USPS Talks Sustainability and Its Performance Returns for 2011

The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently released its fourth annual report on sustainability practices and performance. The document serves as a blueprint for any company or brand in the marketing field on how to report progress and hurdles toward improved triple-bottom line performance (financial, social and environmental, being the three bottom lines), and to illustrate the business case for doing so.

Our mantra is ‘leaner, greener, smarter, faster.’ To achieve these goals, we’re adjusting the size of our workforce and delivery network, eliminating waste, reducing energy consumption and encouraging our employees and customers to conserve. When the Postal Service is more efficient, everyone benefits.
—USPS Postmaster General & CEO Pat Donahoe, USPS 2011 Sustainability Report

The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently released its fourth annual report on sustainability practices and performance. The document serves as a blueprint for any company or brand in the marketing field on how to report progress and hurdles toward improved triple-bottom line performance (financial, social and environmental, being the three bottom lines), and to illustrate the business case for doing so.

Transparency is the hallmark of sustainability reporting, just as it is for financial-only reporting. According to the report’s summary, the USPS adhered to version 3.0 of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)—”the most widely respected international reporting standard for public sustainability performance disclosure”—for the report’s structure and detail.

For marketers, the report highlights some valuable information and insights on USPS operations, and what opportunities and challenges lay ahead for direct mail. Consider these findings, quoted in first person from the report:

  • RECYCLING—Our recycling efforts had a banner year with $24 million in revenue. We recycled more than 215,000 tons of material in 2011. By using our distribution network in new ways, improving contract services and working with recycling vendors to maximize revenue through economies of scale, we are starting to see results. Strong recyclable commodity pricing during 2011 played a part in our record revenue earnings, but the real story is a long-term strategy of continuous improvement. Also, by using our existing transportation network, we avoid fees from recycling vendors who would make costly stops at each local office. In FY 2011, more than 12,000 facilities participated in the backhaul recycling program, recycling more than 215,000 tons of mixed paper, cardboard, plastic and scrap metal—and earning $24.4 million in recycling revenue. We also encourage customers to recycle by asking them to discard unwanted mail in Post Office lobby recycling bins, instead of our trash cans. Our “Read, Respond and Recycle” mail lobby campaign was launched in 2009. More than 10,000 locations now offer customers lobby mail recycling. This effort continues to reduce waste being sent to landfills.
  • FACILITY ENERGY USE—Our progress toward reducing facility energy use 30 percent by 2015 continues to exceed our annual targets despite a slight increase in facility energy use this year. Since 2003, the Postal Service has reduced total facility energy use by more than 25 percent, nearly the amount of energy used by 90,000 average U.S. households in a year. USPS also reduced energy intensity, which is energy use per square foot of building space, by 22.4 percent in the same time period.
  • CARBON ACCOUNTING SUPPORT FOR MAILERS—We have been preparing a greenhouse gas emission inventory every year since 2007, and we now offer USPS BlueEarth, our new carbon accounting service so our business customers can determine their own carbon footprint for the mailing and shipping services the Postal Service provides. Postal Service business customers are increasingly requesting information about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with USPS services. The calculator [introduced earlier in 2012] uses proprietary USPS methodology to calculate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and takes into consideration the type of shipping or mailing product, size and weight, how it’s processed and transported and the distance the package or envelope travels. Energy awareness creates a culture of conservation at USPS.
  • RECOGNITION AMONG GOVERNMENT AGENCIES FOR GHG REDUCTIONS—We were awarded Gold status by The Climate Registry for leadership in reducing GHG emissions by more than 5 percent. Our overall target is to reduce GHG emissions 20 percent by FY 2020 using FY 2008 as a baseline. The Postal Service is among the first of the Registry’s more than 400 members and the first government agency to achieve the recognition. To report our GHG emissions, we are compliant with established protocols set forth by The Climate Registry, the International Post Corporation and under Federal Executive Order 13514 (of President Barack Obama, 2009).
  • LEADERSHIP TRAINING AT USPS INCLUDES SUSTAINABILITY’S BUSINESS CASE—The Postal Service’s leadership programs are designed to develop high-performing leaders to meet the changing needs of USPS into the future. They include a demanding curriculum offered over a six-month period, with classroom instruction and mentoring by existing and future executives on key topics in business finance, project management, leadership principles and presentation skills. The programs culminate with a business case presentation. The 2011 classes were challenged with creating a “sustainability business growth model” to improve USPS waste reduction and recycling and to develop strategies to engage employees in Green Team initiatives. The participants used their new understanding of sustainability to present a business case of their findings before an executive review panel chaired by Chief Sustainability Officer Tom Day.

Additionally the report documents transportation energy costs, as well as water use and conservation (arguably the next focused area for sustainability reporting after greenhouse gases).

Another element to postal sustainability, from a product development perspective, is the USPS’s focus on mail-back programs, working with product manufacturers and others on the creation and execution of services to return used goods (computers, printer cartridges, batteries, etc.) so they can be safely dissembled, disposed or recycled: “Postage‑paid mail envelopes are available in 1,600 Post Office lobbies. These envelopes can be used to ship small used electronics, such as cell phones, ink jet cartridges and digital cameras, to a centralized recycling center, where they’re broken down into usable parts. During 2011, customers recycled 185,000 items—about 22,000 pounds of material. Since the program began in 2008, more than a million electronic devices and printer cartridges have been kept out of landfills.”

