March 09, 2011

Tilting at Windmills in San Francisco

DQWindmillsmallMiguel Cervantes’ immortal character Don Quixote of La Mancha was a man with a mission.  Originally born Alonso Quixano, the Spanish aristocrat experienced a mid-life crisis and, armed with the best of intentions,  transformed himself into a noble knight errant who would free the land from tyranny of giants, uphold the high ideals of chivalry, and win the heart of his lady love Dulcinea.  Unfortunately for the well-intentioned crusader, what he perceived to be as monstrous giants were actually windmills, which served to turn millstones and provided needed meal and flour for the populace.  He was a man who found himself challenging something that actually helped his fellow countrymen and ultimately his actions caused more harm than good.

In February 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors president (and mayoral hopeful) David Chiu proposed an ordinance that would forever change the nature of Yellow Pages in the Golden Gate City.  If passed, the addition of Chapter 20 to the Environmental Code would ensure that residents of the city would no longer receive a phone directory delivered to their residence or business unless they specifically requested it via an opt-in program.  In other words, anyone who didn’t specifically contact a yet-to-be-established system would no longer receive delivery of a phone directory.  “In an effort to remove neighborhood blight”, the ordinance seeks to restrict distribution to instances “where there is personal delivery of the directory to a human being,” where delivery has been specifically requested, or where  “directories are maintained for pick-up at a distribution center or business open to the public.”   The addition also seeks to institute educational programs about the dangers of excess Yellow Pages distribution and inform the public of more modern alternatives.  Surely, such a well-intentioned proposal would be welcomed with open arms by the pubic, right?

The initiative was met with opposition.  The Yellow Pages Association established KeepSFConnected.com, a website that highlights key reasons why this ordinance will prove detrimental to small businesses and which includes an email builder that will help those in opposition send a message to the entire board of supervisors, the San Francisco clerk, and the city’s mayor.  More importantly the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, TURN (a consumer advocacy group), and a coalition of local small businesses brought their concerns to the Board of Supervisors this past Tuesday.  Even Steve Falk, the CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce weighed in on the subject: “While the Internet has grown, the Yellow Pages still serve an important role in keeping small businesses growing.”   A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted multiple surveys that show a surprising number of small businesses in the US do not currently maintain a website.  Those small businesses rely on a proven medium like the print Yellow Pages and those same businesses would find themselves struggling without the venerable volumes.  In addition, the Yellow Pages industry recently unveiled an updated version of their industry-wide opt-out site at YellowPagesOptOut.com.  Visitors to the site may request to be removed from the delivery rosters of some or all of the available directories in their area.  Opt-out information is also published in all delivered phone directories.

Mr. Chiu’s reasoning behind this push isn’t hard to comprehend.  San Francisco is a very “wired” and eco-friendly community.  The Yellow Pages are currently “out of favor” with the blog-o-sphere and are seen as the reasons our landfills are overflowing and our rainforests are being cut down.  (Yellow Pages account for only 0.3% of the solid municipal waste stream, according to a 2008 report from the EPA.  Newspapers and standard mail comprise a far larger portion – 4.9% and 2.4% respectively.  In fact, telephone directories represent by far the smallest contributor in raw tonnage to the ‘Paper and Paperboard Non Durable Goods’ category.)  However, up to now the Yellow Pages industry has done a poor job of representing their environmental impact as well as the industry-wide green initiatives that have been put into place.  Directories are now published using recycled materials and environmentally-friendly soy-based inks.  Yet, the voice of opposition seems to carry farther than the void of support and the perception of Yellow Pages has become that of an environmental cancer that must be excised if the body of society is to survive.

In other words, the Yellow Pages industry is an easy target for an ambitious mayoral candidate seeking a cause to rally behind.  In a culture where “environmentally conscious” is considered hip and “big business” is frequently portrayed as counter-productive to the benefit of the average citizen, Mr. Chiu has found his bogie man to rally against.  Our very culture favors the underdog—the lone crusader against the faceless giant.  Like Don Quixote, Mr. Chiu will try to tilt the windmill that is the Yellow Pages industry, hoping in the meantime to prove his credentials to his Dulcinea—in this case the voting populace of “The City by the Bay.” It’s a shame that his ambitious stance will do more harm than good to those that he seeks to govern. 

To voice your opposition to this piece of legislation, visit KeepSFConnected.com

To opt out of delivery of phone directories in your area, visit YellowPagesOptOut.com

 

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