The UK direct marketing industry is responsible for producing 550,000 tonnes of paper mailings each year. To put that in perspective that’s almost 17kg of paper mailed each year to each adult in the UK.
There are clear negative environmental impacts from this, in terms of the paper used, carbon emissions from production and distribution, and disposal of unwanted mail.

Precision Marketing
reports the threat of government intervention is looming:

Environment Secretary David Miliband’s threat to force companies by law to get consumers to opt-in to receive direct mail has sent shockwaves through the industry….He claims that the 550,000 tonnes of ‘junk mail’ sent each year is “unacceptable for consumers’ convenience and the environment.

Leaving aside the environmental impact for now, I think there are some broader marketing trends at work here too.
To date UK marketers have been able to rely on opt-out for their mailing lists – people need to positively opt-out of receiving direct mail when giving their contact information. Digital marketing is the exception to this where the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 mean people actively need to opt-in.
The direct mailindustry has a voluntary scheme in place that allows users to opt-out of all direct mail lists – the Mailing Preference Service – but apart from this the vast majority of direct marketing in the UK is sent to people who haven’t asked for it.
In a world where the marketing environment is changing so fast am I being naive in seeing this as unsustainable?
Can marketers really build meaningful (and profitable) transactions with customers on the back of a dialogue that a customer hasn’t asked for, even with the best targeted campaign?
The world is changing. Customers are increasingly selective in who they will entertain communications from, let alone sales pitches.
Customers are much more savvy about marketing – they need to be able to see a rational and emotional benefit before making a purchase decision – but this needs to be backed up by an existing customer-company relationship, whether this has come from a previous marketing or PR, or from a previous purchase.
Surely a real moment of truth in that crucial relationship must be the customer allowing the company to send direct marketing to a customer?
If what the company has to offer is attractive enough and the ground has been well prepared with the existing relationship then the customer will surely happily opt-in for more relevant marketing.
If they don’t opt-in then I’d guess there’s a fair chance that they wouldn’t have responded to unsolicited marketing material they’d been sent anyway.
So by implication opt-in direct marketing would mean smaller volumes being sent (giving an instant improvement in environmental friendly-ness) but a higher proportion of recipients responding.
Given how the communications landscape is shifting in favour of the consumer, I’d venture it means a net business gain too.
Is now the time that direct mail joins the digital marketers in giving consumers control over what they receive? I hope for the sake of direct mail it is, before government intervention threatens to impose more draconian rules on marketers using the postal system.