The Model Student

One of a minority of catalogers that practice environmentally responsible practices, according to San Francisco-based environmental advocacy organization ForestEthics, is Portland, OR-based multititle mailer Norm Thompson Outfitters.

“Norm Thompson has created a model policy,” says ForestEthics paper campaign director Evan Thomas Paul. “They are very committed to environmental issues, maximizing recycled content, and developing a model policy that includes implementation and a timeline.”

The apparel, home goods, and gifts mailer began reforming its production practices in 1999, when it conducted an A/B-split test to determine whether mailing catalogs printed on paper of 10% postconsumer content would hurt profit and response rates, explains Derek Smith, Norm Thompson’s corporate sustainability manager.

“We engaged our paper suppliers and printers in really understanding the business implications of switching to recycled content, and we did very in-depth customer research,” says Smith. “We determined no response rate degradation related to usage of recycled content, because the paper prints just as well.” The company also found that it could buy recycled paper just as readily as new paper.

Norm Thompson didn’t incur additional costs in switching to paper containing recycled pulp, Smith says, due to its successful negotiations with its supplier.

“Some suppliers offer recycled papers at the same price as virgin,” Smith says. “It has always been our experience that we can negotiate getting recycled price parity by presenting environmental issues as a major factor in our decision-making and finding win-win solutions with our suppliers.”

The company prints its three titles, Norm Thompson, Solutions, and Early Winters, on a lightweight coated paper. Since 2001, every catalog has used paper with 10%-20% postconsumer content.

Smith says that before buying paper, Norm Thompson has its broker ask the mill where it sources its pulp and to give a description of its forest management practices. The cataloger expects the mill to demonstrate a “chain of custody” from forest to catalog, with the mill taking responsibility for ensuring that sustainable forestry practices are used in the land from which it culls pulp.

Aside from not cutting down trees in endangered forests, Smith says, sustainable forestry includes protecting the soil, water, and wildlife of the forest the mill uses to source pulp. Norm Thompson also evaluates the level of airborne and water pollutants emitted by the mill’s paper manufacturing and bleaching processes.

The cataloger does not take the paper supplier’s word for it, either. It requests proof of sustainable forestry from an independent third party such as a research company or a forest protection association.

“What we’re trying to do is be able to give assurance to our customers that the catalog they’re holding doesn’t come from forests it shouldn’t come from,” says Smith.

If being a good Samaritan isn’t reason enough to pay attention to environmental issues, the bottom line may be another. According to Norm Thompson president/CEO John Emrick, if consumers believe that catalogers are unable to better regulate themselves on environmental issues, there may be a public outcry that could lead to legislation that places legal limitations on catalog production.

“Consumers have a lot of power, and they trust environmental groups over businesses,” Emrick says. “Norm Thompson is concerned about perceptions of our industry, especially in light of do-not-call and spam legislation. Environmental concerns could be one factor that leads to a consumer do-not-mail campaign. That is something that we should work together to avoid.”

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