Catalog of Woes?

While Many Catalogs Impact the Earth, Greener Alternatives Abound

In 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward established the country’s first mail-order business in downtown Chicago. Beginning as a single sheet price list, the Montgomery Ward catalog ballooned into a four-pound tome that early 20th century farm families eagerly awaited as one of their only connections to a wide world of consumer goods.

Fast-forward a hundred years, to the advent of the Internet. With so much information only a click away, those bulky mailbox hogs seemed destined for the dustbin of history, and catalog-less shopping—like the paperless office—was surely the wave of the future.

The catalogs shown on this page have all won accolades for using recycled and alternative paper.

Alas for the trees, both were myths. We love the look, the feel, maybe even the heft of a new catalog in the mail. We devour them the moment they come through the door, or perhaps we leave them lying around the house, paging through them at leisure. But when it comes time to buy, fewer of us are picking up the phone. That’s when we log on, make sure that designer flyswatter is still in stock and that shirt is available in light aqua, and place our order. "Whenever [our members] send a catalog, they see traffic spike online," says Amy Blankenship, spokesperson for the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). "The Internet is the best thing that happened to the catalog industry."

Wasteful and Destructive

It’s not the best thing to happen to forests. In 2001, American catalog companies sent out 17 billion catalogs, Environmental Defense reports. That’s 59 for every man, woman and child in the U.S., comprising 12 percent of all printing and writing paper last year. And most of them contain no recycled content. "The catalog industry is one of the most destructive and wasteful sectors of the paper industry," says Todd Paglia of Forest Ethics, whose organization led successful campaigns to get office supply giants Staples and Office Depot to stock more recycled paper and avoid products from endangered forests. A little recycled content could make a big impact, paper activists say. According to "Does Your Catalog Care?", a 2002 study by Environmental Defense, if the catalog industry included just 10 percent post-consumer recycled pulp in its publications, it would save annually 851,000 tons of wood, 2.1 billion gallons of wastewater, and enough energy to provide continuous residential power to Boulder, Colorado.

To be fair, most catalogers are not willfully destructive. "In a lot of cases, companies don’t know," Paglia acknowledges. DMA’s own studies confirm this. Blankenship says when DMA members were asked if their mailings (which include all direct mail, not just catalogs) contained at least 10 percent recycled paper, up to 39 percent, depending on the type of paper, said yes—and more than one-third said they didn’t know.

Very few in the catalog industry are ahead of the curve. Environmentalists hold up Norm Thompson Outfitters as a shining beacon of what a major cataloger can accomplish. After working closely with Environmental Defense’s Alliance for Environmental Innovation for a year and a half, the company in 2001 began printing their three titles—totaling roughly 80 million catalogs annually—on paper with a minimum 10 percent post-consumer content. The company has also committed to phasing in paper from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

"Norm Thompson has certainly demonstrated strong leadership," says Victoria Mills, who is leading the Alliance’s initiative to green the catalog industry. The company is embracing its new role, and even advising other catalogers on how to be greener. According to Derek Smith, its corporate sustainability manager, "Our ultimate goal is to be a model that businesses can work on these issues and thrive profitably."

Targeting Giants

Many small catalogers use high recycled contents, but because they often cater to an environmentally conscious clientele, it’s the industry giants that activists are targeting. "It’s important to us to work with mainstream catalogers so the results won’t be dismissed," Mills explains. Especially disappointing to environmentalists are companies targeting outdoors enthusiasts—L.L. Bean, Lands" End, Eddie Bauer and the like—that use little or no recycled paper. "Companies that market to outdoors enthusiasts have a special responsibility to answer their customers" expectations," Mills says.

L.L. Bean uses recycled paper only in its order forms; recycled pages and covers have not performed well in customer tests, according to spokesperson Rich Donaldson. To compensate, L.L. Bean uses a lighter-weight paper in the 200 million catalogs it prints each year, from sustainably managed and Maine forests.

"There’s no getting away from the fact that the catalog business is essential to our business model," Donaldson says. "We’re also aware of the environmental impacts, though we’re trying to minimize them." Blankenship says the DMA is supporting an initiative by the American Forest & Paper Association, "Recycle Please," that aims to increase the paper recovery rate to 55 percent by 2012. More recycling would increase the availability of recycled paper and thus, the DMA hopes, encourage more marketers and catalogers to use post-consumer content in their publications.

It may be awhile before consumers see more recycled paper in their catalogs. "This is an industry that is slow to change," Mills notes. But don’t despair: take action. You can register with the DMA’s Mail Preference Service to reduce the catalogs and other ad mail you receive. Send your name, address, signature and the request "Please register my name with the Mail Preference Service" to P.O. Box 643, Carmel, N.Y., 10512. There is a $5 fee to register online,

Another option is to call catalogers directly and ask them to send fewer mailings or to take you off their lists. Get active with Forest Ethics or the Center for the New American Dream, which are calling for easier ways to get off mailing lists. The Center envisions a "Do Not Junk" list, similar to the extraordinarily popular "Do Not Call" list that lets households voluntarily remove themselves from telemarketer lists. So far the campaign has generated 15,000 letters to Congress, says Sean Sheehan, the Center’s national outreach manager—"the most popular letter-writing campaign we’ve ever done."

Greener Choices

You don’t have to give up catalogs. If shopping online isn’t for you, use your greenbacks to green your mail. Support companies that already use recycled paper: Sundance (800-422-2770,, Patagonia (800-336-9090, and Gaiam (877-989-6321, all use at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled content in their catalogs. Mountain Equipment Co-op (888-847-0770,, a Canadian outdoors equipment retailer, uses 30 percent, and organic gardening

supplier Seeds of Change (888-762-7333, uses 60 percent. Going a step further, a small Santa Cruz, California-based retailer, GoodHumans (866-420-4208,, prints catalogs only on demand, on 100 percent post-consumer recycled or tree-free paper. (You can also view the company’s catalog as a PDF—click on the link at

And don’t abandon your old favorites completely. Instead, tell them you want greener catalogs—because they’re most likely to listen to their customers. "Consumers who care about this issue need to let their catalog companies know," Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense suggests. "When you place an order, say, "I want you to switch to recycled paper." Because that’s actually more powerful."

PHOEBE HALLrecycles the few catalogs she receives.