Greenwashing the Yellow Pages

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

What did the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) get when we attempted to work with the phone book industry?

Obstruction.

In our recent Sustainability Report Card, PSI applauded the phone book industry for taking steps forward in sustainability. We recognized publishers’ efforts to promote opt-out programs and highlighted their recycling initiatives. We also indicated key areas in which these publishers can improve, such as using recycled-content paper and contributing to recycling infrastructure. Our goal was to help industry to satisfy consumer demand for improved environmental practices.

FullSizeRenderYet the industry continues to reject our inquiries for more information so we can better understand and share the whole picture of what is happening with telephone directories. Rather than embracing transparency, the industry refuses opportunities to tell the full story, instead hiding behind a greenwashed sustainability report filled with vague statements.

In an effort to bring clarity to residents and advertisers, last year PSI published its first Sustainability Report Card evaluating six major yellow pages publishers. Only one of the six companies offered any information. Despite an unwillingness to cooperate, the industry was clearly irritated by poor grades that reflected their lack of transparency.

At PSI, we strive to collaborate with industry. Which is why we reached out, again, to Wesley Young, Vice President of Public Affairs at the Local Search Association (LSA), to get information that would help us put together our second report card.

Here is Wesley Young’s response:

Dear Scott,

Thanks for your email. This email is my personal opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of my members, but I respectfully decline your offer. Your use of data that is 6+ years old and continuing representation of it as the current state is misleading when many things have changed since then. And even that old data showed a trend of significant increases in the growth rate of directory recycling until the EPA stopped tracking them separately. Also, last year’s phone book report ignored industry sources and was based on a presumption of failure that demonstrates a bias against the industry. 

These are a couple of reasons why I am declining your offer. You are welcome to contact my members individually to see if they feel differently. 

Interestingly, even though Mr. Young stressed he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the LSA’s members, when we reached out to Sarah Wilson, Senior Staff Consultant at Dex Media, she responded using strikingly similar language. (She wrote to “respectfully decline,” citing PSI’s “use of outdated information” and “bias.”) Let me address their complaints point by point:

1) Charge: PSI used “data that is 6+ years old.”

Fact: There is a reason we use recycling numbers from 2009: this is the last year that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) separated the recycling rate of phone books from that of other printed paper. The recycling rate in 2009 was 36.9% for directories and 88.1% for newspapers. Today, the combined rate is 67.0% for those two groups, plus other mechanical papers. There is no way to determine if today’s combined rate demonstrates an increase in phone book recycling from 2009; yet this is just what the industry and Keep America Beautiful lead readers to believe in their 2014 report and recent infographic. We hope the industry will join us in pushing for more accurate data.

2) Charge: PSI’s first report card “ignored industry sources and was based on a presumption of failure.”

Fact: PSI actively sought out publisher contributions for both the first and second report cards. The majority of publishers refused to respond to our inquiries, and those who did referred us to the 2014 LSA Sustainability Report. Unfortunately, many claims in this report lack verification. For instance, the report states:

“One of our supplier members collaborates with customers to help minimize environmental impacts by forming associations with sustainable forestry initiatives and sourcing more sustainable inks.”

(Which forestry initiatives? What does it mean to “associate”? And what inks do they source?)

“One of our print members encourages the use of recycled and forest management certified papers to the greatest extent practicable.”

(What does “to the greatest extent practicable” mean? Is it 50%? Or 10%? Which forest management certifier are they using? Is it post or pre-consumer recycled paper?)

When we asked these questions, the LSA refused to comment.

3) Charge: PSI ignored the fact that EPA data showed “a trend of significant increases in the growth rate of directory recycling.”

Fact: PSI would love to commend directory publishers for an increased recycling rate. We’re looking for a success story. But the LSA has it wrong: the EPA’s cited recycling rate of printed paper has actually decreased since directories were looped into the combined number. That’s not to say that the phone book recycling rate didn’t increase. Due to the industry’s lack of cooperation, we simply don’t have the information to justify praise.

In fact, PSI recently sent a letter to the EPA requesting it calculate telephone directory generation and recovery separately than other printed paper to give a clearer understanding of the industry’s sustainability performance.

We would hope the industry – and recycling organizations like Keep America Beautiful – would refuse to settle for anything less. We know it’s what many of our hundreds of members want.

And, we know it’s what the public demands.

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