For those of us who were brought up e-marketing, e-shopping, e-dating, e-gossiping—and all things e—we may feel smug that we are truly paperless (are we really?), and thus we are so green in our behavior that who would dare cast a stone at us?

Well, it's time to wake up. Direct mailers can actually be very responsible environmentally—and perhaps e-marketers need to pay closer attention to the environmental life cycle of digital commerce.

Yes, an online banking statement replaces a mailed banking statement. And perhaps an email and online order may replace a catalog or direct-mail piece and resulting order. But are e-marketers—and multichannel marketers who rely on e-marketing—truly out of the woods (or in the woods?) when it comes to environmental sustainability when they migrate to digital media?

In the current age of responsibility and accountability, we need to say "not so fast."

Direct mailers already have introduced 'green' to the marketing process

I've seen a lot of information on what can be done to "green" the direct-mail process: state-of-the-art list and data management, procuring paper with either post-consumer recycled content or virgin paper from certified sustainable forestry sources, minimizing and right-sizing packaging, and designing and producing direct mail with recycling collection in mind.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has been on top of the environmental issue for a good 20 years—and its website offers a host of resources to help direct mailers, in particular.

In 2008, the DMA's board of directors went so far as to make public its goal to reduce carbon emissions from the direct-marketing community by 100 million tons by 2013, through more highly targeted mail and better list and data management.

This year, DMA has begun asking its online and offline members to make a "Green 15 Pledge"—professing a commitment to 15 "triple-bottom-line" (profit-planet-people) principles for improving marketing's sustainability.

Yet, there's a dearth of information on greening the digital-marketing process. That's changing, beginning with a focus on the greening of information technology (IT) as well as energy conservation.

Next steps: It's all about the data (center)

All marketers—online and offline—rely on data (truly the fuel of targeted marketing and the gray matter of analytics), and certainly e-marketers depend on servers to host their websites, banners, social media, and email marketing platforms, as well as to power their analytics and media-optimization models. Thus, servers and data centers are front-and-center concerns when we look to increased efficiency in our operations. For e-marketers, in particular, managing and improving our environmental footprint starts in the data center.

In 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report to Congress that examined servers and data centers. The report found as follows:

The energy used by the nation's servers and data centers is significant. It is estimated that this sector consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2006 (1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption) for a total electricity cost of about $4.5 billion. This estimated level of electricity consumption is more than the electricity consumed by the nation's color televisions and similar to the amount of electricity consumed by approximately 5.8 million average U.S. households (or about five percent of the total U.S. housing stock).

In a way, the report helped to underline opportunities to improve data-center efficiency. Leading IT vendors (such as GE, IBM, HP, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Dell), as well as mega-data-center operators and service providers (Google, Amazon, and others), are working hard to capitalize on those opportunities. Certainly, business managers, chief information officers, and chief financial officers have taken notice: Huge gains in efficiency need to be implemented in data centers.

According to an April 2009 report by management consulting firm McKinsey on greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide), "Computers, data storage, and communications devices are propelling a rapid rise in greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions. By 2020, McKinsey research suggests, the manufacture, distribution, and use of such equipment (including laptops, PCs, and mobile phones) will generate 3 percent of the world's GHG emissions." The report also notes, however, that GHGs can be abated by practices such as telecommuting and optimizing energy productivity.

Look yonder toward the Energy Star

In 1992, the EPA, along with the US Department of Energy, extended its Energy Star ratings and logo program for energy efficiency to IT equipment, beginning with computers.

In 2010, the EPA will announce Energy Star ratings for servers and data centers: data-center operators would enter password-protected data about their energy use; and, depending on the data center's size, a rating (from 1 to 100) would be assigned based on the input. According to recent news reports, the EPA is working with 100 data centers, gathering facts to help set ratings parameters, and will refine the ratings once they are published and more users gauge their own facilities.

In summary, all marketers—and digital marketers first and foremost—need to bookmark Energy Star and watch for data-center developments. Their IT procurement teams should be sourcing equipment with energy efficiency in mind.

In late April, Computerworld released its second annual ranking of the top 12 "green" IT users. Mohawk Fine Papers, a paper manufacturer, topped the list—and was followed by State Street, Allstate Insurance, Citigroup, PricewaterhouseCoopers, State of Indiana, KPMG, Seventh Generation, Office Depot, Burt's Bees, Marriott International, and Austin Energy; IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Fujitsu America were named the top-three "green" IT vendors. In most instances, Computerworld reported, IT green gains this year were housed in the data center.

