Junk Mail, Be Gone

Some environmental problems—that global warming thing, say—are understandably hard to solve. It stands to reason that rewiring the entire planet will probably cost some money and probably take some time.

What's annoying, however, is how hard you have to work to solve even simple problems. Take catalogs—say you'd like fewer delivered to your house. Like the one from Levenger, billed as "Tools for Serious Readers," that seems to appear every day or two in my mailbox. (No, thank you, I do not want the $54 leather pen cup or the $35 wallet for my Post-it flags.) You'd think there would be one button you could click to end the stream of catalogs flowing into households, like the one that shut off those dinnertime phone calls a few years ago.

But you'd be wrong.

Last year a group of committed individuals backed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council set up a website called catalogchoice.org. It allows you to go through an alphabetical list of catalogs. You can choose the ones you no longer want to receive, and they will notify the merchant on your behalf. "It's far less time-consuming than calling customer service and being put on hold," says April Smith, the Catalog Choice project manager. She couldn't be more reasonable, and neither could the website's executive director, Chuck Teller, when he adds, "We're just trying to do what's right for the world here, to help us all tread a little more lightly."

Teller's outlook is not hyperbole—the energy required just to make the paper for last year's 19 billion catalogs produced as much carbon dioxide as 2 million cars while discharging 53 billion gallons of wastewater. But no good deed goes unopposed: The Catalog Choice website was barely launched before the head of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) sent an e-mail to their thousands of members, urging them not to cooperate. It instructed retailers to "just say no" to Catalog Choice, arguing that the project wanted "to eliminate catalogs as a marketing medium."

As a result of the DMA's campaign, some merchants won't stop their mailings to those who opted out on Catalog Choice. Still, the effort hasn't been in vain. The bad publicity that ensued when the DMA e-mail leaked convinced the association to update its own mail preference service (DMAchoice.org). For years they charged money for the privilege of opting out of catalogs; as of January, the service is free. Safety valves like the DMA's mail preference service help keep consumer discontent to a minimum and ward off stronger action. As DMA official Steve Berry puts it, a Congressional law like the one that shut down telemarketers poses "a great threat." We should be so lucky.

You still need to give the DMA your credit information if you want them to shut off the stuffporn flow. They promise not to charge you or to give out your number. Still, it's a little like asking the hens to send their Visa numbers to the Fox Security Association. And the DMA salts the wound by insisting they do this to, in the words of Berry, "protect list hygiene," an Orwellian coinage that means they fear some knave might impersonate you to unjustly deprive you of a catalog you were pining for.

After thinking about it for a few minutes, I swallowed hard and turned over my credit card to the DMA's webmaster. I'd already signed up on the infinitely more user-friendly catalogchoice.org. That's how much I hate catalogs. To me, catalogs are one more cog in an endless earth-wrecking, soul-draining machine designed to get us to want. I don't want anybody telling me about the $8 Book Bungee bookmark, which "marks your page and keeps your book safely closed," or the Thai book pillow, "a miniature version of the ones villagers make in northeast Thailand." If rejecting both items marks me as a decidedly unserious reader, so be it.

Because I don't want to want. All I want is to be left alone to read.

Story by Bill McKibben. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008