Replace opt-outs for unaddressed mail with a sticker scheme

Opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail don't work, and there's no way to make them work. They should be scrapped and replaced by a sticker scheme.

The mess we're in

There are two opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail in the UK which together should stop about half of all unaddressed mail:

  • Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out stops unaddressed mail delivered by the postman; and
  • The Direct Marketing Association's Your Choice scheme is supposed to stop unaddressed mail distributed by DMA members.

All other unaddressed mail, including free newspapers, is unregulated. You can deter distributors that operate outside the industry's self-regulatory framework by putting an anti-junk mail sticker on your door but such a measure is purely informal. There's nothing you can do to stop a distributor ignoring your letterbox sign.

The result is a rather complicated landscape. If you want to stop unsolicited, unaddressed mail you need to do three different things:

Distributor Opt-out regime
Royal Mail Door-to-Door Opt-Out
DMA members Your Choice Scheme
Others Letterbox sticker (informal)

The solution that has failed

The Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail have acknowledged that the system they've set up is outdated. In late 2011 they agreed with Defra to introduce a super-duper opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail: the Door-Drop Preference Service. According to the joint press release issued by them at the time the scheme would not only combine the two existing opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail – it would also throw down the gauntlet to those companies hand-delivering brochures and fast-food menus to respect 'no junk mail' signs and only deliver what people want.

It took only a couple of months for the scheme to unravel. Defra and the Direct Marketing Association had quite different ideas about how the new opt-out regime would work. Defra seemed content with merging the two existing opt-outs for unaddressed mail into a single scheme but the Direct Marketing Association demanded more. The junk mail lobby pointed out that Defra had agreed to commit to engage with other parts of industry that are delivering unaddressed printed material to householders with a view to improving the environmental performance of these other delivery channels. According to the Direct Marketing Association this meant that the super-duper scheme could only go ahead once Defra had ensured that non-DMA members would also commit to the scheme.

The Direct Marketing Association's demand was impossible to meet. The fundamental problem with opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail is that they can only cover a portion of all such literature. There's no way that all those take-away outlets in your local area are going to check if your household has signed up to an opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail. Nor will that builder that wants to push a business card through a couple of letterboxes want to buy an opt-out list from the Direct Marketing Association. Not even local leaflet distributors are going to be interested in joining such a scheme – most of them already respect anti-junk mail stickers and have no need for a complicated, bureaucratic and expensive alternative. Defra was very unhappy with the Direct Marketing Association's interpretation of what had been agreed but they gave in. For nearly three years they tried to get non-DMA members on board before they quietly ditched the scheme in 2014.

The solution that will work

As said, opt-out schemes for unaddressed don't work. They never have worked and they never will. The only sensible way of giving people control over what unaddressed mail items come through the letterbox is a sticker scheme. It would mean we can abolish the two existing opt-outs for unaddressed mail and that we can have a system that applies to all senders and distributors in the country. Instead of three different opt-out regimes we would have just one:

Distributor Opt-out regime
Any Letterbox sticker

How a sticker scheme might work

Sticker schemes are common all over Europe, which means we can benefit from the experience in other countries. I'm particularly familiar with a hugely succesful sticker scheme in the Netherlands. To explain how a sticker scheme could work I'll therefore use the Dutch scheme as an example.

The scheme in the Netherlands was set up decades ago by the Dutch Direct Marketing Association and Friends of the Earth. Households in the Netherlands can get a free and readily available sticker that stops unaddressed advertisements and, if they so want, also free newspapers. I've designed an English version of the sticker (which is available in the shop).

A sticker with the text 'No Commercial Leaflets / No Free Newspapers'A sticker with the text 'No Commercial Leaflets / Yes Free Newspapers'.
'No/No' and 'No/Yes' stickers

The distinction between leaflets and free newspapers makes good sense. The problem with signs that simply read 'No Junk Mail' is that it's not always clear how 'junk mail' should be defined. In particular, some people see free newspapers as unwanted junk mail while others see them as useful information. The 'No/No, No/Yes' stickers solve this problem by spelling out whether or not such items are welcome.

Similarly, the term 'commercial leaflets' solves the problem that most people don't mind non-commercial leaflets, such as leaflets with information about bin collections. Stickers that read 'No Junk Mail' provide an all-or-other approach – you either stop everything or nothing. A good sticker scheme stops only the commercial rubbish.


Any sophisticated sticker scheme needs some clear definitions. We need to agree on a definition of commercial leaflets and free newspapers. We can again use the scheme in the Netherlands as a template. The Dutch Code for the distribution of unaddressed printed advertisements defines unsolicited leafets as follows:

printed advertising and/or samples which are distributed door-to-door free of charge without mention of the address (or post office box) of the recipient.

The Dutch definition of free newspapers is based on how much news such items contain:

Unaddressed printed matter which is distributed door-to-door free of charge at regular intervals in a geographically limited area and of which at least 10% of the contents consists of information and news, but no advertising, about the area of distribution.

In the UK we could have slightly different definitions. One type of junk mail that has caused some controversy in the Netherlands are political leaflets. The Dutch code defines such literature as commercial advertising mail, much to the annoyance of some political parties. Another type of leaflets that might be contentious are charity appeals. There's a good case for defining such leaflets as commercial but I'm sure some people would disagree.

Enforcing the scheme

The Dutch scheme is backed up by an Advertising Code Authority, which is more or less the equivallent of the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK. It's a self-regulatory body without any enforcement powers – which should please the Direct Marketing Association – but it does have the power to adjudicate and 'name & shame.

Last updated: 
24th July 2015