Restoration Hardware has recently garnered a lot of returns. This is not unusual for a mail-order business; however, the items landing on the company’s doorstep certainly were. They were the company’s own catalogs. When consumers came home to find Restoration Hardware’s 17-pound book in their mail, it was simply too much conspicuous consumption for many to bear.
That’s right. Seventeen pounds. Consumers are simply not accustomed to receiving mail in which the phrase “lift with your legs” applies. (The Palo Alto Restoration Hardware location got 2,000 pounds of these forests-in-a-book dumped at their storefront in a single day, and they were by no means the only returns.)
From a Tumblr page entitled “Deforestation Hardware” to Twitter posts unfavorably comparing the volume to the Gutenberg Bible, social media went wild. Nearly six weeks later, it’s still abuzz.
Obviously many consumers missed the critical point the company was trying to make: Restoration Hardware’s gargantuan annual catalog replaces 13 individual catalogs/mailings. And this is where it gets interesting.
The 17-pound piece was sent with a cover sheet describing the carbon neutrality of the parcel’s shipping. Instead of sending out thirteen different catalogs over a period of one year, Restoration Hardware touted reducing its carbon footprint by mailing one time, en masse. The sheet went on to describe other environmental considerations.
This sheet was received with no more favor than the package itself. Bloomberg Business Week dedicated several column inches to its evisceration. The article brought out several valid points and dug at Restoration Hardware’s key justification for the hunk-o-mail – the fact that actual shipping constitutes only 1.2% of any given catalog’s footprint.
But reduced shipping was not the only reason for mailing en masse. In a piece about the controversy on Marketplace.org, Brian McGough, a managing director of retail at Hedgeye, says that Restoration Hardware was also able to save paper by mailing their catalogs as a bundle and that competitors such as Williams-Sonoma, who drip out their catalogs throughout the year, print nearly three times as many pages annually as Restoration Hardware.
We could argue back and forth the legitimacy of Restoration Hardware’s claims and strategy, but ultimately that is not the problem here. Even if their claims are valid and they are, indeed, shipping less paper than their competitors, we could have predicted the consumer reaction.
Because we know from our research that even the environmentally disinterested think “killing trees is bad.” This is a bedrock American belief built through decades of National Arbor Day tree plantings and Smokey Bear PSAs. The reaction was visceral, triggered by sheer paper volume.
Had Restoration Hardware staggered the catalogs over the year, the result would have been different. There would have been much less, if any, outrage. No other companies have been targeted in the current maelstrom, in spite of the fact that it simply highlights the waste and environmental cost this retail category represents.
So, here’s my takeaway. Be careful what you tackle with the doctrine of transparency. Everybody in the sustainability community, including me, has been embracing transparency. It feels good and it tests well with target demographics. There is, however, a reason corporate culture has traditionally been wary. Consumers have weak stomachs. They don’t want to know how their sausage is made. Restoration Hardware trusted that the public was ready for transparency about their industry’s paper consumption and mailing practices. They essentially said: “This is what we do, we are making some steps toward sustainability, we are printing less than our competitors, let’s just get it out there all at once, the public can handle it.” They were wrong.
Of course, the ideal answer from an environmental standpoint is not less transparency, it’s less paper; it’s a change of business model. But in the meantime, keep in mind that as we embrace transparency and pull back the curtain, the public may not be ready for what’s behind it.