Back to basics: Direct marketing - Going green

Almost half of all direct mail is thrown away without ever being opened. Direct marketers are one of the prime culprits in an age of waste. Alex Blyth investigates what they can do to reverse the trend.

For years, direct mail has formed the backbone of the not-for-profit sector's donor acquisition and communications programmes, and charities are now among the heaviest users of direct mail. However, while in marketing terms it is a highly effective technique, in environmental terms it is a particularly harmful one. About 21 billion items, or 550,000 tonnes, of direct mail are sent out every year, and research from the US suggests that 44 per cent of it is thrown away unopened. It then goes to incineration, contributing to climate change, or is placed in landfill sites, which are rapidly filling up. Charities are increasingly recognising this damage, and looking for ways to make their direct marketing less harmful to the environment.

Those who are not entirely persuaded by the moral case for environmental responsibility are facing an increasingly compelling business case. Producing direct mail is expensive. If 44 per cent of it is thrown away, this represents a significant waste of scarce resources. Finding ways to ensure that mail is only sent to those who will read it is simply good business sense.

A strong focus on the environment can also be a significant selling factor to supporters, employees and many other external partners.

Translating good intentions into concrete actions can be hard, however.

This guide shows you how.

1. Using green materials - There is now a wide range of environmentally-friendly products that can be used in direct mail to minimise the harmful impact. Soy ink, for example, is an environmentally-friendly alternative to regular ink. It contains soy bean non-toxic oil, which is easier to recycle than petroleum oil because it can be removed more effectively.

It is also low in volatile organic compounds, which can cause air pollution.

Riso, a digital printer manufacturer, uses soy ink for all of these reasons but, according to its managing director Richard Thompson, there are also strong commercial incentives to do so. "Soy ink allows pigments to reach their full potential, so in many cases there may be quality enhancements," he says. "It does cost about 25 per cent more than regular ink, but some newspaper publishers have reported that they can print more papers with less ink, meaning that it's more competitively priced in the long run."

This is only one of many green options available to direct mailers. They can also use inks made from other vegetables; glues that are based on water rather than oil; and recycled paper, to name but a few. Prices vary but, in general, recycled products carry a premium of about 10 per cent.

Carolyn Stebbings, managing director of direct marketing agency FCBi London, is less convinced that using recycled products makes economic sense. "The cost of using recycled products in direct marketing may well be prohibitive for charities. Furthermore, it is not always as environmentally friendly as it seems. Ironically, the process that the paper goes through and the chemicals that need to be used in recycling are themselves damaging to the environment," she says.

Nonetheless, most charities now use water-based glues, and few use ultra-violet varnishes and laminates, which act as a contaminant to paper and require separate recycling. But because of the cost and effectiveness issues involved with recycled paper, many charities prefer to use paper from sustainable sources instead.

2. Encouraging recipients to recycle - In July 2003, the Direct Marketing Association, a body which represents about 900 organisations involved in the direct mail and promotions industry, launched its Producer Responsibility for Direct Mail and Promotions pledge. This was the result of negotiations with the Government, and represents an attempt to stave off legislation that would severely curtail the use of direct mail. Under the scheme, the industry commits itself to targets for the recycling of direct mail: 30 per cent by the end of 2005, 55 per cent by the end of 2009, and 70 per cent by the end of 2013.

Given that in 2001/02, only 13 per cent of direct mail was recycled, those are ambitious targets. But according to David Robottom, director of postal affairs and industry development at the DMA, marketers are making good progress: "We're currently recovering about 20 to 25 per cent of direct mail - we're confident that when we report to the Government at the end of this year, we'll have hit the target of 30 per cent."

Each part of the producer chain has responsibilities. Charities need to ensure that their packs comply with the DMA's Code of Practice, and that all of their suppliers are aware of their individual responsibilities.

There are no penalties for failing to do this, but Robottom points out that if direct mailers fail to meet these targets, the Government will impose legislation which will severely restrict charities' use of direct mail as a source of income.

3. Only send what is necessary - Free pens, badges and key fobs might all be stalwarts of charity mailings, but they are not good for the environment - they are often made out of PVC, and many end up in landfill sites. Removing these added extras from mailing packs can make them more green and reduce costs. There are other options - using a self-closing mailer, for example, cuts down on paper use because there is no need for a separate envelope.

