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USPS and UPS: First-class deliveries

By William D Alessandro on October 05, 2011 at 09:47am.

“Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,” proclaims the Gospel of Matthew.  

The prophesy fits two icons of American enterprise.  They share initials.  Both have delivered mail in the US for more than 100 years.  

The United States Postal Service (USPS), the 236-year-old, self-funding federal agency, fell out of grace in recent times.  Along the way, the publicly traded United Parcel Service of America (UPS) rose to be a parable of corporate social responsibility.  The turn of events mirrors society’s infatuation for privatisation matched by a deepening cynicism about government’s role in providing universal services.

(Incidentally,  both USPS and UPS report the same level of customer satisfaction: 86% by residential patrons; 82% by small and medium-sized businesses.)

Measured by earthly rewards, UPS made $8.7 billion in 2010.   USPS lost nearly the same amount — $8.5 billion.   Many factors account for the gap.   Congressional meddling is high up the list.

Unsure whether the independent agency would turn a profit — no tax dollars are given to USPS — Congress ordered them in 2006 to bank more than $5 billion annually for the next decade to cover retirement benefits for the next 75 years.   So the Postal Service is being forced to pay now for retirees who are not born yet.

Americans over 60 may assume UPS is still the feudal workplace they remember from decades ago.  The world’s largest package delivery company once tried to fire an employee for adultery because he cohabitated with a woman before his divorce was final.  Who could guess that UPS would in 2010 win for the third time an award as a best employer for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals? 

Both organisations have taken sustainability to heart.  They document huge strides forward.   The success at UPS stems from what others have identified as the company’s “religion of efficiency”. 

UPS used to measure the length of men’s sideburns.   So believe it when UPS says their managers account for everything, such as the amount of time drivers spend backing up.  (More than 2 million lines of enterprise data were analyzed to create the report.)  UPS explains: “We learn what works, we apply it quickly and broadly, and we keep improving it over time.”

USPS has been on an efficiency crusade too.  It  is one of just three federal agencies that embraced a voluntary code of management issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996.  In 1999, a post office was the first federal facility in the country to adopt ISO 14001.

Both 2010 reports discuss the gains made over the past several years, particularly in the tabulation of carbon emissions.  UPS does an especially good job reporting Scope 3 indirect emissions, which are a consequence of their activities but occur from sources owned by other companies along the supply chain. 

Owning 33,620 post offices, plants and administrative buildings in the country, USPS reports on aggressive energy goals for its facilities.   USPS also describes efforts to make the products that they buy and sell greener.

USPS covers — almost but not quite — the identical topics in 40 pages as UPS does in 108.   These subjects include employee relations, social commitments and contributions, and various environmental programmes. 

One big difference is the treatment of jet fleet operations.  USPS has nothing more than this to say: “…we’re moving mail from air and rail to ground transport” to reduce impacts.  UPS devotes four pages exclusively to the subject of air transport.  The continued success of UPS depends on the viability of international air shipments. 

The only way to do justice to the USP report is to read it.  That job takes time.  Except for nine picture pages of people and a blank back cover, scarcely a line of fluff can be found.  

Both reports break out key performance indicators in charts with data for several prior years.  (UPS reports for the calendar year; USPS for the fiscal year.)  UPS provides a seven-page GRI index, annotated to show those that not applicable or not reported.  USPS does not include the GRI index but does online.

The reports bear witness to the same sorts of commercial operations, employee relations (each is mainly unionised), and stakeholder interactions.   Both reports are attractively designed and written smartly without being slick.   UPS just chooses to present the close-up, high-resolution version.

USPS report is devoid of graphs and contains just two full-page tables. 

The lengthy narratives in the UPS report are peppered with hot links to other pages where data tables and graphs can be seen.  Unfortunately, the tabs only work one way.  You cannot return to the place in the text you left.   There is no “back” button.

USPS drifts off course for a couple of pages in a section devoted to “Our People.”   The content becomes an advertising showcase for new services intended to save customers’ time and the agency’s money. 

Overall, though, each report delivers information clearly and consistently.  The theme from USPS is making do with less.  USPS Deputy Postmaster Ronald Stroman confesses in an introductory letter:  “Our  sustainability focus going forward is to invest our limited resources in initiatives that have timely paybacks and deliver high returns on investment.”

UPS portrays sustainability as a servant of its corporate strategy.  The report avows: “… our primary economic benefit to the global marketplace is facilitating free trade in a way that increases its efficiency and effectiveness for everyone involved.”   UPS offers its services in 220 countries and territories.  For the company globalisation is natural law.

Deloitte and Touche assure the UPS report to the Global Reporting Initiative B+ level.  GRI confirmed the level.   USPS also receives GRI’s confirmation of a B application level — the same degree of disclosure as USP but without the independent, external confirmation.

Deloitte and Touche attest to the UPS statement of greenhouse gas emissions.  USPS says it will obtain third-party verification for greenhouse gas data in 2012.  Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) verifies the UPS carbon calculator and the internal process UPS uses to support their carbon neutral service.  The CarbonNeutral Co. certifies the UPS shipment program to their standard.

USPS does not mention that the agency is subject to congressional oversight.  Statements by the postmaster general and other employees during committee hearings are made under oath.   The UPS report does not delve into the company’s thoughts on the matter, but assurance and transparency are integral parts of management’s sustainability policy as explained in presentations at business conferences and elsewhere.

1.   Follow the advice in “Assure View”, a report from CorporateRegister.com.  The assurance provider’s recommendations ought to be published; and the assurance statement is better written in positive terms rather than by saying, “We do not find anything wrong … .”      
2.  The UPS PDF should allow readers to return to the original page after they click on any of the jumps.
3.   Credibility suffers when performance indicators are not measured the same way and reported in the same units.  Try to harmonise the sector more.
4.  An injection of contemporary reality could improve the reports next time.  For instance, a more faithful interpretation of cost-cutting in the workforce would benefit both sustainability assessments.


William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters. He also edits Crosslands Bulletin www.crosslandsbulletin.com covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues