper,” and is recycled as tissue paper.

What happens to undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail largely depends upon its class. Most First Class UAA mail is forwarded or returned, while most Standard UAA mail is handled as waste. Discarded direct mail represents just 2.4 percent of municipal solid waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The country’s recycling recovery rate has grown by nearly 700 percent since 1990. That said, almost 10 billion mail pieces were UAA. Of these 10 billion pieces, almost 2 billion were forwarded, 1.6 billion were returned to sender and 6.1 billion were treated as waste. Overall, UAA mail comprised 4.7 percent of the mail stream.

According to the EPA, 35.8 percent of discarded Standard Mail was recovered for recycling in 2005 — a near sevenfold increase since 1990, and an 11.9 percent increase since 2003. And while direct mail volume in the U.S. has grown 57 percent in 15 years, the amount of discarded mail sent to landfills has remained virtually unchanged.

Direct mail also earns eco-points during mail cycle stages — the inputs (e.g., paper and plastics) through to the endpoints (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions). Since 1980, the U.S. paper industry has reduced emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides by 37 percent and sulfur dioxide by 68 percent. U.S. paper mills reuse a large portion of the water they use in the pulping and paper-making process. The outcome: water consumption rates have decreased by more than 65 percent over the past 30 years.

Let’s not forget that more than four in 10 Americans make shop-at-home purchases. By shopping (and donating) direct, consumers and businesses are using the convenience of their homes and offices to research and make purchase decisions. They rely on courier companies and the USPS to deliver the goods, creating a highly efficient distribution of goods and services.

So, why is direct mail still important, even in a digital age? Because it’s more targeted than ever, and by measuring response, companies and organizations know that direct mail works. Response rates to today’s targeted direct mail campaigns are still measured in whole, single and double-digit figures.

Even permission-based email response rates rarely surpass that of well-strategized, targeted direct mail offers. Compare that to the estimated worldwide total of 62 trillion spam emails that were sent in 2008 — with the average business email user responsible for 131 kg of carbon dioxide per year in email-related emissions, 22 percent being spam-related — and it’s now clear we need to turn our attention to our digital footprints as well.

Claims that have been made about direct mail’s impact on the environment have been uniformly negative, with a significant level of misinformation. In fact, the reality is that the mailing industry, through its investments in programs and initiatives to address and further reduce the environmental impact associated with all six lifecycle stages of letter mail, deserves some recognition for its efforts.

Evelyn Milardo is a direct marketing consultant with experience and insights working with leading B-to-B, B-to-C and nonprofit industry verticals. Reach Evelyn at or (781) 934-2559.

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