Sustainable Mail? — A Q&A With Mal Warwick
The age of corporate responsibility is here, and many direct mailers didn’t see it coming. And many don’t know what to do. Mal Warwick — founder and chairman of Mal Warwick Associates, a Berkeley, Calif.– and Washington D.C.–based fundraising agency specializing in direct marketing — got a head start more than a decade ago, when being socially and environmentally responsible wasn’t necessarily profitable.
Now he serves as a model for direct marketers everywhere who want to achieve the so-called “triple bottom line” — social, environmental AND financial success — that actually is more profitable for most of the companies that pursue it. Warwick is the co-author of “Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. For a full transcript of this interview with Warwick, go to www.insidedirectmail.com
Ethan Boldt: Did your business immediately practice “corporate responsibility”?
Mal Warwick: The company was founded in 1979, and we were unusual in a lot of ways, but I’d hardly say that we were conducting the business from a socially responsible perspective. Our major claim to being a values-driven business back then was not so much about how I operated the company [for example, Warwick paid 100 percent of an employee’s health care insurance and, later, started ESOP, an employee stock ownership plan], but in the clients we worked for. We were acting out our values by working for nonprofit organizations that were working for progressive social change that we felt was desirable.
EB: When did you begin to understand the concept of the “triple bottom line”?
MW: Not until I joined an organization called Social Ventures Network in 1990. That was an early pioneer in the field and in many ways responsible for putting the concept of social responsibility on the agenda of corporations around the world. I learned over a period of a few years from my fellow members how much benefit they were getting, both on a personal level and a corporate level, from operating their businesses in a way that respected the needs and aspirations of all their stakeholders, not just their owners — so the employees, members of the community where they did business, the suppliers with whom they partnered and who didn’t just buy the lowest price, and the environmental concerns.
EB: How did you move toward sustainable direct mail?
MW: Direct mail is in many ways an environmentally wasteful procedure. We were conscious of that from the beginning. In the mid-’80s, our newly hired production manger laid out a plan for us to do everything we could to pioneer something approaching sustainable direct mail. So we were one of the early advocates and users of recycled paper. We used soy-based inks that were less toxic on the environment. We placed a very high value on merge/purge when there were still a lot of people in the business who were using that only selectively.
From the outset, we were convinced that, both for practical and ideological reasons, that we did not want to engage in mass mail. We never wanted to work with an organization that was going to send out tens of millions of packages per year. We knew that was a way to make a whole lot of money, but we thought that was a very wasteful practice and not acceptable.
Recently, we have adopted an environmental policy that is very extensive. We’re also consulting with one of the top environmental scientists in the country about the possibilities for first reducing our carbon emissions and then offsetting them through some appropriate means.
EB: It must be enormously satisfying to see the green movement pick up such momentum, just in the time since your book was published.
MW: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the most important things that’s happening in the world today: the growing consciousness of the environmental damage that the human race has perpetrated on this planet. But I can only hope that it runs deep enough and fast enough, and that the action taken is thorough enough. We really do face a crisis not of historical proportions, but of almost geological proportions. We are on the brink of causing the ecosystem of the earth to tip in a direction that is irreversible and will have profound, if not fatal, consequences for half of the species on this planet, including us.
We bear a pretty heavy burden as an industry that wastes so many resources in such a profligate manner. Many of the problems are on the commercial side, and I don’t see any lessening of volume among the financial mailers, the catalog mailers and others who use prodigious amounts of paper and transportation costs in delivering all those materials. I personally think that the people in the fundraising side of the business are more likely to be receptive to [corporate responsibility initiatives] and are probably taking more steps. But now everyone must take those steps.
This article also appears in the January 2008 issue of insidedirectmail. For more, go to www.insidedirectmail.com