Where Earth Day Meets Big Data

When marketers laud the advantages of big data, it’s usually in the B-to-C marketing context. Sustainable fabric company Thread LLC takes a different approach. By using granular supply chain and social impact data, Thread helps customers improve brand integrity and increase the marketability of core products. For this special Earth Day blog

Happy Earth Day 2014! For this week’s Marketing Sustainably blog post, I welcome Adam Freedgood as a guest blogger. Adam Freedgood is a sustainable business advisor and co-founder of Third Partners, a New York-based firm that helps organizations implement strategies that create new revenue opportunities, reduce waste and improve environmental performance. He is also a sustainability expert on the DMA Ethics Policy Committee. —Chet Dalzell

Sustainable Product Companies Benefit From New Breed of Big Data
When marketers laud the advantages of big data, it’s usually in the B-to-C marketing context. Sustainable fabric company Thread LLC takes a different approach. By using granular supply chain and social impact data, Thread helps customers improve brand integrity and increase the marketability of core products. For this special Earth Day blog, I sat down with Thread CEO Ian Rosenberger, Director of Community Development Kelsey Halling, and Director of Marketing Frank Macinsky to learn how Thread is using big data to unlock new sales opportunities through positive social and environmental performance.

Q: What Does Thread Do?

Rosenberger: “Thread recycles trash from the poorest neighborhoods on the planet and transforms it into fabric. We then sell the fabric and the story of how it’s made to companies that are trying to be more responsible.”

Q: Other than recycling, what about your business model makes you sustainable?

Rosenberger: “In addition to holding ourselves to the highest supply chain standards on the planet, we’re a certified B-Corp, which means sustainability is in our corporate DNA.”

Halling: “Traditionally, the fabric business is linked to environmental and social problems, not solutions. Beyond being a recycling company, we are also interested in social impact.”

Q: What are some of the problems associated with the typical fabric supply chain?

Rosenberger: “There are huge problems with textiles. From labor practices to environmental pollution, many brands’ supply chains don’t measure up to their marketing. For example, last year at this time thousands of people died and were injured in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Thread exists because we think brands need a more responsible source of raw material.”

Q: What do you mean by “more responsible source of raw material”?

Halling: “We use ‘responsible’ as the overarching term covering social and environmental concerns. Today there’s a lot of greenwashing out there. A recent study from Rank a Brand shows that hundreds of apparel companies talk about sustainability, but only a fraction follow through with real action or data. It’s a big deal to be able to put proof behind the claims.”

Q: There are many companies recycling plastic from various sources for various products. Why did you focus exclusively on fabric as the end product for your material?

Rosenberger: “We saw an opportunity to conduct good business while solving an enormous global problem. First off, we believe fabric can end poverty.” The textile business is one of the dirtiest on the planet, both socially and environmentally. We offer a 100 percent transparent supply chain solution. By giving data to other companies, we are creating a new market for getting a billion pounds of trash off the streets. In Haiti and Honduras we have already pulled 70 million plastic bottles.”

Macinsky: “The great thing about the fashion brands we are speaking with is that the industry is a trend setter in a lot of ways. As more brands get involved and interested in this transformational shift in the way we do business, a lot of people will benefit worldwide.”

Q: Big data typically refers to marketers using consumer data to target marketing messages more effectively. How does Thread’s outlook on big data differ?

Macinsky: “Our key differentiator is powerful stories involving people. We are tasked with finding qualitative data about how people are impacted positively by our product. We think in terms of ‘triple bottom line’ metrics: positive impacts on people, business and the environment.”

Halling: “We’ve been tracking data since the very beginning. As we are setting up supply chains, we are measuring financials, efficiency and the impact we are having socially and environmentally. We track job creation, training hours, pounds of trash, and even the lifecycle carbon emissions associated with each step in our supply chain.”

Q: That’s a huge amount of data mixing qualitative and quantitative units. How does a Thread customer digest it all?

Macinsky: “As a fabric company, our product goes into consumer goods. Our job is to give our partner brands a very simple distilled story so they can turn that around.”

Halling: “It changes from company to company and from consumer group to consumer group. From the list of bragging rights we provide, brands choose the attributes that are most in line with their marketing strategy. Our impact report summarizes some of the data insights.”