Sensible 'green' suggestions for digital marketers

While Green IT and Green Power are perhaps the most profound ways digital marketing companies (and, really, multichannel marketing companies) can tackle being sustainable environmentally, there are other—smaller but visible—ways to shrink environmental footprints in marketing. Here's a suggested list:

  1. Team up with a green partner. Develop a tie-in with an environmental or conservation group.

    Catalog and online marketer Plow & Hearth is engaged in a partnership with the National Forest Foundation in its Campaign to Reforest America. With a recent e-commerce purchase, I was prompted to direct where I wanted a seedling to be planted in return for my transaction, in one of four regional forest areas (California, Michigan, Florida, or Virginia—with a two-for-one planting in Plow & Hearth's home state of Virginia).
  2. Question the clicking of "print." Ask customers whether they really need to print that online purchase receipt or email newsletter that they have received. How about providing a PDF version and suggesting they save the PDF in a dedicated folder on a person's laptop or PC?
  3. Guard against "greenwashing." Avoid greenwashing—the equivalent of whitewashing—whereby environmental claims are made for everyday business activities or for products, behaviors, or processes that may have one or two green attributes but overall are likely not very green.

    Going digital in and of itself is not "green" if a company fails to analyze the life cycle of its power choices and data centers, for example. There are two excellent resources to which to refer to prevent greenwashing. Canada-based TerraChoice, which works with regulators in both Canada and the United States to monitor environmental claims, has published "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing—Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets Summary Report: North America" (April 2009). By reading and absorbing this report, marketers will likely not make a mistake in hyperbole over a green-marketing claim.

    Further, the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to release its updated Green Guides for environmental claims this year—with an expectation that it will clarify creative interpretations behind many of today's eco-marketing terms. (Did you know that before an item can be labeled "recyclable," more than 60 percent of US households must have access to recycling collection facilities for that material in their hometowns?)
  4. Offer opt-out and more. Modify your online preference center for customers from mere CAN-SPAM compliance to best-practice heaven—where each customer is in (near) total control. Preference centers should be designed for our multichannel world, rather than offering simply an on/off switch for email. Opt out. Opt in. Opt down. Allow for frequency, subject matter, mail, and phone switches, and—most certainly—third-party data-sharing suppression if that applies.

    Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, and LL Bean offer preference centers on their websites. Likewise, segmenting customers and sending targeted emails to each segment helps to prevent nonresponsive email. Why is this green? Security software provider McAfee recently reported that each legitimate email generates approximately 4 grams of carbon dioxide.
  5. Open up the suggestion box. Web 2.0 and accountability go hand in hand. There's no one path to environmental responsibility, so let customers (and vendors) help.

    Tell your story online. Enable customers to post suggestions, and engage an internal team to evaluate all of them.

    Talk with suppliers—not just about green IT but about ways to procure power, print, paper, packaging, office supplies, and other workplace necessities.

    Environmental pursuits—and their tie-in to business success—shouldn't be kept a secret. By sharing objectives and outcomes with customers and vendors, you have a higher chance of success, and you achieve transparency.

Living the 'green' story reaps rewards

There is a growing body of evidence that companies seeking to be green reap dividends. First and foremost, environmental concerns resonate with consumers, even amid a severe recession. Although green movements 10, 20, and 30 years ago all were deflated by recessions, the current one has apparently not been. Aric Melzel, senior brand manager for Kimberly-Clark's Scott Paper, recently said, "This [recession] is acting differently than we've seen in the past. In looking at national tracking studies, it does appear that this time the green mind-set is very much being solidified." ("Green-Marketing Revolution Defies Economic Downturn," Advertising Age, April 20, 2009)

Market analysis company Datamonitor shows 458 launches so far in 2009 of packaged-goods products that claim to be sustainable, environmentally friendly, or eco-friendly. If that pace holds all year, then it will triple the number of green launches from last year, which, in turn, was double that of 2007. A major eco-products player, Seventh Generation, says that its sales were up 50% in 2008, and in March 2009, more than 20% over last year, even though major players Clorox and SC Johnson have entered the green market space, too.

And sustainability initiatives win the attention of executive management. In survey findings released in April 2009, the American Marketing Association and Fleishman-Hillard, a leading public relations agency, reported as follows:

More than half [of marketing and communications leaders] believe that sustainability is an essential element of their company's reputation right now. Nearly three-quarters believe that corporate reputation, corporate culture and technological advancements will be the drivers of sustainability. The new [US] administration's policies will further accelerate the adoption of corporate sustainability programs, according to 63 percent of responders in the survey.

We know that marketing is a user of resources—IT, power, paper, print. We know that marketing is visible; its messages and media touch each customer, often many times. We know that marketing enables brand interactions, and therefore acts as a steward of the brand.

Thus, as corporations, brands, and organizations seek to be socially responsible, environmentally friendly, and sustainable, we need to think of marketing as a primary, public face of operations. What we do to make our marketing activity sustainable—both green and profitable—starts when we accept our own responsibility, in our own organization, to make that happen.

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Chet Dalzell is a public relations professional, speaker, and chair of the Marketing Communications & Public Outreach Strategy Working Group of the DMA Committee on Environment and Social Responsibility. Contact him at