Cover Story: Green Mission
Consumers Union is dedicated to working for a fair, just and safe marketplace for all consumers. To accomplish this, it operates the world's largest nonprofit educational and consumer product testing center. It testifies before legislative and regulatory bodies and petitions government agencies. Through its Web site, Consumer Reports magazine and other publications, it helps the public make informed decisions about everything from health care to financial services and automobiles. And, if that's not enough, Consumers Union's marketing and production teams have successfully launched their own sustainability "revolution," implementing strategies that contribute to a cleaner, more hospitable planet.
Meta Brophy, director of publishing operations for Consumers Union, describes these efforts as "greening the mission." Appropriately, they began in the organization's grass roots. "This is not a top-down initiative," she says. "It's initiative all right-first on an individual level, then a departmental level and a divisional level. We think our efforts support [Consumers Union's] mission to test, inform and protect."
Starting a Revolution
The seeds for Consumers Union's green movement were planted in 2004, when Brophy heard about the Direct Marketing Association and the Magazine Publishers of America developing environmental handbooks for their respective memberships.
"I heard about these committees from industry colleagues, and I joined both," says Brophy. "I was looking to educate myself about the issues and to see how and with what we might do a better job with our direct mail and publications. I had no idea, really, the scope and magnitude of environmental impact. Working on these committees opened my eyes in a big way."
At the time, environmental concerns were beginning to surface within the magazine and catalog communities, but no one was really talking about direct mail, she says. Initially, most of the discussion was about paper. But Brophy quickly realized that truly sustainable marketing and production would require a more holistic view. "Recycled paper is only one item in the whole conversation," she stresses.
Waste Not, Want Not
Greener marketing and production actually begins with data. Here, companies are well-advised to remember the first of the green movement's three "R's": reduce.
According to Laurie Mellon, Consumers Union's associate director of direct mail, the more accurate an organization's data, the fewer unwanted items it puts into the mailstream. This, in turn, conserves vital natural resources not to mention marketing dollars.
Consumers Union reduces its mailstream waste by being more stringent on list cleaning and matching, Mellon says. The organization uses advanced household merge/purge technology and applies the latest address hygiene processes to identify and suppress duplicate records. This ensures that it only sends one mail piece to an address. In addition, it continuously evaluates new processes to improve list deliverability.
A Big Payoff for Thinking Small
Brophy says another strategy Consumers Union employs to reduce its environmental impact is "source reduction," or using less material in the first place.
The organization's creative rotation includes a variety of mail pieces from simple voucher packages to eight- or 12-page magalogs. Rising postal costs have already prompted Consumers Union to reduce the size of some formats. "Marketing has moved some bigger flat-size packages to letter-size packages," explains Mellon.
Roseanne Ippoliti, Consumers Union's director of acquisition marketing and branding, says other source reduction techniques include decreasing page counts and printing on lighter-weight paper. "We're always looking at what we can do to get the same impact by using [less]," she says.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Consumers Union has faced as part of its green efforts-and the one with the biggest payoff-was moving the organization's larger self-mailers onto lighter-weight text stock.
"We had to test into it for a year or so to gauge that it was working-that response held-before marketing would say that all versions going forward could go out on the lighter-weight paper from the get-go," explains Brophy. "It ... had to be carefully coordinated over a number of campaigns dropping in different seasons for multiple product lines."
Last season, Consumers Union was able to roll out with a self-mailer piece that was more than 50 percent lighter than it had previously been, because it cut text pages and basis weight. The results proved well worth the effort.
"Our paper consumption dropped enough to save us hundreds of thousands of dollars, while our response rate held strong," Brophy says. What's more, "Less paper means less fiber, less energy, less waste and less trucking."
When it comes to the materials Consumers Union uses, quantity isn't the only issue. A material's environmental qualities matter, too. So choosing products that are biodegradable, more conducive to recycling, or that generate fewer harmful emissions during their production or use is a top priority.
When selecting paper, Associate Director of Publishing Operations Steve Schiavone says Consumers Union wants to know what it is buying. "Now we ask printers and paper suppliers more questions: Can you use recycled content if it makes sense economically and environmentally? What is your third-party certified content percentage and what scheme are you certified to? What is your energy profile? It's asking a lot of those questions and getting feedback," he explains.
In addition to using lighter-weight paper, Consumers Union's environmental focus has prompted it to consider postconsumer or de-inked, high-yield recycled paper for various mail pieces. Schiavone says the organization also uses higher bulking coated groundwood papers and high-yield groundwood papers. These consume fewer resources in their manufacture, making them environmentally preferable alternatives to virgin offset sheets.
Of course, paper alone does not make a mail package, and Consumers Union is constantly evaluating other earth-friendly components. It uses biodegradable poly, inks that are low in volatile organic compound emissions and environmentally benign adhesive, Brophy says. The latter is used for repositionable labels, which are included in some mail packages as involvement devices. Environmentally benign adhesive makes recycling less complicated and more economical-in addition to improving the quality of recycled paper-because it can be easily removed from recovered paper during the early stages of recycling.
