There's nothing sexy about bad publicity. Victoria's Secret has had its fair share over the years, usually fueled by critics of the retail company's suggestive lingerie ads or semi-nude fashion show, which returned this month after a two-year hiatus. But now the attacks are coming from a bunch of tree huggers in suits. Forest Ethics, an environmental-advocacy group, has launched a national campaign of protests, including some 150 last month at Victoria's Secret stores around the country.
The reason the environmentalists are so mad: Victoria's Secret prints and mails 395 million catalogs a year, averaging more than 1 million a day. The activists argue that Victoria's Secret is contributing to the stripping of endangered forests. Forest Ethics is trying to pressure the company into changing the paper it uses, 25% of which comes from the Great Boreal Forest in Canada, one of the world's largest endangered forests. Unlike more radical environmental groups, which refuse to negotiate with companies they view as evil, Forest Ethics has tried to introduce Victoria's Secret to green-friendly suppliers and convince the company of the benefits of using recycled paper. "It used to be that you either worked with companies or against them," says Forest Ethics executive director Todd Paglia. "But that's foolish and a false choice. We help companies change, but we don't take no for an answer."
Forest Ethics' carrot-and-stick approach has proved effective. From 1999 to 2002, the organization pushed Staples and Office Depot to stop buying paper derived from endangered forests and ensure that 30% of the paper they sell has recycled content. Thanks to pressure from Forest Ethics, Victoria's Secret prints its clearance catalogs on paper that has more than 80% recycled content. To Paglia, however, that is only a starting point. "Moving 6% or 7% of their catalogs to recycled paper is to be applauded, but the remaining 350 million need to change," he says.
Victoria's Secret is one of dozens of major companies that print millions of catalogs on nonrecycled paper. Over the past decade, catalog production has grown 40%, and in 2004, more than 18 billion catalogs were mailed, more than 64 for each person in the U.S. In addition to Victoria's Secret, Forest Ethics has singled out Sears, J Crew and L.L. Bean for poor paper practices. Companies generally argue that recycled paper costs more or looks worse than nonrecycled paper. But Dell and Williams-Sonoma have started switching to recycled paper with little, if any, noticeable change in expense or quality. And for a catalog industry that manages a feeble 2.5% average response rate, adding recycled content to bulk mailings is unlikely to do much harm, Paglia argues, and may help boost a company's image at a time when more consumers are shopping for green-friendly products. But for Limited Brands, parent company of Victoria's Secret, the campaign has added aggravation to an already frustrating third sales quarter. The corporation reported a loss of $12.3 million, with a 4% drop in sales at Victoria's Secret contributing to the fall.