Q: How is the data Thread captures different than leading supply chain tracking mechanisms in the apparel world—for example, Patagonia’s supplier tracking tool?

Halling: “We have a saying that we track everything ‘from ground to good.’ When we say we know our supply chain, it means we are literally on a first name basis with the people involved. Some apparel companies claim to know the factories where stuff is made. They run audits, verify codes of conduct, etc. We take it way further than that, back to the moment bottles are picked off the street.”

Q: What positive social impact can Thread show so far?

Halling: “To date we are supporting 2,000 to 3,000 income opportunities for the poor in Haiti and Honduras. In the first quarter of 2014, our supply chain supported 221 jobs and about 2,700 income opportunities with $100,000 paid to small businesses, and we have huge growth opportunities ahead.”

Q: What data would you like to have that you do not have today?

Halling: “We think our partners and consumers would respond well to more real time data like GPS tracking, so they could actually see movements as they are happening. Even the data we have is groundbreaking. Environmental impact tracking is not widely done in the developing world. It’s a real culture shift.”

Macinsky: “I’m most interested in tracking outcomes on how Thread is benefitting people in their homes, workplaces and actually proving what jobs and income opportunities mean to people. For example, do cleaner streets mean fewer health problems?”

Q: Can we expect to see your use of big data in products on store shelves soon?

Macinsky: “You sure will. Our first partnership is with a bag manufacturer called Moop. That product will be available in May.”

Q: Will Moop be talking about specific social impacts?

Macinsky: “For the first launch, the focus is on some of the more digestible tidbits of data we have to offer. We are starting with the basics like the number of plastic bottles that go into a product, jobs supported and similar stats. Long term collaboration will increasingly focus on the social storytelling side.”

Q: Who do you want to connect with in the marketplace?

Macinsky: “Our focus right now is on talking to brands that want to be more responsible in their supply chains.”

Halling: “We are excited about the larger impact that happens at volumes to help disrupt the textile industry. The industry is this multi-billion dollar force in the world, but it is still murky and hard to get data on supply chains. There is still tragedy happening. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Have a Happy & Profitable Earth Day 2012! A Good Time to Enter the ECHO Awards’ Green Marketing Competition

For the past three years, the Direct Marketing Association has awarded a Special ECHO Award dedicated to incorporating sustainable, environmental concerns in marketing. The award is given NOT for being “green” (which is self-limiting), but for being successful in marketing—read, profitable—and demonstrating environmental performance in the process.

For the past three years, the Direct Marketing Association has awarded a Special ECHO Award in its International ECHO Awards competition dedicated to incorporating sustainable, environmental concerns in marketing: The ECHO Green Marketing Award.

The three winners to date—the United States Postal Service (2009), the World Wildlife Fund (2010), and Consumer Reports (2011)—each have taken the direct marketing process and used the DMA “Green 15” environmental marketing practices and principles to illustrate how marketing activity can be both successful in driving response and interaction, and adhere to best practices for environmental performance. Note, the award is given NOT for being “green” (which is self-limiting), but for being successful in marketing—read, profitable—and demonstrating environmental performance in the process.

Importantly, the award—which is judged by members of the DMA Committee on the Environmental and Social Responsibility, under the auspices of the DMA ECHO Awards Committee—looks to evaluate and recognize the marketing process, and not the product or service being marketed. Thus, the product or service being marketing need not be environmentally focused (though it certainly can be). What the judges look for is the usual hallmarks of an ECHO Award-winning direct-response campaign—strategy, creative, results—and adds a fourth component, adherence to environmental principles which apply to direct marketing. These principles are clearly stated in the DMA Green 15, which articulate list hygiene, paper procurement and use, printing and production, mail design, fulfillment and recycling collection & pollution prevention in everyday direct marketing business decision-making.

To date, each previous winner interpreted this objective in in very different ways. The USPS sought to demonstrate how direct mail advertising can be very environmentally sensitive (and sensible) in its multi-faceted “Environmailist” campaign, targeted at advertising agencies and brands that use the direct mail channel. In Australia, the World Wildlife Fund, working to promote its “Earth Hour” environmental awareness effort, sent carbon-neutral plant spikes via potted plants to office managers around the country to promote greater efficiency in office environments. Last year, Consumer Reports—in promoting subscription to its ShopSmart and Consumer Reports magazines—used the Green 15 to audit each of its business decisions in data management, supply chain engagement, procurement, production, logistics and customer communication, and to apply the principles where they made economic sense or were revenue-neutral.