Making Processes More Efficient
Enormous opportunities exist to make environmental improvements in the processes that take direct mail pieces from concept to creation and delivery. According to Schiavone, these typically afford organizations economic benefits, as well as environmental ones.
To optimize workflows, Consumers Union sometimes leverages selective binding-it binds different mailings across product lines all at once. The mailings are ink-jetted at the same time, trucked together and mailed together, Schiavone explains.
Consumers Union also uses multiple print locations and multiple paper suppliers to minimize transport distances and cut down on carbon emissions. "It's all about consolidation and reducing fragmentation," explains Ippoliti. "All campaigns are viewed together instead of separately, so there are no silos. We consider all products, all the time, for a particular season."
Though these tactics typically reduce waste and are more cost-effective, Brophy cautions that there is a major trade-off. "Making [processes] supremely efficient-filling the trucks, using fewer trucks and traveling shorter distances-means that marketing ... has to make an accommodation because not all of these promotions were meant to mail at exactly the same time," she explains.
"We have to do an analysis of overlap on the file, and everybody has to agree that the benefit outweighs some orders we may miss because we make adjustments to combine as much work as possible ... whether in a paper order, in logistics, on press, in binding, in co-mailing or any step along the way."
Getting Consumers Involved
Though environmental awareness is growing among consumers, Ippoliti acknowledges, "It's unclear whether the average consumer ... is thinking cognitively about how an envelope package affects the environment."
For this reason, Consumers Union is committed to educating its customers, donors and prospects about the benefits of recycling the materials it puts out. The organization has joined a Magazine Publishers of America initiative to encourage people to recycle magazines. It also has tested DMA's "Recycle Please" logo (www.recycleplease.org) in its direct mail campaigns for the past year.
"We don't usually label our initiatives because we don't want to distract from our products," says Brophy. "But this communication, we feel, encourages our customers to recycle what we send them."
Mellon says that, not only did the "Recycle Please" logo not hurt performance during tests, but it even increased response rates slightly. Now Consumers Union plans to roll out the logo on its summer control pieces.
Sharing the Vision
Sharing its green vision-and its enthusiasm about environmental issues-is something Consumers Union does particularly well, especially when it comes to suppliers and vendors.
Brophy asks her vendors to tell her what they're doing with regard to environmental sustainability and hosts seasonal meetings with business partners to discuss practical strategies. During these meetings, Brophy and her team have learned about new environmentally friendly tactics being used in other workplaces-even simple things like recycling the rags printers use to wash the printing press blankets.
These meetings encourage ongoing dialogue, inspiring vendors to proactively return to Consumers Union when they uncover new sustainable strategies. They also help foster a "team" mentality.
"We look to vendors to give us recommendations ... about how to make a piece more efficient and how to reduce the cost without impacting the performance," Ippoliti says. "Every outside vendor is more an extended part of the team, and everybody buys into the entire campaign."
Looking ahead, Brophy believes an education in sustainable business practices is a skill set Consumers Union will increasingly seek out. "We'll look for it from our vendors and ... we'll look for it when we recruit," she says.
Consumers Union's success in implementing more sustainable marketing and production strategies has been enabled by three key factors: research, strategic planning and testing.
According to Brophy, researching issues, materials, methods, pricing and other factors is time-consuming. But it does get easier with experience. "We've become more familiar with the terminology, the processes, the right questions and so on," she elaborates. "It has also become easier because there is more information available and so many vendors are involved now in broad and meaningful ways."
In fact, Consumers Union gets all of its vendors together-from its logistics company and printers to its merge/purge shop- to facilitate strategic planning for each mailing season. "Everybody sits down and works it out," says Mellon. Notably, to accommodate the extra research, planning and testing its green initiatives require, Consumers Union has moved the start of its strategy meetings up a month.
At the end of the day, decisions about whether or not to implement environmentally preferable techniques are still subject to the ultimate test: Do they support a strong response? "Some factors do outweigh others," Brophy says. "The final piece has to look like it was designed to look."
Going the extra mile for the environment can be a lengthy and labor-intensive process, but Brophy believes that shouldn't deter other organizations from going green. She is confident the efforts pay off-in the short term, by reducing costs and creating productivity gains, and, in the long term, by helping to foster a fair, just and safe planet.
Brophy says her team is "committed to continuous improvement" in all areas of its sustainability practices, and she hopes to see other industry colleagues join in. "As direct mail's environmental impact is substantially reduced, its service to society is enhanced," she says.
In the meantime, greening an organization's marketing and production practices shouldn't be viewed as an impossible mission. "Any organization can make a move to greener marketing without adding a single resource or process," Brophy stresses. "Information, tools, services and suppliers are a phone or e-mail message away. Interest, communication and leadership get the process going."
Amy Syracuse is a London-based freelance writer, who profiled AIG Travel Guard in the February 2008 issue.