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San Francisco Takes a Bold Step and Moves to Opt-in Yellow Pages Program

The passage of San Francisco’s Yellow Page ordinance (bill HR 910) has created the only opt-in program for receiving the Yellow Pages Directory in the country. It is not a ban of all physical books, but rather facilitates directed distribution to people who actually want a Yellow Pages book.

The Supervisor’s office found cost savings for San Francisco businesses in reduced marketing expenses. This initiative demonstrates San Francisco’s commitment to a “Green Economy.” The three-year pilot program goes into effect in 2012.

In the age of technology, most look to the all-powerful smart phone device for answers. As such, Yellow Page directories end up in the trash or (hopefully) recycling bin. With the opt-in program, the Yellow Pages will be only going into the hands of those who use the Yellow Pages. In San Francisco alone, more than 1.6 million Yellow Pages directories are distributed annually (or two directories for each resident), states Alexia Marcous, Vice President of the Green Chamber of Commerce. The Green Chamber of Commerce worked in conjunction with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to research, support, and argue for this bill. The Green Chamber of Commerce plans to work on helping other cities pass similar ordinances.  San Francisco’s Yellow Pages opt-in program stems from consumers’ previous annoyance with freely distributed, unsolicited advertisements. State and federal governments understand consumers’ frustrations, and have begun to act upon this. Programs such as DMA’s Mail Preference Service and “Opt Out PreScreen” are examples of movements to decrease unsolicited advertisements. Federal Statutes include the Do Not Call List and CAN SPAM Act, both established in 2003, and the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005. New York passed the Unsolicited Advertising Law of 2008. The Yellow Pages directory is a largely unused form of unsolicited advertisement, so an opt-in program is a step that makes sense to both the city and its citizens. 

Other states have attempted to pass opt-in and opt-out legislation, but the legislation has faltered. This is mainly due to lobbying by the Yellow Pages Association. Washington, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Alaska have attempted to pass Yellow Page initiatives and failed. Washington’s HB 3326 proposed a mandatory opt-out program with instructions to opt-out on the directory itself. Due to failure to be reported out of the Rules Committee, the bill did not pass. Hawaii had two bills, SB 2628 and HB 1981, which both mandated individuals opt-in to receive the Yellow Pages. Due to aggressive lobbying against both bills, neither passed. Minnesota had both an opt-in proposal from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and an opt-out proposal from State Representatives Gardner, Wagenius, and others, but the Yellow Pages Association and the Association of Directory Publishers filed complaints. The momentum for the movement subsided after the large backlash from the industry, and the bills were not passed. Alaska HB 387 was introduced in February, which proposed a limitation on directory distribution to one directory per household per year. The bill was stalled in committee and did not pass.

The Yellow Pages Association argues against both opt-in and opt-out proposals. They acknowledge the movement is not an attempt to eliminate directories, restrict delivery to individuals who do want the directories, or originated from solely an environmentalist perspective. They understand that it is about reducing the amount of unwanted and unsolicited directories, decreasing recycling/disposal costs, and is consumer-motivated. Directory recycling rate is below 20% whereas all other paper recycling rates (newspapers, office paper, and magazines) range from 40% to 90%. The Yellow Pages Association believes there is a greater need to recycle the directories, but also argues that there will be decreased revenue to businesses because of lack of exposure.

Despite pushback from the Yellow Pages Association, there have been two successful passages of Yellow Pages Ordinances in the past eight months, Seattle and San Francisco. Last fall, Seattle passed the first with an opt-out, third party vendor program. Seattle passed city ordinances 123427 and 123532, which mandate that the phone book industry honor people’s choices to halt the delivery of phone books to their residences.

While it may be difficult, it is in the best interest of cities and citizens to pass more Yellow Pages ordinances. Until that happens, however, go to YellowPagesGoesGreen.org and opt-out.

July 14, 2011

Written by Elise Fabbro and Risa De Ferrari of the Green Chamber of Commerce.