Charities are starting to act, but many believe that the Government could do more to encourage green direct mail. David Burrows is a planner at direct marketing agency TDA and works with Cats Protection, the Meningitis Trust and Arthritis Care. He suggests one way in which the Government could act: "Current VAT rules encourage direct marketers to fill mailings with extra items in order to qualify for VAT-free status. I'd like to see VAT laws reformed so that green direct mail is VAT free and environmentally-unfriendly mail pays a premium."

4. Improved targeting - Recycling direct mail is good, but reducing the amount of wasted direct mail that is sent is better. It is desirable from an environmental standpoint, and also makes good business sense. The ultimate goal of all direct marketing, in fact, is to contact the right customer, with the right message, at the right time.

Many organisations are developing products and services that can help charities achieve this. The first and best known of these is the Mailing Preference Service, which was set up 20 years ago and is funded by the direct mail industry. The MPS holds a list of consumers who have declared that they want to limit the amount of direct mail they receive.

Simon Halberstam, partner and head of e-commerce law at Sprecher Grier Halberstam LLP, says: "If a charity is a member of the DMA, it must comply with its Code of Practice, including observing the MPS register. This means that it must not send unsolicited mail to consumers who have placed themselves on this register."

Sue Rankine, senior account manager at list broker Occam, describes some other ways of improving targeting: "Occam holds a wide range of direct mail suppression products that knock out records of consumers that, for instance, are known to have gone away or who have died. Often, the process will remove 10 to 12 per cent of names from a list, saving hundreds of thousands of mailpacks from being printed and binned each year."

5. Use donor profiling - Profiling potential mail recipients to identify the most responsive donors makes a mailing more efficient. Peter Thompson, sales director at list broker Experian, explains what his company has to offer in this area: "We have a number of products to aid targeting.

The most widely used is National Canvasse Charity Selections, which uses data-profiling techniques. It identifies responsive individuals who are more likely to make donations and less likely to have received direct mail from other charities."

And it doesn't stop there. Crazy Horse is just one of many direct marketing agencies that are helping charities become ever more effective at profiling their potential donors.

Belinda Neal, client services director at Crazy Horse, outlines some of its techniques: "You can use your existing donor base to work out why they support your charity. For instance, is a donor to Help the Aged interested in helping the elderly, or more specifically in ophthalmic issues? Profiling by topic can really sharpen your lists. You can also maximise the impact of your direct mail by integrating your campaigns. For example, we worked with the Campaign to Protect Rural England on a door drop promoting sustainable development. Because we also received editorial coverage, we needed to produce fewer packs for the desired result."

6. Using virtual media - Communicating by email, SMS text message or a website is obviously more environmentally friendly than doing it by mail. However, the voluntary sector remains cautious about the use of these new media for anything more than keeping in touch with existing donors.

Marcos Richardson, European director of WebtraffIQ, a visitor-tracking service, argues that: "Email marketing can be a simple, cost-effective and measurable marketing tool, but if it is not created and managed correctly, it will be the quickest way to kill a campaign and dilute a brand. Although it is perceived that all that is required is to knock some copy together and then hit send, there is much more to it than this."

There are now many agencies that can help organisations improve their email, online and text marketing. They develop dialogues with recipients, and customise copy, tone of voice, frequency, and design. They advise on sending formats and help organisations to develop their own individualised opt-in databases.

Commercial organisations are currently embracing these new techniques with more enthusiasm than not-for-profit bodies are. However, as the process becomes more refined and starts to show results, it is likely that more and more charities will begin to use these new media for their direct marketing. Like many of the other ways of making direct marketing more environmentally friendly, it will be good for the planet and for charity finances at the same time.


- Envirowise is a government-funded programme that offers free advice and support on reducing environmental impact.


- The Direct Marketing Association runs a national consumer awareness campaign to reduce the amount of direct mail waste ending up in landfill.

Its Code of Practice forms the basis of most responsible direct mail campaigns.

- The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out its vision for sustainable waste management in Waste Strategy 2000, the national waste strategy.


- is a resource for organisations involved in recycling and waste management. The site delivers news and material prices.

- offers information on recycling to schools, households and businesses, as well as links to other recycling resources.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow us on:
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Google +

Latest Jobs

RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners


Expert Hub

Insurance advice from Markel

Guide: What insurance does your charity need?

Guide: What insurance does your charity need?

Partner Content: Presented By Markel

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now