COMMENTARY: Catalog Chaos

A New Free Service Reduces the Holiday Clutter

Chances are fairly good that you receive junk mail, and it’s a safe bet that that same junk mail forms a towering pile somewhere in your house. My household often receives more junk mail than we do legitimate correspondence, bills and holiday greeting cards from family and friends. Most of these junk catalogs and other solicitations are disregarded, and the process contributes to a significant amount of waste and pollution from the trees cut down, the printing operations that churn them out and the trucks that deliver them. A recently developed project called Catalog Choice intends to put a cap on the amount of junk in our mailboxes. Just in time for the holidays!

Unsolicited mail can feel like an invasion of privacy.© Getty Images

A group of environmental organizations has developed the California-based Catalog Choice, which provides a free online service that allows customers to choose the catalogs they no longer want to receive in the mail.

A study performed by Environmental Defense in collaboration with Catalog Choice examines the impact of junk mailings. Almost 20 billion catalogs are mailed each year, amounting to 3.6 million tons of paper and accounting for the destruction of 35 million trees. Deforestation contributes to about a quarter of all carbon pollution, the main cause of planet-wide climate change.

The study found these mail order solicitations have the lowest recycling rate of all printed raw materials, just 32 percent. The power used to produce these catalogs is enough to power 1.2 million homes a year, and it results in 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—the equivalent to two million cars on the road. The production, delivery, accumulation, and disposal of catalogs contribute to global warming and water pollution from various sources. Reducing catalog numbers would be a first positive step.

Catalog Choice has amassed a large database of catalog companies and its users "opt-out" through a process similar to a "do not call" list. The initiative aims to improve the efficiency of catalog distribution by reducing the number of repeat unsolicited mailings, and promoting better environmental practices in the catalog industry.

Consumers can remove themselves from the mailing lists of specific catalogs, and add any new unwanted catalog titles to their personalized databases. Catalog Choice intends to have thousands of catalogs listed as a result of continued user loyalty and interaction with the service. Of course, catalog distributors are not required to comply with the opt-out list as they are with government-sponsored programs. In essence, the service is similar to what would happen if you called the offending catalog company yourself; specifically, Catalog Choice sends an email to the merchant on your behalf.At catalog-intensive L.L. Bean in Maine, spokeswoman Sandy in electronic services (who declined to give her last name), said, "We would most certainly comply with the requests, and would forward the information to our catalog services department."Catalog Choice allows catalog distributors to obtain a free "Merchant Account" that would receive regular lists of opt-out requests in electronic format on a scheduled basis. The merchant accounts receive opt-out name and addresses in a format that is compatible with their ongoing list maintenance," says April Smith, Catalog Choice project manager.

The email opt-out method has worked well for Catalog Choice. "With our experience, this approach is successful," says Chuck Teller, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who helped develop the Catalog Choice website. When customers send in opt-out requests for merchants not in its database, Catalog Choice obtains and verifies contact information.

The service is regulated by its own users, who can go on the website, log into "My Choices" and click "still receiving" if their opt-out requests have not been filled. "We find that out of good faith and the value of their brand, merchants will accept initial requests. It’s bad business to ignore opt-out requests," says Teller. Catalog Choice will re-notify the company if it continues to send catalogs to opt-out customers.

What if the catalogs in your mailbox were only the ones you wanted? Catalog Choice hopes to make that dream a reality this holiday season.© Getty Images

Catalog Choice has already signed on more than 45,000 users. "User feedback has been very positive," says Teller. But there’s still a wide gap between visitors to the website and actual sign-ups. "Because the site gets your mailing address, the information is sensitive," Teller says. Some people may not like submitting personal information. "But catalog distribution is a problem all across America and people are responding—we have accounts in every state, plus Puerto Rico," he adds.

Along with its online service, Catalog Choice has plans to survey merchants" business activities with the goal of promoting sustainable practices in the catalog industry that could lead to CO2 reductions. "We hope merchants will become more efficient, and we want them to understand that they can actually save money," says Laura Hickey, a senior director for global warming education at the National Wildlife Federation. Hickey participated in the development of Catalog Choice, and continues to work with its associates to further develop the project.

Catalog Choice’s taskforce plans to regularly monitor merchants to see if they have adopted sustainability as a policy. "We want to know about their paper usage, how is it bleached and treated," says Hickey. "We will also look into what percentage of a catalog producer’s wood fiber is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council [which promotes best management practices for sustainable forestry]."

There is a survey for merchants for monitoring and measuring their carbon footprints. The idea is to help merchants recognize sustainable production as a constructive business decision. They can save money by not producing unwanted catalogs they can’t profit from. But will they take the voluntary steps to improve production and distribution for a greener future?

To push the envelope, Catalog Choice is investigating legislative solutions. "We have been studying state and federal strategies to help sponsor this kind of legislation," says Kate Sinding, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, another key player in the program’s development. "We do believe, though, that a large number of merchants will voluntarily comply with the program," she says. "It is in their interest to maintain a clean list. So we’re committed to working with the industry to make this a part of their business model, but legislative action may be necessary."

Some companies would be helped by uniform legislation, requiring all merchants to be in compliance. Legislation would create a single opt-out catalog registry similar to 41 Pounds (whose name refers to the average weight of junk mail received by American families) and Green Dimes, which provide fee-based opt-out services for unsolicited mail.

Coming home to a mess of catalogs in one’s mailbox feels like an invasion of privacy. "As we think about legislation, it would have to have penalties associated with failure to comply," Sinding of NRDC says. "By having a uniform requirement for catalogers, all merchants will have to make known to customers how to be taken off their mailing lists."

The holidays are upon us, and tha

t always means more catalogs to more customers. A mailbox should be personal and unsullied by unwanted junk catalogs and solicitations. Catalogs should optimally be subscription based and opt-in, not mailed indiscriminately to huge and vaguely related mailing lists. These days, most people disregard the catalogs sent to them, lumping them together as useless junk requiring effort for proper recycling. Catalog Choice can help you cut down on the clutter. It’s free, it’s easy, and it will help save our environment.

CARL PINO, an intern at E, is opting out of the catalog racket.

Contacts: Catalog Choice; Green Dimes; 41 Pounds