Monday, 1 June 2009

Papering over the problem

Shrink, an organisation devoted to reducing paper consumption, last week released a scorecard of how 20 "major UK paper buyers" are doing in their efforts to use less paper. Cataloguers come in for particular scorn, with Boden and Freemans deemed "wasters". According to a release, "Between them they are responsible for sending out thousands of tonnes of unwanted catalogues that go straight from our post boxes into the bin". Fellow cataloguers Ikea, Argos, and Shop Direct Group were deemed to have "failed" the challenge. In a related release, Shrink project coordinator Mandy Haggith declares that "the catalogue sector is particularly wasteful".

Last year Shrink challenged 20 companies, a cross-section of cataloguers, supermarkets, financial firms, and magazine publishers, to reduce their paper usage by 50 percent. Nowhere on the Shrink website could I find exactly why these businesses were selected--no stats as to exactly how many tonnes of paper each uses, what type of paper, and for what purposes. For that matter, I couldn't determine how Shrink measures these companies' paper usage.

Nor could I find any explanation as to how Shrink came up with the magic figure of a 50-percent reduction. If you're a magazine publisher and you have newsstand sell-through of more than 50 percent--in other words, if fewer than half of the magazines you send out for retail distribution are returned--then it would seem that cutting paper consumption by half would eat into your sales, if not your profits.

The tone of Shrink's communications seems to be that any mail not specifically requested by the recipient is "junk" and therefore wasteful. There's no acknowledgement of the fact that even for companies such as Boden, which reportedly reaps 70 percent of its sales via the web, print catalogues and newspaper inserts are vital to driving much of that traffic.

Of course, companies can and should try to limit their paper usage. Not only for environmental reasons--though those are cause enough--but also because doing so can increase profitability. Mailing to people who have no affinity for your product is a waste. Sending duplicate catalogues to one individual because of errors on your database is a waste. (That's why, in Catalogue e-business magazine, we've been running a series titled "Waste not, want not" to help mailers increase the efficiency of their mailings.) But sometimes--often enough to be profitable--unsolicited mailings do generate sales, which in turn helps maintain and create jobs.

Shrink seems to have its nose out of joint over a lack of response from several of the companies it selected to monitor. In fact, among its criteria for its scorecard, "how co-operative the companies have been with the Shrink project" counted for 20 percent of the final tally. nearly half as much as "their action to reduce paper consumption", which counted for 50 percent. Perhaps Shrink would have had a better reaction from the industry if it had taken a less arbitrary, more accountable approach to what is a worthy cause. For a start, I'd suggest detailing why these 20 particular firms were selected to be monitored, how much paper they use, and what tailored suggestions it would offer each company to help it reduce its consumption as well as to encourage it to use more-sustainable types of paper.

Otherwise the vagaries of the Shrink project (stating that "in the UK, paper use is four times the world average", for instance, is specious, given that the majority of residents in the third world have little use for it) make it tough to take what is a worthy cause seriously. In fact, the apparent stubborn rigidity of the group and its refusal to acknowledge economic realities is enough to make me want to toss reams of paper out the window simply to spite Shrink.--SC

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