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US Postal Service: Reliable First Delivery

By Michelle Bernhart (True Blue Communications) on December 11, 2009 at 10:54am.

Founded in 1775, the United States Postal Service touches the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans 6 days per week, famously delivering the mail despite rain, sleet, snow, and other hardships. The 2008 sustainability report is the postal service’s first effort, and the service is also the first U.S. agency to report (and verify) its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Content:

Despite being a first report, it represents a solid effort, hitting the right balance between good news and challenges, accomplishments and goals, and data and stories. Although goals can be a bit difficult to find because they are sprinkled about in narrative text, the key performance indicators are clearly identified and presented, including some that are no doubt unique to the small postal delivery sector, such as mail volume, mail weight, and delivery points. And, while no materiality analysis is mentioned (a negative), the report seems to cover the postal service’s most obvious material issues, such as energy consumption (in both the fleet of delivery vehicles and standing facilities), solid waste (an amusing but useful tidbit: 4,000 post offices provide onsite recycling bins for unwanted junk mail), and employee issues.

The report makes clear that the postal service’s primary challenge is do deliver more than 500 million pieces of mail every day, which means “electronic sorting machines operate almost continuously and vehicles are constantly on the road,” traveling more than 1 billion miles each year. Employee programs are also important, given that the postal service employs a whopping 700,000 people! While the report doesn’t provide a lot of detail, the information included is useful and interesting.

Data in the up-front summary table are normalized (e.g., total energy use per mail piece, per facility square foot, etc.), no doubt providing valuable context for readers. Raw data is presented later in the report, but would be more helpful shown alongside the normalized results. Also potentially problematic is this statement, “Throughout the report, we provide estimations of our sustainability performance, such as vehicle energy use, amount of waste we produce and number of employee training hours.” This leaves unclear exactly how much - and which - data have been estimated compared to quantitatively measured. Another question involves the percentage of post offices leased from others. While the report does mention leases, it provides no explanation of how many, nor does it address the challenges of improving energy and other efficiencies in these facilities. Even the facility energy use charts fail to distinguish between owned and leased facilities, and the accompanying text leads readers to believe that most or all of the facilities are under postal service control, which is not the case.

Communication:

It’s apparent that the authors of this report understand and respect their readers, many of whom must be general members of the U.S. public in all its diversity. The report uses plain language, clearly explains claims, makes few assumptions about the education level or sustainability understanding of its audience, and takes pains to be accessible to all.  American idioms are even included. How often does a sustainability report include the phrase “big time” as in: “We’ve also been recycling -  big time -  for years.”  Some readers will also find helpful such tidbits as: “What is a gigajoule?” and the accompanying explanation of this GRI-mandated unit of measure.

Some of the connections, though engaging, are weak at best. For instance Ben Franklin, noted inventor, author, politician, and scientist, also held a post as an early U.S. postmaster general. Because Franklin worked independently on environmental issues, the sustainability report concludes an interesting profile of Franklin with this: “Ben Franklin and the Postal Service - early proponents for a greener world.”  Hmm, perhaps, but there’s no evidence that Franklin drove environmental causes as postmaster general or infused any sense of environmental stewardship into the postal service, so this is a rather weak link.
 
More bothersome are generic statements such as: “The postal service has a long record of environmental stewardship, and has integrated sustainability throughout our organization” and “Our greatest sustainability asset: The men and women of the U.S. Postal Service.” These feel like empty corporate-speak and modestly detract from the report’s overall credibility. While it’s true that the postal service used its first electric vehicle in 1899 (yes, that’s 1899, not 1999), this was not for environmental reasons, but to reduce delivery time over slower horse-drawn wagons, as the report openly explains.

Still, the information is generally sound, clear, and relevant. The report also includes photos and identities of honest-to-goodness postal workers, an authentic touch.

Credibility:

Throughout this self-declared 'GRI  Level B' report, it’s apparent the postal service is trying to improve its sustainability performance - and to encourage others to do so as well. For instance, the Postal Service formed the Greening the Mail Task Force almost 15 years ago to bring together mailers, industry groups, suppliers, non-governmental organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and others. More recently, the postal service developed a life cycle inventory model to identify environmental impacts of different classes of mail. It also has implemented a green purchasing system to improve environmental performance in its supply chain. These and other leadership actions profiled in the report underscore the credibility of claims.

The Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions data were verified by a third party and the postal service is considering further assurance on future reports. Credibility peeks through on many pages. The report includes data for contract transportation partners, for example, not just the postal service-owned fleet. Perhaps not surprisingly, the largest energy consumption is taking place among contract partners, which will be an ongoing challenge. It also reports on metrics not outlined in the GRI guideline, like the number of employment-related discrimination claims, another boost for credibility.

Stakeholder engagement  is weak, however. The postal service appears to do an admirable job of communicating with employees, even surveying one-fourth of them (remember: just that fraction is around 175,000 people!) on a quarterly basis. But lack of engagement with external stakeholders is a shortcoming that the authors acknowledge.

Recommendations:

1. Expand stakeholder engagement beyond employees and conduct a materiality analysis to ensure selection of the right issues.
2. Publish sustainability objectives and targets in an easy-to-locate spot rather than burying them in the text, and report on measurable progress against these targets.
3. Be transparent about the percentage of non-postal service-owned facilities and explain the challenges and activities associated with integrating sustainability into those operations.
4. Expand the assurance to all material issues.

Michelle Bernhart is the founder of True Blue Communications LLC, which helps organizations strengthen sustainability performance, achieve strategic objectives, enhance brand, and manage risk through credible and engaging communications. http://www.truebluecomm.com