Today marks the 52nd Earth Day.  A most appropriate time for all us fundraisers to think about what we’re really doing –professionally,  personally and collectively—to save our planet.

Before I report on a pioneering  climate change effort now being undertaken by a Canadian direct mail agency a brief review of how the cause of helping our planet has progressed—or not—over the past 52 years.

Phase 1- Recycling

Some readers will recall the dark TV ad aired in 1971, where a jerk tosses a bag of trash from a moving car. The garbage spills onto the moccasins of a buckskin-clad Native American, played by Italian American actor Espera Oscar de Corti. He sheds a tear on camera, because his world has been defiled and corrupted by trash.

That poignant ad—and its print versions–which won awards for excellence in advertising, promotes the catchline “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” What’s lesser known is the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful, was funded by the very beverage and packaging juggernauts pumping out billions of plastic bottles each year (the likes of The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch Companies), created the ad.

As one critic noted, “The real message, underlying the staged tear and feather headdress, is that pollution is your problem, not the fault of the industry mass-producing cheap bottles.”

At the time  I was consulting with the Cousteau Society.  As the anti-littering /recycling craze heated up Captain Cousteau told me all this was little more than what he called “a beer can solution.”  We would recycle our bottle, cans, and newspaper in the mistaken belief this would contribute significantly to environmental solutions.


Phase 2- Your Carbon Footprint

Two decades later the trend  urging us all to pay more attention and focus on our “carbon footprint” began to emerge.  This concept was popularized by a 2000 award-winning and massive advertising  campaign by oil giant British Petroleum.  BP, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world with 18,700 gas stations,  hired PR professionals to invent a concept designed to blame individuals, not fossil fuel companies, for climate change.

Not only did BP popularize the phrase “carbon footprint”,  four years later in 2004 it introduced the “carbon footprint calculator“.  This campaign, in turn,  spawned a  flood of  “measure your carbon footprint” apps that are popular to this day. Some calculators offer helpful tips — like switching out your light bulbs or hanging your clothes to dry — or let you compare your carbon footprint to other households in your zip code.

 Of course,  as individuals we all have a responsibility to mitigate damage to our planet. But the problem with focusing on the individual’s carbon footprint is that while your “footprint” might take into account your electricity usage, how many miles you drive and the gas mileage of your car, your water usage, your eating habits, how much you fly, and how much garbage you accumulate it doesn’t  paint an accurate picture of each of our true individual impact on the climate crisis.

And by encouraging eco-minded people to use their carbon footprints as a “guide” to fight climate change, there’s a risk they’ll spend all of their energy on low-impact individual actions that are easy to quantify, like recycling or turning off lights, instead of putting that energy toward broader, more meaningful work, like lobbying local politicians or speaking up and taking action to improve practices and processes at work that can have a far greater impact on climate change.

Phase 3: Think “Climate Shadow”, Not “Carbon Footprint”

Writer Emma Pattee has created the concept of the “climate shadow” to “help each of us visualize how the sum of our life’s choices influence the climate emergency.  Think of your climate shadow as a dark shape stretching out behind you.  Everywhere you go, it goes too, tallying not just your air conditioning use and the gas mileage of your car, but also how you vote, how many children you choose to have, where you work, how you invest your money, how much you talk about climate change, and whether your words amplify urgency, apathy, or denial.”

According to Ms. Pattee the climate shadow also includes contagious behaviors like installing solar panels, giving up flying, or talking about climate change in everyday conversation. Read her climate shadow piece which raises some fascinating questions.  Such as, who has the most negative impact on the climate.  The climate scientist taking multiple international flights to work on climate change on behalf of the UN or the stay-at-home copywriter creating misleading campaigns for BP?

This Agency is Walking the Talk

Which brings me to a pioneering effort in our industry I want to highlight on this Earth Day. An effort that goes beyond our individual footprint to extend our “climate shadow” by illustrating how those of us in the industry can take actions in our organizations and businesses.

In gathering my ball of string for this Earth Day post last week I came across aa LinkedIn post from Steve Falk, President and CEO of Canada’s Prime Data.  The post alerted me to his firm’s creation of a serive they’ve labeled “Carbon Neutral Direct Mail.”

I was instantly fascinated. (If for no other reason than I’ve suffered my share of slings and arrows about the anti-environmental, tree-slaughtering, landfill-filling complaints about mail.

What I discovered in chatting with Steve was this:

  • In 2020 he commissioned a sustainability study to focus on the core work performed by his firm.
  • Each year PrimeData produces millions of letter, envelopes and reply envelopes.
  • The result was a the 2021 Sustainability Discussion Paper which you can download here.

In short, this is the data-specific story of the greenhouse gas journey of a PrimeData mail piece.

They discovered that a typical piece of mail sent by Prime Data, weighing an average of 20 grams 0.71 ounces), generates a greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of ~205 grams(7.23 ounces. This estimate includes the emissions from throughout the entire lifespan of the mail piece, including forestry, paper production, employee commute, printing, distribution, and end-of-life processing.

For comparison, 205 grams is the equivalent of driving about 830 miles in an average passenger vehicle or charging your smartphone 25 times. It takes approximately 4,880 letters to emit 1 ton of GHG, the equivalent stored by 1.2 acres of forest in a year.

With this information and more like it Steve created the climate-friendly Easy Donor Mailer and the carbon emissions from the tree to the mailbox are calculated and offset using the Great Bear Rainforest Carbon Offset project in British Columbia, Canada.

Steve made clear that his firm’s sustainability study and design of special production processes are just the start.  He was open, candid and clearly willing to share.  So, if you’re interested in learning more about how to conduct an organization-wide sustainability study or learn more about cutting emissions in your direct mail program I suggest you contact him at [email protected]

And here — for the graphically inclined is a depiction of the emissions footprint– from forest to mailbox–of a piece of Steve’s direct mail:

An Agitator Earth Day Raise to Steve and his PrimeData Team


P.S.  For those who want more information on how your agency or organization can measure and act on your carbon emissions next week, on April 26, Canada’s Sustainable Mail Group is hosting an online symposium titled “Measuring your Carbon Footprint—Why it makes good business sense.” This session will cover the how’s of conducting a Carbon Footprint assessment for your business or organization and show what steps others are taking to produce sustainable mail for a cleaner future.  Register here.  You can also sign up and follow the Group’s work here on LinkedIn.