Transparency bites back

Transparency bites back

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, 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.


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Posted on

July 30, 2014

About the Author

Matt Brass

Matt Brass

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing all campaigns and collateral. With nearly two decades of marketing design under his belt, Matt has extensive experience in design, photography and videography, as well as blogging about the latest and greatest (or worst) ad campaigns out there. He leads our team on kayaking trips, too.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Courtnay Hamachek

VP Operations

Courtnay oversees our day-to-day operations to keep us running smoothly and support our growth. She establishes project management systems and processes to help our teams anticipate bottlenecks, prevent process issues, and keep projects on time and on target. Courtnay has built extensive experience over 25 years in all aspects of marketing, from account services and project management to design and production.

Aaron Crecy

Digital Marketing Director

Aaron is responsible for planning, executing and measuring digital marketing strategies for Shelton Group and our clients, with an emphasis on inbound, content, SEO, social media, email and paid initiatives. He constantly researches and explores new tactics and strategies to improve digital campaign performance and results.

Aaron brings to the table more than 20 years of marketing leadership experience with premium consumer-facing brands. He came to Shelton Group by way of Malibu Boats, where, as Director of Global Marketing, he oversaw strategic marketing planning and execution for multiple product lines, with specific emphasis on social media and digital. Prior to that, he served as CMO for a leading daily fantasy sports operator, guiding it from startup to the industry’s third-ranked site.

Scot Case

Senior Consultant

A sustainability strategy consultant since 1993, Scot has served as non-profit leader, as a partner in an environmental marketing firm that he grew and sold, and as an executive in a multi-billion-dollar, international company. He has published dozens of articles and case studies, was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study, testified before Congress, and been quoted on NPR, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Scot was also highlighted in an Emmy award-winning documentary on sustainable purchasing.

Casey Ward

VP Account Services

Casey manages our relationships, growth and development with a specific group of clients that includes Environmental Defense Fund, Cotton LEADS and CertainTeed Insulation. She provides leadership and support for the account team members who manage the day-to-day processes for these clients. She contributes to strategic direction for each client and guides our creative efforts to ensure everything we do builds toward meeting – or exceeding – the client’s goals. Her ability to simultaneously see the big picture and pay close attention to the details helps her champion her clients’ needs and identify new growth opportunities for them.