Is Direct Mail the Devil?

by Trish Witkowski,

direct mail


In an eco-conscious day and age, the trend is to denounce print as evil and wasteful and bad for the environment. The argument is of course that it’s a physical thing, so why make something and send it, right? Save the natural resources—communicate digitally, and think before you print your email, too! 

Well, although it’s convenient and of-the-moment to jump on the print-hating bandwagon, I’m going to ask you to set down your energy-eating smartphone, tablet and laptop and open your eyes to the eco-friendliness of the most underestimated and powerful marketing medium on the planet: print.

Direct mail, in most cases, is made out of paper. And, in fact, 66.8% of all paper consumed in the U.S. is recovered for recycling (American Forest and Paper Association, 2011). That’s pretty impressive, I think. In addition to being recyclable, paper is made from a renewable resource (trees)—and of the total world consumption of wood, only 15% of that total is harvested directly for making paper and board, with the rest of the paper-making material contributed in the form of wood chips and other residue left behind from sawmill operations (PaperImpact). Surprised? I would expect that maybe you are—as paper seems to take the fall for what feels like nearly 100% of the “evil tree-killing” narrative.

So, now that we’ve blown the environmental argument to smithereens, let’s talk about the perception that mail is wasteful. The concept is simple and controllable. If you want your mail to be seen as something of value, rather than “junk,” you have to send communications that are timely, relevant and personal. Get your mail into the right hands with a compelling offer at the right time, and it will not be perceived as junk. Send a lame offer to a huge unsegmented list for no particular reason, and you’ve just successfully executed the magic formula for junk mail. It’s that cut and dry. 

If you’d like to boost the eco-friendliness of your mail campaigns, you can choose to use greener mail formats and processes that generate less paper waste. You can also green-up your mailing lists by removing duplicates, near-duplicates or undeliverable addresses. Look for “green” printers, like The John Roberts Company, who are improving their energy efficiency, printing with eco-friendlier inks, offering soft proofs, shorter makereadies and are tightly managing their waste. There’s a lot that can be done.

Lastly, if we’re going to talk about print and paper’s footprint, it wouldn’t be fair not to look at the footprint of electronic forms of communication. Look at where the energy that powers the electronics is coming from and how it’s produced, the frequency of use of electronic devices and their emissions, and also the end of life management of the products. When you get a new computer or tablet or phone or other accessories, the old product has to go somewhere. Looking at the sheer volume of electronics in use these days, our reliance on them, and their fairly short shelf lives, where are the discarded electronics going? Can they claim a 66.8% recycle rate? (Awkward silence)

If you want to research this topic on your own—which I encourage you to do — I have some links for you. Sappi Fine Paper dedicates an entire site to what they call the Environmental Quotient, or eQ. The organization PGAMA offers the Print Grows Trees campaign, Domtar Paper has an inspiring and educational campaign called “paper because”, and Two Sides US is a non-profit organization that promotes responsible production and use of paper.


The John Roberts Company takes a holistic approach to their green initiatives rather than just looking at one dimension. While utilizing paper from responsibly managed forests is important, at The John Roberts Company, it is more than just paper. It's the products they use, the processes they employ, and the environment in which they operate. 

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