At first glance, it may look as though the direct mail industry and the environmental lobby are at opposite ends of the green spectrum. After all, of the estimated 4.3 billion pieces of direct mail that are sent or hand-delivered to mainland UK addresses each year, well over half end up in landfill sites. But change is afoot.
Armed with its first ever environmental standard of best practice, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), representing more than 900 of the industry’s biggest players, is asking firms to take a critical look at everything from the quantity of material they generate to the amount of ink they use in creating it.
Launched at the beginning of this year, PAS 2020, which has been verified by the British Standards Institute, aims to provide firms with the tools to measure the environmental performance of each mailshot before it is despatched.
In the process, says Robert Keitch, the association’s chief of membership and brand, direct marketing has the opportunity not only to slash its own contribution to the country’s waste mountain – currently running at 2 per cent overall – but to earn some Brownie points among cynical consumers.
“We’re all familiar with mocking headlines about life insurance offers being mailed to the recently deceased, or over-50s’ promotions being wrongly addressed to teenagers, but when push comes to shove, well-targeted direct mail is a great way to communicate with potential customers.
“Let’s not forget that one person’s junk mail is another person’s treasure trove,” he adds.
PAS 2020, which will be fully rolled out to direct marketers next year, rates the likely environmental impact of a mailshot from the conception stage through to execution.
For those campaigns deemed to pass muster on anything from the “purity” of their distribution data to the type of paper they use, official certification, as well as a PAS 2020 logo, will follow.
While the new environmental standard involves many different elements, it rests on three fundamental principles, says Keitch.
First is the need to ensure that the information direct marketers hold on consumers is up to date and relevant, and that mailshots are not sent to households that have already opted out of receiving such information via mechanisms such as the Mailing Preference Service.
While Keitch claims the many horror stories regarding badly targeted mail were comprehensively addressed by his own members several years ago, he believes that non-DMA firms may still have some way to go.
“As many as 75 per cent of UK firms use direct marketing in one form or another, and not all of them adhere to our principles. Better targeting would not only ensure that more of the mail we receive in our homes is relevant, and therefore not chucked in the bin, but would also mean that less marketing money is wasted.”
The second priority is a radical redesign of much of our direct mail so that more of it can be recycled via local authority kerbside collections without being opened first. With much direct mail not clearly marked as such, up to 80 per cent of mailshots currently need to be opened before a decision can be made on whether to keep or junk them. Third, says Keitch, is the need to broaden opt-out choices for households which would like to choose the type of direct mail they receive.
While the current Mailing Preference Service principle of no direct mail whatsoever would continue, |the DMA favours a second option allowing consumers to select the firms that they are happy to hear from, as well as the type of offers they would find interesting, rather than to halt its flow altogether.
“Of course, there are some people who put up signs at the front gate saying ‘no hawkers and no circulars’, but for most people, it is only the badly targeted stuff that gets their gender or age wrong, perhaps, that they really object to,” says Keitch.
When it comes to the right choice of material for a mailshot, PAS 2020 encourages the use of recycled paper, but also recommends blending it with virgin stock from managed sources where appropriate. The overuse of laminates and sealants is a no-no.
“It would be easy to mouth platitudes about the need to look to our environmental responsibilities, but we want real change in our industry, not just convenient green-wash, and PAS 2020 is a genuine chance to achieve that,” says Keitch.
“For those firms who see this standard as simply one more hoop to jump through, I should add that if we are not able, voluntarily, to demonstrate that we are acting to reduce waste, then there is no doubt that the Government will be forced to legislate against us.”
In 2003, the DMA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (or Defra) agreed strict 10-year targets for reducing waste from the direct marketing sector. At that stage, 87 per cent of the 4 billion items sent out annually were ending up in landfill.
While the first target – to reduce wastage by 30 per cent within two years – was narrowly missed, the DMA does not yet know if it will meet the second target of a 55 per cent reduction by the end of 2009. The overall target is for 75 per cent of all direct marketing material to be recycled by 2013.
To add further to the pressure on direct marketers, next year sees the EU Landfill Directive come into force and the likelihood that local authorities will become more prescriptive as regards what can and cannot be put into wheelie bins.
Although the DMA’s attempts several years ago to tackle the industry’s inherent waste problem were hampered by the then negligible facilities for local authority recycling, 90 per cent of councils now offer kerbside paper collection. Encouraging the public to use such facilities may be another matter, however.
“Of course, we recognise the need to reduce the volume of direct mail overall, but, for this new standard to work, we also need a sea-change in public attitudes as regards its disposal,” says Keitch.
“Encouraging householders to recycle unwanted mail ‘whole’ and via their recycling boxes – rather than stick it in their rubbish bins – will be a major factor in reducing the amount of mail in landfill, and will reduce its nuisance value considerably.”
When it comes to the current fashion for shredding any mail with personal information such as names and addresses on it, Keitch is sceptical.
“The vast majority of direct mail doesn’t contain information that isn’t already in the public domain and it really doesn’t need to be shredded unless it contains bank account or credit card details.
“Particularly not if you live in an area where the council won’t even accept shredded paper in the first place,” he adds.
While the DMA accepts that its product is an intrinsically unpopular one – “I have to remind some people that I’m only peddling marketing material”, says Keitch – he believes that his members are genuinely misunderstood.
“Although the public tend to see direct marketing as envelopes through the letter box, that ignores the many thousands of leaflets from local gardeners, taxi firms, hairdressers, political parties or curry houses that drop on to the mat via a door-to-door campaign or are inserted into the |local paper.
“Where there are problems with mis-targeted or persistent mail, they tend to come from businesses operating outside the DMA.”