The deadline for entering the 2012 DMA International ECHO Marketing Award competition is April 25, 2012, with a late deadline of May 2, 2012: http://dma-echo.org/enter.jsp

As brands and agencies enter the Awards, there is an entry field where consideration for the ECHO Green Marketing Award is prompted. If the “yes” box is checked, an additional Green Marketing Award Addendum can be promptly accessed that allows up to 1,000 words to explain how the entry:

  • Employs Innovative Green Tactics & Strategies Employed Throughout the Direct Marketing Process
  • Inspires Action & Making a Difference to the Planet
  • Demonstrates Measurable Environmental Impact of the Campaign
  • … all the while being a successful marketing campaign overall.

Happy Earth Day 2012—and take the time to show others how your brand or your client’s brand is leading the way in incorporating environmental sensitivity in its everyday marketing decision-making—and producing outstanding, profitable results. I’m hopeful I will be writing about your winning campaign once the 2012 winner is announced during the DMA2012 Conference this October in Las Vegas, NV.

4 Tips to Improve Environmental Performance of Email and Digital Communications

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

Banks, utilities, investment companies, retailers, credit card companies and others that all use “green messaging” to appeal to customers to go “digital” with their invoicing and statements most often commit a sin of “greenwashing”—because they are not measuring truly the environmental impact of such claims. (I’ve mentioned a superb, must-read report for marketing professionals on the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” in previous blog posts: www.sinsofgreenwashing.org.)

However, digital and electronic data-driven technology users and suppliers are highly—even urgently—concerned about the amount of energy used to run IT infrastructures—from data centers, to servers, to PCs and laptops and the power grid that keeps them all humming 24/7. They are not alone. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report says 1.5 percent of total energy consumption in America is attributable to data centers—and the figure is growing rapidly. Streaming video eats server capacity—and more and more U.S. households (and workplaces) are spending time online; watching television and movies off tablets and laptops; streaming audio and video; chatting and emailing with friends, families and social networks … and, in short, tapping energy sources that keep the dialogue moving.

This has a clear environmental and sustainability impact—requiring brands to assess their energy sources, the efficiency of the IT equipment, and, most certainly, any verbiage their organizations may have used previously to state the “green” credentials of digital over print.

While purchasing Green IT and Green Power are perhaps the most profound ways digital communication users can tackle being sustainable environmentally, there are other smaller but visible ways to lessen environmental footprints when dialoguing online with stakeholders. This is just a suggested list:

  1. Team up with a green partner. Have a tie-in with an environmental or conservation group. With a recent e-commerce purchase I made with one marketer, I was prompted to direct where I wanted a seedling to be planted in return for my transaction, with one of four regional forest areas (California, Michigan, Florida or Virginia) of the National Forest Service.
  2. Guard against greenwashing. Avoid “greenwashing” when environmental claims are made for everyday business activities or for products, behaviors or processes where one or two attributes may be “green,” but the overall activity may very well not be. There are two excellent resources to refer to prevent “greenwashing.” Going digital—again—is not “green” if a company fails to analyze the lifecycle of its power choices and data centers, for example. Canada-based TerraChoice, which works with both Canada and U.S. regulators to monitor environmental claims, has published The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets. By reading and absorbing this report, communicators will likely not make a mistake in hyperbole over a green dialogue claim. Further, the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to release its updated Green Guides for environmental claims at any point this year—with an expectation it will clarify creative interpretations behind many of today’s eco-marketing terms.
  3. Opt-out, opt-in, opt-down and more. Modify any online preference center for emailing and mobile messaging to customers from mere CAN-SPAM compliance to “best practice” heaven—where each customer is in (near) total control. Preference centers should be designed for our multichannel world, rather than simply an on/off switch for email. Opt out. Opt in. Opt down. Allow for frequency, subject matter, mail and phone switches, and—most certainly—third-party data sharing suppression if that applies. Retailers are excellent leaders in this area: Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, L.L. Bean each offer preference centers on their respective Web sites. Likewise, segmenting stakeholders and sending targeted emails to each segment helps to prevent non-responsive email. Why is this green? McAfee, the provider of security software, recently reported that each legitimate email (sending and receipt) generates approximately 4 grams of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change. FYI: One of my clients, Harte-Hanks, offers an excellent white paper on designing online preference centers.
  4. Open up the suggestion box. Web 3.0 and accountability go hand in hand. There’s no one path to environmental responsibility, so let customers, vendors and other stakeholders help. Brands should tell their sustainable story online—enable audiences to post suggestions and engage an internal team to evaluate all of them. Talk with suppliers—not just about green IT, but ways to procure power, print, paper, packaging, office supplies and other workplace necessities. Environmental pursuits—and their tie-in to business success—shouldn’t be kept a secret. By sharing objectives and outcomes with customers and vendors, there is higher chance of success—and transparency is achieved.

