Mythbusters: Digital, Mail and Green Marketing Payback

The “Mythbusters” of Discovery Channel’s hit show get to blow things up while putting myths to the tests of science. At the Direct Marketing Association’s annual marketing conference, I paid tribute to personal heroes Jamie and Adam (the real TV Mythbusters) by blowing up some green marketing myths that have infiltrated both consumer and agency attitudes toward sustainable marketing practice. If left unchecked, today’s common green myths can sacrifice campaign integrity, leave profitable sustainability solutions untapped, alienate consumers and contribute to environmental harm

In this week’s “Marketing Sustainability,” I’ve invited the newly named chair of the Direct Marketing Association Committee on the Environment and Social Responsibility—Adam Freedgood of New York-based Quadriga Art—to share with readers a “myths v. facts” discussion on sustainability and marketing, presented recently at the DMA2012 conference in Las Vegas, NV. —Chet Dalzell

The “Mythbusters” of Discovery Channel’s hit show get to blow things up while putting myths to the tests of science. At the Direct Marketing Association’s annual marketing conference, I paid tribute to personal heroes Jamie and Adam (the real TV Mythbusters) by blowing up some green marketing myths that have infiltrated both consumer and agency attitudes toward sustainable marketing practice. If left unchecked, today’s common green myths can sacrifice campaign integrity, leave profitable sustainability solutions untapped, alienate consumers and contribute to environmental harm. A 30-minute town square session called “Mythbusters: Green Marketing Edition” debunked and discussed a dozen print, digital and multichannel myths, resulting in new opportunities to drive profitability from sustainability of campaign execution.

The troubling truth about green marketing myths is that they appeal to our aspirations and can quickly become ingrained in business practice. For example, “going green costs more,” “digital is greener than print,” “you can save a tree by not printing this article,” and “storing your data in the cloud means fluffy white beams of clean energy will power your campaign data storage, forever.”

Marketing missteps can grant mythological status to simple misconceptions virtually overnight. Consider the classic “go green, go paperless.” This little beauty appeared out of nowhere and now graces billing statements everywhere. There is no quantifiable environmental benefit attached to the claim, which creates risk to brand integrity. Unsupported green claims violate the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides” enacted earlier this year. The “go paperless” phrase subjugates marketing best practice, opting instead for a greedy grab at the small subset of consumers who attach singificant value to a brand’s environmental attributes. A direct response mechanism that acknowledges basic consumer preferences would do just fine.

The evolution of product stewardship regulation, rising resource costs and consumer preferences support the business case for infusing sustainability in all aspects of marketing best practice. The full myth busting presentation is a Jeopardy-style game board rendered interactively in PowerPoint, available to download here.

Here are a few green marketing myths we debunked that offer urgent, profitable insights for print, digital and multichannel marketers:

Myth 1: “Delivering products and services online, or in the cloud, represents a shift toward environmentally friendly communications, compared with print-based media.”

Reality: This myth is busted. Digital communications shift the tangible environmental impact of marketing campaigns away from the apparent resource requirements associated with paper, transport and end-of-life impacts of print campaigns. By way of fossil fuel-powered data centers that are largely out of sight and out of mind, digital carries a surprising set of environmental hazards. A September 2012 New York Times article highlights the growing connection between data centers and air pollution due to massive energy requirements and dirty fossil-based power inputs. The digital devices used to create and deliver online content to consumers contain toxic heavy metals and petroleum-based plastics. Electronic devices are too toxic for our landfills but are recycled at an abysmal rate. According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition, the U.S. generates more than 3 million tons of “e-waste” annually but recycles only 15 percent.

Myth 2: The United States Postal Service (USPS) has struggled to implement comprehensive sustainability strategies due to declining mail volume and the related shortage of revenue available to invest in green activities.

Reality: Myth busted. The USPS is a prime example of an organization that has embraced the business case for sustainability by making extensive investments in greening most aspects of the organization’s operations. USPS has applied a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability—the perspective that investments in green business must perform on dimensions of profitability, environmental sustainability and stakeholder impacts. Through postal facility energy efficiency retrofits and attention to sustainability at all levels of operations, USPS has saved $400 million since 2007, according to its sustainability report. Through some 400 employee green teams, USPS employs a bottom-up approach to sustainability that produces substantial cost and energy savings.

Myth 3: Green initiatives have a long, three to five year payback period, placing them at odds with other organizational priorities, such as investments in fast-paced digital marketing infrastructure.