There are skeptics—and some responders to this blog—who maintain that the Postal Service can’t afford to be chasing “go green” efforts when its financial life is on the line. Respectfully, I counter that it can’t afford not to! I commend USPS labor and management in their understanding—and leadership—in recognizing waste as a cost, and efficiency as a gain. Every postal customer should thank USPS and its green teams for this continued effort toward sustainability, in all its forms.

Here is the link to the full report: http://about.usps.com/what-we-are-doing/green/report/2011/welcome.htm

Reducing UAA Must Focus on New Movers

In a recent post, I addressed the issue of undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail, and how brands, businesses and other mailers lose more than $1 billion a year by not getting their mail addressed properly. It’s a solvable problem. Both the USPS and the DMA have made public commitments to reduce UAA as an industry goal, both of which would help marketers and their bottom lines. Progress toward UAA reduction, however, has not been uniform.

In a recent post, I addressed the issue of undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail, and how brands, businesses and other mailers lose more than $1 billion a year by not getting their mail addressed properly. It’s a solvable problem.

Both the USPS and the DMA have made public commitments to reduce UAA as an industry goal, both of which would help marketers and their bottom lines. Progress toward UAA reduction, however, has not been uniform.

Recently, Charley Howard, who is the vice president of postal affairs at Harte-Hanks (disclosure: Harte-Hanks is a client), discussed this concern in a monthly e-newsletter he writes for the company called Postology. Charley wrote about UAA, and explained why UAA reduction goals have been slow to materialize. One of the key reasons has nothing to do with mailers, and everything to do with mail recipients: Too few Americans are filling out National Change of Address (NCOA) forms as they had previously. In fact, less than 50 percent are now doing so, and its ramifications on UAA volume are profound.

Frankly, mailers must supplement their use of NCOA with proprietary change-of-address/new move data from commercially available sources in the private sector. There’s just no way around this. However, by taking advantage of such services (as all direct mailers should), there is a risk that the USPS, ironically, will penalize the mailer. Charley explains the paradox here, used with permission:

USPS New Moves Source Is not Enough
“In addition to … postal-approved methods for Move Updates being applied to mailing files, there are those in the industry that additionally supplement postal moves with a Proprietary Change of Address (PCOA) service offering (for example, Harte-Hanks offers such a service). The sources of this move data tend to come from utility, telecommunication and publishing companies. In recent years, PCOA has developed into a near necessity because of the diminishing numbers of people who fill out the USPS Change of Address form.

When NCOALINK started in late 1986, more than 90 percent of all moves were captured. Today the use of COA cards has fallen to less than 50percent of moves. How can the USPS ever hope to reach its goal of cutting UAA mail by 50percent if its own source for Move Update data has fallen below half of all moves? Forcing mailers to go outside the Postal Service to attempt to obtain the balance of the moves contains some postage risk, however.

During Mail Acceptance, mail samplings are run through the MERLIN detection machine. The scanned records are passed by the USPS’s COA data to test for Move Update compliance of 90%. There is a chance of failure through the use of proprietary sourced moves. Here is an example. Say a grown child leaves home to go to college or to get a job and an apartment. The child files the COA with the USPS. Assume 9 months later the child returns home for whatever reason and no COA is filed. The USPS COA has the first move but not the second. The mail owner, using a PCOA, has obtained the second move back to the original address and is using it in the current mailing. MERLIN would show this as a failure because the move the USPS has on record is not reflected in the mailing. The service provider would have to fight this ruling to prove that it has the more current data.

The real problem here is that the USPS’s own COA data is inadequate to achieve the desired results. It is inadequate to even validate the thoroughness of Move Update compliance. The USPS needs to recognize that along with less use of the mail by younger generations, comes little to no use of COA as a stand-alone product. Therefore the USPS needs to supplement its own data with outside sourced data to become the sole repository of moves, once again. The USPS needs to invest in better data to save more in the end – and only then can UAA be reduced in line with Postal Service management goals.”

This opinion in its entirety reflects Charley’s view—and not necessarily my own or that of Harte-Hanks. But, I do believe that using PCOA should be recognized in some fashion by USPS, so mailers can be rewarded for keeping their mail off the UAA track and in the recipients’ hands. Putting the onus on the mailer to explain how its list is more up to date than the USPS’s on change-of-address concerns seems to be a burden that does not reflect today’s list hygiene realities. Either USPS should incorporate PCOA sources in MERLIN, or it should provide some sort of seal of approval on what private sector sources are already doing to help mail reach the intended recipient. Let me know your points of view in your comments here.

Helpful Links:

Direct Marketing Association on UAA Reduction

USPS Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, FY 2011 (see page 65)

Harte-Hanks Postology (June 2012) on UAA and Move Updates (live link as of June 14, 2012)

Nextmark’s List Search Platform (search using “New Movers” or “Change of Address”)

An example of a recently released “New Move” file (disclosure: Alliant is a client)