Direct Approach: Grappling with green

Direct marketing can no longer ignore the clamour to 'go green' if it wants to ensure a rosy future.

If you're looking for a nice and easy life, don't mention the "e" word - the environment, that is. If you do blurt it out, watch out for two types of people who will be on you like a pack of wild (and organic) dogs.

The first is the "zealot family" (usually more than one). You know the type, only too happy to confirm the fact that climate change is down to you - yes, you, individually. Plus, they have the other undeniable fact, that as a result of your selfish behaviour, life as we know it will be over, usually in the next five years. Arguably, even worse is being cornered by the second type: the Mr or Mrs EnviroFact (every business has one).

He or she is usually armed with a bag full of the real facts about climate change. You know the kind of thing: climate change - it's just a natural phenomenon - and anyway, it's all been hyped up by the media. Usually, these people also have a nice line in environmental facts that confirm their own lifestyle choices. For instance, did you know 4x4s are better for the environment? It can get a bit intense if you have both types on at you at the same time. Step back and let them get on with it.

The direct marketing industry hasn't avoided receiving a share of criticism from many quarters, and not just the environmentalists. For some, there's comfort in the thought that, as an industry, we are an easy target. For others, commercial freedom is king. And then you have to ask yourself - quietly, so no-one can hear you - are we really helping ourselves?

Waste, junk, spam ... call it what you like, but it's a tag which labels this industry not as "direct" but as "economy of scale" marketing. Is that how we want to position ourselves? It could just be that non-renewable resources are being depleted at a rapid rate, and we really could be running out of landfill.

So, if that is the case, economy of scale marketing just isn't a sustainable option. And for those who stubbornly hold on to the idea that "business as usual" actually is an option, do they really want to be labelled and associated with that type of marketing?

Attitudes to the environment have changed extremely quickly, and I'm sure none of us in the marketing community are surprised, especially given the scale of media exposure. Hardly a day goes by without some mention of climate change, the environment or carbon emissions. Or maybe it's because it has all become a bit more real. Well, that's if you accept we are experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand, with the warmest spring and the wettest summer on record.

You can see the evidence everywhere. As little as a year ago, it would probably have been political suicide to suggest the need for specific environmental taxes. In the blink of an eye, the debate shifted from "if" to "how much?" It now seems that the notion of the "polluter pays" is both acceptable and here to stay. Regardless of your own position, it's probably the time to accept that public opinion is changing, and that "business as usual" is no longer an acceptable approach.

Whatever the reasons, this change in consumer attitude means more pressure on the whole of the DM industry to show that it is actively changing and becoming more environmentally responsible. However, simply making a few token gestures is potentially more dangerous than doing nothing at all. Accusations of "green-washing" are rife. Yet no company can afford to ignore the ethical and environmental component of the customer's purchasing decision, or, indeed, the potential threat of further regulation if the industry fails to act.

There's the challenge, and it's a big one. The DMA has spent considerable time examining what needs addressing to future-proof the industry and how this can be done. What has always been clear is that this is a bigger agenda - it's not just about recycling.

That said, it is perhaps the easier and more obvious bit to understand. In fact, all paper-based marketing should be straightforward to get right. In a nutshell, don't send it to people who don't want it, and make it green for those that do. Less is most definitely more when a campaign uses sophisticated targeting. Using recycled paper and vegetable-based inks also seems a no-brainer, but there is a bewildering amount of information out there - some of which is hard to understand and some of which is plain rubbish.

Since clear advice is still thin on the ground, the DMA called in the environmental experts to dispel some of the myths and develop some factual no-nonsense industry guides. But that is just the start.

"Green going out and green coming back" needs to be the mantra. We need to reduce the environmental impact of all communications - not just direct mail - and ensure that, where possible, the recipient closes the green loop.

As the recent DMA Economic Impact report illustrates, the DM industry continues to grow, covering every facet of marketing, from e-mail and mobile to field marketing, direct mail and inserts. Each medium makes its mark on the environment, but the extent of its impact is currently unknown. As a result, defining what constitutes an improved environmental performance would be a shot in the dark.

That's why the DMA has championed the creation of an environmental standard for the whole industry - a first for any commercial sector. We have commissioned the British Standards Institute, arguably the world's leading standards developer, to create the Environmental Standard for Sustainable Direct Marketing. This will be a national standard, representing an unambiguous statement of action which will promote understanding and recognition far more effectively than having hundreds of potentially conflicting standards and initiatives. Plus, there's a benefit for brands. It will be a neat way for summarising the environmental credentials of the user. This will be particularly valuable given that compliance with this standard will be externally verified by independent auditors. So, no green wash here.

It was recently stated that to address environmental issues, it's better for lots of people to make a little difference as opposed to a few people making a big change. In our industry, we need to combine the two. A lot of people need to make a big change. And therein lies the opportunity to rid direct marketing of its "junk" image and assert ourselves as a responsible and sophisticated industry.