Service saves your mailbox, and the dump, from catalogs

Site enables consumers to list mailings they don't want to get

November 04, 2007|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- The early warning signs of another holiday season are all around. Green-and-red decorations are showing up in stores. Ads are appearing for this year's crop of Christmas movies.

And America's mailboxes are bulging with catalogs.

But a new online service started by three environmental groups is giving people a chance to gain some control over the postal flood tide that inundates them with billions of catalogs a year.

Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org) enables people to compile a list of catalogs they do not want to receive. The service then contacts the retailers with a request to take the person's name off their mailing lists or makes a downloadable file available that merchants can feed into their mail database.

"Some people want to get some catalogs, but most people probably don't want to get all the catalogs they get from companies that they've never bought anything from," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that created Catalog Choice.

From toys to trinkets, from fresh fruit to fruitcake, from bulky outerwear to scanty underwear, this is the high season for these compendiums of consumerism. If a customer is going to receive a catalog from a merchant, autumn is the most likely time for it to drop through the mail slot.

And, in addition to their regular customers, retailers also send catalogs to people who have never ordered from them, in hopes of boosting Christmas sales.

`I fear my mailbox'

"This time of year, I fear my mailbox," said Kerry Brock of Weston, Conn., a painter and interior designer who has used Catalog Choice to request that she be taken off the mailing lists of 55 merchants so far. "I got a catalog today for something called Musician's Friend. Is that because I bought a recorder for my son I don't know how many years ago? And West Marine. I don't have a boat. Why am I on their mailing list?"

Other organizations such as GreenDimes.com and 41Pounds.org offer opt-out services of one kind or another, but they charge up to $41. Catalog Choice is free.

The Direct Marketing Association, an industry trade group, runs a mail preference service that, for $1, will put a person's name on a do-not-mail list for three years. That prevents companies from adding that person's name to their lists, but it does not stop catalogs and other mail solicitations that a person is already receiving.

That service, which is several decades old, has more than 4.5 million subscribers.

But in less than a month, and with little fanfare, more than 90,000 people have registered for Catalog Choice and logged more than 550,000 opt-out requests.

The service started with a list of about 600 catalog retailers, but visitors to the site have used the "suggest a retailer" feature to raise that to more than 1,000 retailers, according to executive director Chuck Teller, who runs Catalog Choice out of an office in Berkeley, Calif.

"The effort necessary for any individual consumer to get off these lists is significant compared to everything else we have to do in our lives," said Teller, referring to the fact that until recently the only way to get off a catalog mailing list was to contact the merchant directly. "We think we introduce some efficiency into the process."

The other groups involved in starting the service are the National Wildlife Federation and the Ecology Center, which runs Berkeley's curbside recycling program. Funding for the service comes from three foundations.

The goal of the sponsors is to reduce the environmental harm caused by the mass mailing of catalogs.

Every year, American households receive 19 billion catalogs. The environmental groups estimate that it takes 53 million trees to produce the 3.6 million tons of paper in those catalogs. Add in the energy required to make the paper and ship the catalogs, and the process adds 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly, equal to the emissions of 2 million cars, the groups say.

That arithmetic prompted Lori Campbell, a freelance writer and screenwriter in New York, to sign up for Catalog Choice.

To the landfill

"Basically, catalogs are trees that are heading straight to a landfill with only a brief stop in your home," said Campbell, who has registered to be taken off more than two dozen catalog mailing lists. "I just think this is a way that people can get involved in a simple way to help fight global warming."

But Steve Berry of the Direct Marketing Association said that 1.7 million trees are planted daily in the U.S. to replace trees that are cut down for paper and wood products, and he said that catalog shopping can have positive environmental impacts.

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