The lesson here: like print, digital communications have an environmental footprint. As marketers, if we seek sustainability for our enterprises, and if we wish to communicate such objectives to our many stakeholders with credibility, these impacts need to be assessed, measured and managed accordingly in the very communications process itself.

“Consider the environment before you print this electronic message.” Yes, consider it—thoroughly!

Consumer Reports Nets DMA ECHO Green Marketing Award 2011: Lessons for Every Marketer

One of the highlights of the Direct Marketing Association’s 2011 annual conference was the awarding of a special ECHO award to Consumer Reports, the organization behind the magazine of the same name. As a member of DMA’s Committee on the Environment and Social Responsibility (CESR), I was one of the judges of this year’s competition, which looks to honor one marketing organization that has demonstrated environmental performance and sustainable practices in the design and execution of an advertising campaign.

One of the highlights of the Direct Marketing Association’s 2011 annual conference was the awarding of a special ECHO award—the ECHO Green Marketing Award—to Consumer Reports, the organization behind the magazine of the same name. As a member of DMA’s Committee on the Environment and Social Responsibility (CESR), I was one of the judges of this year’s competition, which looks to honor one marketing organization that has demonstrated environmental performance and sustainable practices in the design and execution of an advertising campaign.

What makes the Consumer Reports entry remarkable is its demonstrated adherence to a set of environmental principles and practices known as the DMA “Green 15.” Established by DMA in 2009, the DMA Green 15 provides guidance to marketers on list hygiene and data management, paper procurement, printing and production, and recycling and workplace operations—all in an effort to support the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

The campaign itself was a recent subscription offer for Consumer Reports and ShopSmart magazines. The campaign did not sell an environmental product. It did not tout environmental claims. It did not involve environmental causes. Yet it won our discipline’s highest environmental marketing honor. Why? Because the campaign incorporated environmental sensitivity, efficiencies, and cross-company and supply chain engagement into everyday marketing planning and decision-making.

In short, the Consumer Reports effort is a blueprint that all marketers—commercial and non-profit—can replicate in their own everyday marketing.

Consider this excerpt from the entry:

We produced the Winter 2010/11 direct marketing campaign with the goal of strategically supporting the sustainability objectives of meeting our acquisition targets, serving the ongoing needs of consumers, and of being good stewards of the resources we use. Direct Marketing and Publishing Operations departments worked collaboratively guided by our internal Environmental Policy & Vision Statement to identify, implement, and track meaningful environmental choices made throughout the life cycle of the campaign season.

The overall environmental benefits of the choices we made included less energy and materials consumption, more benign manufacturing, and reduced emissions. Additionally, we promoted recycling of direct marketing packages that are recyclable, saved money, upheld response rates, and met our objectives.

The full entry incorporated actions that the Consumer Reports vendors undertook to increase efficiencies and environmental performance, as well as documented gains in paper procurement and use, mail design and production, and recycling and pollution reduction—all with measurements that document positive environmental impacts while achieving financial objectives.

I encourage all marketers to look to the example of Consumer Reports and its adherence to the DMA Green 15. In fact, the long-term sustainability of direct marketing depends on it.

Resources:
Direct Marketing Association’s Green 15 Toolkit for Marketers

With Special Permission, This Year’s DMA International ECHO Green Marketing Award Winner, Consumer Reports.

Editor’s Note: As of Autumn 2011, ConsumersUnion is newly rebranded as Consumer Reports.