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.