A is for Accountability: First in the Phone Book?

phonebookwithfingers.pgBy Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

My father was a small businessman. He ran a four-person employment agency called Able Careers in Hackensack, New Jersey, and was proud of the jobs he got for his people. Each week, I watched him meticulously cut his advertisements out of the newspaper to make sure they were displayed correctly. And, of course, he was listed in the Yellow Pages. Able Careers was right at the top of the A column in the book under Employment Agencies.

That was then. When multiple phone books were stacked on everyone’s desk, and they were the bible for people, places, and things.

I don’t need to tell you that those days are over. But what has not stopped is the continuous printing and distribution of these books, which are often unwanted and not needed. Apparently, directory publishers have not found a way to match the advertising revenue over the internet that they make on printed directories. So they make them, and dump them on our doorsteps.

About ten years ago, PSI and our local and state government members educated the industry about how these books cost local governments about $60 million in management costs. Whether recycled or disposed, there is a cost to deal with phone books. And taxpayers pick up the tab for the industry. To their credit, and in response to PSI’s requests, the phone book industry developed an online system for residents to opt out of receiving the books. Unfortunately, PSI is still receiving citizen complaints. Only two publishers track opt out requests, and no one knows if they are being honored.

We asked the industry to discuss this with us. But, ever since they won a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, which wanted the industry to pay for developing its more robust opt out system a few years back, the industry association has shut down. They have stonewalled us.

In 2014, PSI decided to grade directory publishers on their sustainability efforts in three categories: opt out (including transparency); sustainable production (paper, ink); and recycling (education/financing). The Local Search Association (LSA) responded by not addressing any of the information in our report card, instead putting out a sustainability report that made unsubstantiated claims.

This year, we figured we would give the industry another chance to redeem themselves, and let them know we were again going to create a Sustainability Report Card to seek industry best practices on phone book sustainability.

Again, we were stonewalled. The response to our well researched report, delivered by Wesley Young of the LSA, was a flimsy infographic claiming that publishers reduced paper use over their lifetime and claiming an inflated recycling rate that they did not substantiate. Keep America Beautiful’s Brenda Pulley joined the LSA’s greenwashing efforts with a quote supporting them as a great partner (LSA funds KAB as a sponsor in the $5,000-$9,999 category).

Those of us in the environmental business know that there are entrenched interests, like directory publishers, who want to uphold the status quo and do not want outside forces, like PSI, meddling with their business. We are used to the climate change deniers, who would rather drown from melting icecaps than make decisions using sound data.

We expect this from dying industries like the LSA that cling to outdated ideas and fail to innovate. But what is their responsibility to you, the rest of America, which has to pay the price of phone books that are dumped on your doorstep?

Let’s face it, phone books are not the Number 1 environmental priority. I know that. They know that. But is this the way that industries should respond when presented with the fact that they are harming us? Why do we have to clean up their mess? And when we offer to help them, why are we met with greenwashing that evades the issues?

PSI has taken action. We have gathered the facts, which point to changes needed by publishers, even as some are following best practices. And we have presented them to you.

Now, what are you going to do about it?

Let Neg Norton at the LSA know what you think of his industry’s greenwashing. And while you’re at it, let Jennifer Jehn know that their funding from the LSA isn’t worth the harm it does to Keep America Beautiful’s reputation. Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “A is for Accountability: First in the Phone Book?

  1. Gibson, Michelle says:

    Has anyone ever thought to tell residents to leave their older phonebook out on their porch and have the delivery person pick up the old book in exchange for a new book? Then collect books can be recycled as new books.

    Michelle Gibson
    Solid Waste Specialist
    DeKalb County Health Department
    815-748-2408 desk
    815-914-3174 cell
    815-748-2485 fax
    815-758-6673 main
    2550 N. Annie Glidden Rd
    DeKalb, IL 60115

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