Reality: Myth busted. While some sustainability measures, such as building energy efficiency retrofits, carry a payback period of several years depending on finance and incentives, there are innovative approaches to sustainability for direct marketers that yield much faster financial gains. For example, performing a packaging design audit that identifies downsized product packages and renewable materials can produce immediate savings while dramatically reducing environmental impact. Consolidating IT infrastructure and applying best practices in data center efficiency and server virtualization produces fast financial returns for firms operating in-house data centers. Lastly, Innovative programs that engage customers and suppliers in sustainability also produce quick gains with minimal investment. Starbucks’s “beta cup” competition mobilized a global audience of packaging designers, students and inventors in search of more sustainable coffee cups. The design submissions confronted a key sustainability issue head-on, allowing the chain to engage stakeholders in the solution.

Adam Freedgood is a sustainable business strategy specialist and director of business development at global nonprofit direct marketing firm Quadriga Art in New York City. Reach him on Twitter @thegreenophobe or email adam@freedgood.com.

‘Go Green, Go Paperless?’ FTC Issues Green Guides—and Lack of Substantiation Gets Targeted

Marketers who have been counting the days, months, even years, for the FTC to finalize its latest version of the “Green Guides” for making environmental marketing claims must wait no more. The revised guides are 36 pages slim and break new ground in six areas: 1) certifications and seals of approval, 2) carbon offsets, 3) “free-of” claims, 4) “non-toxic” claims, 5) “made with renewable energy” claims, and 6) “made with renewable materials” claims. The Guides also clarify previous guidance on terms such as “compostable.”

Marketers who have been counting the days, months, even years, for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to finalize its latest version of the “Green Guides” (formally, Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims) for making environmental marketing claims must wait no more. (The Guides were established in 1992, and they most recently were updated in 1998.)

The revised guides are 36 pages slim: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/10/greenguides.pdf

Perhaps it was the 5,000 public comments—340 of them unique—that the FTC received. Perhaps it was the upcoming Election and the pressure building to put the claims guidance in the public domain, particularly since the public comment period closed nearly two years ago. Needless to say, the Guides are useful in that they provide both timely counsel and marketplace examples on many terms and claims, such as “recycled content,” “recyclable” and “degradable.”

The newest version of the Guides breaks new ground in six areas: 1) certifications and seals of approval, 2) carbon offsets, 3) “free-of” claims, 4) “non-toxic” claims, 5) “made with renewable energy” claims, and 6) “made with renewable materials” claims. The Guides also clarify previous guidance on terms such as “compostable,” “ozone,” “recyclable,” “recycled content,” and source reduction claims, as well as general environmental friendliness claims.

Two noteworthy items are:

  • Any unqualified claims of degradation must have it that the labeled product or packaging would degrade were it to be placed in a landfill in one year’s time—no more.
  • Any unqualified claims of environmentally friendliness or eco-friendliness are not encouraged—since very few products can meet consumer expectations in all aspects of their environmental impact. However, a qualified comment that focuses consumers on the specific advertised benefit is welcomed.

One can hope that the latter might serve to halt banks, utilities and others that make “go green, go paperless” claims that adorn so many monthly mailed statements, without any type of substantiation offered behind such questionable messaging. It would have been nice to see a clear example in the Guides regarding this specific area, given this claim’s wide use, and given the energy consumed by data centers, the growing problem of electronic waste, the rise of sustainable forestry and the predominance of responsible forest management practices in North America and Europe. Still, the FTC was clear in its direction regarding such general claims:

“Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that marketers can substantiate all reasonable interpretations of these claims, marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims.”

In the same light, I’m not making the claim that paper is preferable to digital. Let’s be honest: most marketers are multichannel today. Most direct mail is data-driven, and is also dependent on data centers. And a life cycle analysis of a direct mail piece and a comparable digital message has not yet been achieved, head to head, as far as I know. Not that that matters. What does matter is that marketers who make any environmental claims need to have substantiation of such claims available to consumers to inspect.

Marketers who want to read up on the new Green Guides in brief may do so here, in this handy summary the FTC has created: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/10/greenguidessummary.pdf

Previous commentary on “Go Green, Go Digital” from the Marketing Sustainability blog is offered here: http://targetmarketing.adweek.com/blog/making-green-claim-not-waiting-ftc-green-guides

Additionally, here’s reporting on of the revised Guides as they apply to the use of carbon offset claims: http://www.environmentalleader.com/2012/10/02/ftcs-revised-green-guides-target-carbon-offset-claims/

I welcome hearing about your observations from the newly revised Guides.