In December 2007, in “Junk Mail Box,” I lauded ad-mail slayer Catalog Choice and argued for US and Canadian Do Not Mail registries.
Soon thereafter, I began using Catalog Choice assiduously at home. I also refreshed my subscription to the Direct Mail Association’s Mail Preference Service. I wrote to ValPak to plead for a reprieve from their thick wads of coupon mailers (my own letter carrier gave me the address). I was about to start calling other direct mailers myself, demanding they take me off their lists. First, though, before putting more of my own time or money into de-spamming my snail mail, I conceived an experiment. I decided to stockpile every bit of advertising mail I received for 365 days. I wanted to see what Catalog Choice and DMA’s program would do to stem the tide.
The answer, it turned out, was “not enough.” Despite all I did, I still received a two-foot-tall stack of junk mail that weighed 50 pounds.
As I said before, ad mail isn’t the biggest of Cascadia’s challenges, but it ought to be among the easiest to solve. In fact, it’s an opportunity for regional leadership. Unwanted mail wastes paper and all the trees, energy, and climate emissions it takes to manufacture and carry 50-pound piles of junk mail to each or us each year, then recycle it again, typically unopened. It also wastes advertisers’ money, driving up costs and prices and suppressing profits.
Enacting Do Not Mail registries in Cascadian states and provinces would likely spark imitation across North America. It might even stimulate national action.
In the interim, we can each trim the waste of paper and money individually, by de-junking our boxes. Here’s what I received at my door, and how I responded at year’s end:
15 pounds of phone books. The sheer mass of these—30 percent of the total—was the biggest surprise. I got six books (of which, five were yellow business listings) from three competing companies. Preferring online directories, I almost never use a phone book. They usually go straight from the porch to the green bin. Strictly speaking, phone books are not mail, because they’re delivered by phone company contractors, not the Post Office. Still, they’re unsolicited advertising brought to your door, with no easy way to decline. One of them, called Yellowbook, promotes itself as “an eco-friendly company” on the cover.
ACTION: I scanned the opening pages of each phone book, looking for information about how to stop getting them. I even looked up the purportedly eco-friendly Yellowbook online. No luck. An internet search found this useful site for how to opt-out of phone book delivery. In a few minutes, I was able to opt out of Qwest and Yellowbook but not Verizon directories.
5 pounds of neighborhood advertisers: 10 percent of the total. Savings Source weekly advertisers promised to be my “source for great deals and discounts,” but all they did was leave me with ink-smudged fingers 40 times over the year.
ACTION: I called the phone number listed on Savings Source (206)652-6578) for “questions.” I got a recording that said, “to remove your address from our mailing list, please leave your information at the tone.” I guess recipients’ main question is how to unsubscribe.
3 pounds of bleached-paper, full-color, glossy catalogs from Eddie Bauer. I tried to stop them through Catalog Choice to no avail. They sent me a catalog every month.
5 pounds of catalogs from Bike Nashbar and Performance Bicycle, two corporate cousins from which I’ve made exactly one purchase each. Both ignored Catalog Choice: Nashbar sent me 10 catalogs, Performance sent me 18 catalogs and flyers.
2 pounds of catalogs from Road Runner Sports, from which I bought shoes twice for my size 14.5 feet. They sent me 10 catalogs and 2 flyers after I asked them through Catalog Choice to call off the dogs.
ACTION: I called these retailers’ toll-free numbers. The operators assured me the deluge would stop.
2 pounds of—mostly—glossy, full-color, cardstock from info-tech companies. Comcast hawked cable TV and/or high-speed internet 13 times. Qwest piled on with 14 catalogs, flyers, and letters, trying to sell me digital TV, cellular service, or voice-over-internet. Verizon, meanwhile, attempted seven times to sell me a new cell phone.
1 pound of political mail from the primary and general elections.
1 pound—five editions—of a surprisingly thick, ad-packed tabloid from the state youth soccer association.
Miscellaneous other advertisers contributed the remaining 16 pounds of junk mail: course catalogs from the local community college, for example, and the usual newsletters from organizations I am affiliated with, such as my bike club, food coop, health coop Group Health, insurers, and alma mater. None of these mailings offended my sensibility, and several of them have since agreed to excise me from future mailings.
More irksome were the 17—17!—credit card offers United Airlines sent. They promised me as many as 45,000 bonus miles (“more than enough,” the letter declared, “for a roundtrip ticket”), if I would apply for a new Visa.
My insurance company USAA, meanwhile, sent me 16 invitations to buy other forms of insurance or other financial services from them—including lots of ways to borrow money (just exactly what our economy does not need more of)! It used a technique also favored by Qwest: making its ad-mail look like actual correspondence about my policies and accounts. (To its credit, USAA promised to stop sending me mail of any kind, when I called them about this.)
One somewhat pleasant surprise was how little direct mail I got from nonprofit charities. I got only sixteen direct-mail appeals from nonprofit charities to which I have donated in the past, plus five others from groups to which I’ve never donated. These fundraising appeals were insignificant beside the catalogs.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the whole year’s mail was the oversized postcard from Tourism British Columbia, which promotes the province as “Super, Natural.” The postcard, a thick slice of shimmering plastic, displays the stunning panorama you’d get from a canoe in Yoho National Park. The image changes depending on how you hold the card. It is one of the few mailers in the entire stack that’s not recyclable.
Stopping unwanted mail is not a particularly onerous task, but it is a hassle. Most people won’t bother. They’ll just keep transferring most of their mail from their post box to their recycling bin, unopened. Individual, voluntary action is a help, but more-effective solutions must operate on a larger scale. One heartening sign is that, in May of this year, Canada Post announced some new steps to stem junk mail. The US Postal Service has yet to follow suit.
So I’m going to keep calling retailers who stuff my mail box, but mostly, I’m going to keep speaking out. New laws that require mass-mailers to seek permission before inundating us with advertising would put the onus on the mailers, not normal citizens, to prevent waste. Regulations that ensure marketers respect third-party de-spammers such as Catalog Choice would simplify de-spamming dramatically for people like me: Eddie Bauer, Nashbar, Performance , and Road Runner sent me 10 pounds of unwanted catalogs after I sent them word through Catalog Choice to cease and desist. Best of all, national or state and provincial “Do Not Mail” registries would provide all postal patrons with a one-step way to de-spam their letter box, saving paper, energy, marketers’ money, and–the ultimate nonrenewable resource–time.
Notes: In case you want to try this experiment yourself, here are the rules I followed: To be junk mail, something has to be unsolicited. An REI catalog is junk; my Backpacker magazine is not. Similarly, the mail cannot be personal business: a credit card offer from my bank is junk, my bank statement is not. To be included in my tally, the item had to be addressed to me, or to “current resident.” If it was addressed to any of my kids, my ex-wife, or anyone else, I excluded it.
This post originally appeared at Sightline’s Daily Score blog.