Let’s face it: We’re destroying the earth

It wasn’t until I moved from the East Coast to Oregon that I realized the effects of clear-cutting old-growth forests. Living near the glorious Cascade Mountains, I often enjoy wilderness hikes. One hot July afternoon, I stepped out of a lush forest canopy into a patch of clear-cut land. The temperature just a few paces away from the canopy shot up 20 degrees; the almost foglike nurturing humidity under the canopy was now completely absent; and traces of life – ferns, mosses, insects, and birds – disappeared. An entire ecosystem was lost for the sake of a few trees. It was a sobering moment.

At that instant I realized the magnitude of what our industry is contributing to the world. We need to clean up our act and discover the profit in environmental sustainability. In other words, we need to tread lightly on the earth as we do business.

You and I have heard customers complain that we encourage clear-cutting by our paper purchasing. They say that we pollute rivers with toxic chemicals from the printing process. They warn us about the dangers of packaging our products in mounds of synthetic materials, some of which they believe is linked to various cancer risks.

Some customers point to landfills clogged with products we promote, not to mention the catalogs we send to people who don’t respond to them. The stronger environmentalists even say that we ferret out profits at the expense of the natural world that struggles to sustain us.

On that July afternoon, I had a clearer insight into our customers’ intensity concerning these environmental issues.

I love direct marketing, and I believe that we have less environmental impact than many other industry segments. But the fact is, we do pollute, and we need to take responsibility for the damage we cause the earth and future generations. And rather than throw up our hands at what seem to be confusing contradictions to our catalog business model, we should view awareness of our impact on society as a profit opportunity.

Our challenge is clear: How can we repair the environment while increasing profitability? Internal recycling and carpooling programs are not enough. Neither is a proclamation that our catalogs are recyclable. Our customers know that’s a cop out, and in our hearts, so do we.

Here are some areas we must analyze and change:

– Product selection and sourcing

Perhaps the biggest environmental impact we can have is selling products that are environmentally friendly. We need to ask if our products are useful for society. If so, are their manufacturers responsible corporate citizens? How toxic is the manufacturing process? Do the products contain recycled content? Are they dependent on natural resources? We have many opportunities to encourage our entire catalog supply chain to join us in cleaning up our mess.

– Catalog production

As an industry, we print too many catalogs, and our response rates are too low. The good news is that our printers and their vendors are concerned about waste. So in addition to focusing on reducing dioxin-producing and petroleum-based processes, we should discuss ways to improve our marketing efficiencies. For example, electronic commerce is environmentally serendipitous; not only can it improve our marketing productivity, but it may also give our forests and rivers a break. As we blaze trails down the information superhighway, let’s also restore the roadside scenery.

– Packaging/shipping

Let’s maximize drop-shipping by region, minimize packaging, design for recycled content and reuse, and push our parcel carriers to move away from using vehicles that pollute our air.

– Product disposal/reintegration

In Europe, product and packaging take-back practices, in which consumers return used products and packaging to retailers and manufacturers for “closed loop” recycling, are commonplace. But that’s not the case in the U.S. We have a tremendous opportunity to design an infrastructure that reintegrates products into the production loop so that consumers can return goods after use, saving material costs, natural capital, and space that would otherwise be occupied by landfill.

Innovative leasing concepts are beginning to surface. For instance, leasing durables, such as cars and computers, is nearly ubiquitous. Why not lease nondurables? Why not initiate “design for environment” techniques so that we can reincorporate old products into new products? In Germany, car manufacturer BMW takes the steel from old cars and reuses it to make new cars. We should explore and have fun with this idea, and customer goodwill will follow. In the meantime, let’s push our suppliers for greater levels of recycled content and recyclability.

– Consumer awareness

Overconsumption is a major societal problem. And catalogers play a big part. Although there’s no easy solution at hand, we’ve got to wrestle with this conundrum. We need to offer customers detailed product information so that they make informed decisions and purchase only what they really want and need.

Why should we do these things, other than that it’s clearly right? How about increasing profits (both short term and long term), enhancing customer goodwill, sparking innovation, building employee morale, staving off regulation, and preventing public relations crises, to name a few reasons.

There are successful models to follow. For instance, Interface, a $1.3 billion Fortune 1000 manufacturer of commercial carpet, was once 100% dependent on nonrenewable natural resources but is now humbly dedicated to redesigning its business. The company recently invented Solenium, a floor-covering material that can be completely remanufactured. This revolutionary product lasts four times longer and uses 40% less material than conventional carpeting. It’s also free of chlorine and other toxic materials, it doesn’t mildew, and it can be cleaned with water rather than chemicals.

What’s more, with its Evergreen Lease program, Interface leases floor-covering services by accepting responsibility for keeping carpets fresh and clean and replacing worn pieces, which it then reintegrates into the production cycle. In the past six years of pursuing a sustainable strategy, Interface has doubled revenue and tripled profits.

In another example, athletic shoes brand Nike reduced its number of box styles from 18 to one. The current 100% post-consumer recycled box features an innovative folded design that has eliminated the need for heavy metal inks or glues in its construction and saved 8,000 tons of raw material fiber each year.

And Collins Pine, a timber products manufacturing company that manages certified sustainable forests, has achieved competitive advantage in developing markets for ecologically harvested products. In addition, Collins Pine has cultivated unprecedented employee motivation around its journey to sustainability. Eight employee-led teams question the company’s practices from head to toe, and have uncovered millions in savings as a result.

What we can do

Like the above companies, at Norm Thompson we want to kindle our imagination and find untapped profit potential in becoming more environmental. Our catalogs’ tag line, “escape from the ordinary,” also challenges us to escape from the ordinary ways of doing business. We’re convinced that the financial returns other companies have found through sustainability are accessible to us with a little smart sleuthing.

It’s important to remember that environmental sustainability is not a leap for our industry. Paul Hawken, a founder of gardening products and gifts catalog Smith & Hawken, authored his seminal work, The Ecology of Commerce, in 1993, shortly after leaving the catalog world.

In fact, Norm Thompson follows the precepts of The Natural Step, an organization of which Hawken is a board member. The Natural Step is a simple, strategic framework for thinking and acting in harmony with the earth’s cyclical processes. Its four system conditions, which are considered nonnegotiable in supporting a sustainable earth, are:

1. Substances from the earth’s crust must not systematically accumulate in nature. For the catalog industry, this particularly means petroleum – we use it extensively in transporting our catalogs, and in many of our products and packaging.

2. Substances produced by society must not systematically accumulate in nature. For catalogers, this encompasses the human-made chemical compounds – including toxins such as formaldehyde – that proliferate from many of our products and from the catalog production and printing process.

3. The productive surfaces of nature must not be diminished in quality and quantity. This points to the catalog industry’s sponsorship of clear-cutting forests, which threatens biodiversity.

4. There must be fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs. For our industry, this is a big one, as it relates to efficiency (3% response rates are not efficient enough) and equity (fair working conditions in vendor factories), to name only a few.

Training our full-time associates in the principles of The Natural Step has proved to be inspiring and profitable. Ikea, the world’s largest home furnishings retailer and a direct marketer, also uses The Natural Step to evaluate products and processes, as do Interface, Nike, and Collins Pine. For more information on the organization, check out www.naturalstep.org.

At Norm Thompson, we make no grand statements about our efforts, and we’re certainly not saying we’re better than anyone else in the industry. But we are committed to radically reducing our ecological footprint. We invite you to join us. Let us work together toward a sustainable future, not just for the environment but also for our industry.

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