Nearly seven years ago, Ann DeLaVergne got an envelope in the mail from an environmental company that was encouraging people to reduce waste by reusing envelopes. But it was sealed shut, plus it had print and labels all over it. There was no way to reuse it.
"I thought it should be easy for people and companies to reuse envelopes because it'd be a simple way for everybody to reduce waste," describes DeLaVergne, who took that same faulty envelope to the government-sponsored environmental agency and ended up getting a "waste reduction grant" from it to start her company, ecoEnvelopes.
Her first few prototypes, some made with her sewing machine on her kitchen table in Minneapolis, sold to various clients but were incompatible with the USPS' high-speed insertion and postal-processing equipment. After more research and development for a couple of years, ecoEnvelopes re-entered the market in a big way in 2006 with reusable envelopes in a variety of business-appropriate sizes, made of mostly recycled paper. Now it's approaching the $40 million sales mark as a business.
Lastly, her company just announced the first two-way postage indicia approved by the USPS for direct marketers, making it even easier for them to simultaneously cut costs and go green by eliminating the need for separate postage when using reusable envelopes. I recently spoke with DeLaVergne about her pioneering efforts.
Boldt: What went into making the two-way postage indicia happen with the USPS?
DeLaVergne: After I got the [reusable] envelopes up and running, a smart thing would be to have a postage concept that works with it. Four and a half years ago, I started presenting that to the [USPS], and the green market kind of evolved at the same time along with the "greening of the mail" task force. If we had postage behind the concept, then other products could evolve that were reusable.
There's a second part to this: the reusable envelope symbol that we want to incorporate. It helps the marketer, the end user and the consumer identify it as a reusable envelope, and with that identifier, there's actual things happening: Carbon is being reduced, energy is being reduced, paper usage is being reduced. That symbolic indicia sends that message and is recognizable for both the postal operations people as well as the consumers. It says, "By using a reusable envelope, you take a million of these reply envelopes out of the mailstream, reducing 249 million BTUs of energy."
Boldt: Does it make reusable envelopes even easier to use as well as less costly?
DeLaVergne: Yes, you don't have to obscure the return postage; you can do outgoing and return in one. In the former incarnation of the reusable envelope, you had to obscure one or the other of the postage. You can actually put both of them on the face of the envelope-basically reducing the extra flap, or the folding or whatever was required before.
Boldt: You took the company off-line for a couple of years while redesigning the reusable envelopes, right?
DeLaVergne: We were actually mailing envelopes, but they weren't compliant with the USPS' Domestic Mail Manual. So we basically had to redesign, essentially turning it upside down and made a few changes with how the tear strips came off and pretty much solved the problem. Then we had a legal envelope. It was the #10 size that we wanted to use for statements, as everyone was using inserts, and basically needed to design a window envelope and remove barcodes.
Boldt: Has the speed of your company's growth surprised you?
DeLaVergne: [I am] not surprised. With the kind of raised consciousness of the world about the state of the environment, it's logical that new products are going to be sought and replace old methods of doing things. As the world becomes more aware, with people realizing that the air is getting worse, the water is getting worse, we can't keep this up-when that awakening happens, and it's happening with climate change, people are going to seek products that do good things and reduce our impact.
To be honest, I don't think paper is our biggest problem, because it's renewable, it's sustainable, it's a natural fiber. For example, I can take envelopes in my office and put them into my organic garden and they will decompose. I can't do that with my cell phone. You start to analyze: Where are the real impacts to our environment? I don't think paper will be on top of that list.
Boldt: How quickly are new clients coming through the door?
DeLaVergne: All of our big clients are still working through their process. With direct mail, it's, "How will this affect my response? Is the timing right? What's the cost to us? Should we put something new out there? What's our cost savings?" A lot of heads have to nod before it's given the full green light.
The mission-driven companies are very keen on delivering the message, but they're also very keen on response rates. So the modus operandi is to always test against the package, so incremental changes are a very big deal.
It's always an interesting process to bring something new into the direct mail arena. There are very custom methods to receive direct mail and to respond to direct mail. So one of the things about the two-way postage is that it's something different, and that can work in our favor or distract the customer from responding. If it gets identified as friendly mail, more and more, then it will become a more popular option.