Sustainability and marketing

Earth from spaceSophwell works with companies to create tangible products from creative ideas. Much of what we do is print related. I’ve been in printing for a few decades now, and I have overseen production of millions and millions of printed pieces.

I sometimes struggle with the idea that what I do is wasteful and that it contributes to the mountains of garbage Americans produce. I have long been concerned about the environment, illustrated by the newspaper clipping below from 1971 when I helped coordinate a school-wide Earth Day project (cue the snarky remarks about the hair).

From the New Bedford Standard Times: ORR High Schools plans community clean up in Mattapoisett, Marion and Rochester
I'm not new to this sustainability thing (from 1971)

I still am working to reduce waste. Tangible products are critical components of a marketing and communications strategy. I work with clients to minimize production of materials that are wasteful or ineffective. Here are a few of the common guidelines I recommend.

Know your audience
Your promotion is junk mail to people who aren’t interested. Somehow I got on the list for a medical supply company who’s catalog gets tossed into my recycling bin. I’m convinced that this wasteful practice is the reason direct marketers often get a 1-2% response rate.

Make sure you know your database before you send out that expensive catalog. Reach out first with a postcard or some other cross-media campaign that gets them to opt in to your marketing program. They’ll tell you what they want, and it will reduce waste.

Ear-shaped foam stress reliever
I picked up this foam stress reliever from a printer's trade show booth. The picture does not relay the creepiness factor.

Don’t produce junk
Promotional products can be a highly effective component of marketing and incentive programs, but most people do it wrong. They are the equivalent of the lazy direct mailers, giving out 100 cheap pens at trade shows when only 1-2% of people are actually prospective customers. And trust me, that $.29 pen will dry up and get tossed (or worse, leak!) within the month. What does that say about your brand?

Identify your target prospect before the show. Offer a much nicer item, but only to people who give you permission to follow up later. They will keep a nicer product much longer (extending your campaign lifespan) while opting in to hearing your marketing message. Please, no more cheesy-shaped stress relievers.

Design efficiently
Printers buy paper in standardized sheet sizes that correspond to established press sizes. Understanding those sheet sizes allows graphic designers to lay out pages for ideal utilization.

For example, when a printed page has a bleed (where the image extends to the edge of the page), it typically requires an added 1/8″ of paper that needs to be trimmed and discarded. This sometimes means that the printer has to buy a larger sheet to fit your design. Talk to your print provider on how to design for more less waste. It will usually save money, too.

Don’t make the logo bigger
With promotional product or apparel giveaways, there’s a temptation to make the logo as large as possible. You’re paying to have your name there, right? Why not have it big enough for everyone to see.

Unless your brand is one that people closely identify with, your “Super-Size Me” plan probably won’t work. Oversized calendars end up rolled up in a closet instead of on a cubicle wall where real estate is sparse. The “XYZ COMPANY 2005 SUMMER OUTING” screen printed shirt only comes out when it’s time to mow the lawn. And by all means, do not put a date on a piece of clothing. (“I saw Jen wearing a 4-year-old T shirt. Eww.”)

Produce what you need
Does your business have stacks of printed materials from that giant press run three years ago that seemed to make sense since the unit cost was so much lower? Fine, except now you’re too embarrassed to hand one of these outdated, dusty and yellowed folders to a client. This common practice actually increased your unit cost for the pieces used when you factor in the worthless value of the ones in the recycling bin.

The high quality and efficiency of digital printing and smaller offset presses has negated the “more is cheaper” argument. Instead, print what you can use over the next 6 months. If you run out, print more (and fix the typo you missed last time). Consider setting up an on-demand program with your supplier that allows you to quickly reorder the latest materials through an online portal.

Use sustainable materials
A company that wanted to present themselves as environmentally friendly recently asked me to quote on producing packaging with film lamination. The problem is that film laminated paper can’t be recycled, and there’s only one brand that can even be composted.

Work with someone knowledgeable to advise you (or do the research yourself) on the source materials and recycleability of the products you select. Paper comes from a renewable resource, and paper fiber can be reused several times before degrading completely. Many fleece and microfiber apparel products come from recycled soda bottles. New plastics are being made from biodegradable corn starch. The products are out there, often at comparable prices to the less eco-friendly alternatives.

Work with someone you trust
Where do your products come from? Is that water bottle made with BPA, a plastic additive that mimics a female hormone in the body and is being investigated by the FDA? Are there toxic inks on that coffee mug from China that could get your company big fines in California under Proposition 65?

Make sure you express your environmental concerns to your supplier in a way they understand that it’s important to you. With so many Fortune 500 businesses now promoting sustainable practices, you don’t have to worry about coming off like a granola-eating tree-hugger (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Many printers have gone through an extensive certification process with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or SFI (Strategic Forest Initiative) to help clients maintain sustainable practices. Large promotional product manufacturers like Bic are also implementing their own programs, even when some of them have not had the best records on this in the past.

It may seem daunting to add sustainable criteria to an already overburdened marketing manager’s tasks, but all it really takes is developing an understanding with your suppliers that sustainability matters to you. The good ones will be on your side. The bad ones, well, you know what to do with those.

What have you done to promote sustainability? I welcome your comments below.

1 Comment on “Sustainability and marketing

  1. Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a great article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and don’t manage to get anything done.