Junk no longer?

Mark Roy, chief executive of the REaD Group, puts forward his views on reducing the environmental impacts of the direct mail sector

Some things in life fit together perfectly - peanut butter and jelly; the two Ronnies; John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. But junk mail and consideration for the environment? For many consumers the two are poles apart. Junk mail is capable of eliciting a strong reaction from almost any member of the public, and it is usually a negative one. But I really can assure you that things are genuinely getting better and consumer concerns are being addressed.

Many within the direct mail industry would seek to bury their heads yet further into the sand at the very mention of "the environment" in order to preserve the ignorance that allows them to preserve their false dignity and bottom line. However, there are also many who are beginning to realise that a company that is environmentally responsible is a profitable company. I am delighted to report that yes, this is even happening within direct mail.

The last couple of years for the direct marketing industry have been pretty torrid, culminating this year in the dubious accolade of being voted Britain's most hated industry by the viewers of BBC1's Brassed Off Britain. So how has it come to this? Where has the industry gone so wrong and what is it that consumers dislike so much about direct mail?

Environmental damage

The REaD Group recently surveyed over 1000 people in an attempt to answer that very question. With 27% of survey respondents citing the environmental damage caused by direct mail as the major cause for their dislike of the channel, the negative impact of direct mail on the environment was the number one concern for consumers. Of course the industry will defend itself, pointing to an increased use of recyclable paper and envelopes (up from 3% in 1999 to 13% in 2004) and the increased availability and quality of water-based inks, which are increasingly being used in large mailing campaigns.

Some are pursuing more accurate mailing strategies, targeting only those people who have a greater propensity to buy their particular product rather than simply blanket mailing the vast majority of the population, but far too few to really make a difference.

But the fact is consumers believe that direct mailers are an environmentally unfriendly bunch, and frankly nothing we say to the contrary is going to change their minds. Consumer perception has to be treated as a reality and acted upon if we are to improve the industry's reputation and its bottom line.

And it's not just consumer pressure that direct mailers are bowing to. Earlier this year the Direct Marketing Association met with DEFRA and agreed a set of targets to increase its recycling levels in light of the EU Landfill Directive and waste strategy which aims to halve the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill from the 1995 level by 2013. This means that the industry has to increase the amount of recyclable product from 13% to 30% by the end of next year, rising to 55% by 2009 and 70% by 2013. There will be no second chances. These targets have to be met.

The DMA has formed a working party made up of direct mail suppliers and clients to spearhead the drive to achieving these targets. Competitor companies are working together to raise the profile of the campaign and to alert anyone involved in the industry of the drive to be a more socially responsible and environmentally conscious industry.

Reducing waste

Of course, one other way to reduce the amount of waste created by direct mailers is to eliminate direct mail being sent to people who will never respond. This premise forms the second part of the campaign. Every year over 266m items of mail are sent to people who have died or moved house.

In this day and age marketers have at their disposal sophisticated campaign software that can easily highlight these people and delete them from a campaign mailout. This process is called suppression. The simple fact is that suppression is good for a company's brand, it increases return on investment and stops countless millions of letters ending up in our already over-stretched landfill sites. Any company not using suppression is in real terms making a choice to mail people who have died, moved home or simply do not want it. Now where's the sense in that? The past year has been a real wake up call for direct mailers. Consumers have voiced their views loud and clear, and the industry has to listen and act upon public concerns. In its defence, the industry has made a positive start in approaching DEFRA and agreeing fixed targets. It is now up to the whole direct mail industry to give the DMA its full backing in meeting them. After all, if we can address the concerns that consumers have raised and if we can win the trust and respect of government departments as an industry that doesn't just talk the talk, then we should have nothing to fear when Brassed Off Britain 2 reaches our screens.


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