SURF THIS: Mailbox greening: a site to cut catalog clutter

April 7, 2008

I don't recycle.

There it is. I've said it-gotten it off my chest in hope that I might be able to go forward with the rest of my life knowing that my secret shame is now public knowledge. A little like the new governor of New York, I've cleansed my sins in a font of public awareness. (Or something like that.)

The truth is, I'm not very "green." I don't return the milk bottles. I absolutely love paper towels. We have a Suburban, for heaven's sake.

But even someone like me, a consumer's consumer, has limits. Mine happens to be the wanton waste produced by the ever-increasing stack of catalogs that arrive in my mailbox.

One of the more abhorrent practices of direct-mail companies is their penchant to sell mailing lists to boost revenue. It works something like this: They send out catalogs to everyone who ever purchased anything (some of them, like Victoria's Secret, seem to be sending about 10 catalogs a month, roughly enough paper for wall-to-wall covering of most of the African continent.) Then when sales start to slip-never the result of poor products, by the way, but nearly always due to "market conditions"-they look to the one asset they have that is guaranteed to provide a return: the database of information about their customers.

The sales of these lists is the primary reason that my mailbox (and likely yours, as well) is filling up with catalogs from companies from which you've never ordered and quite possibly have never heard of.

We have do-not-call lists. We have email opt-out lists. What we really need, and what was previously difficult to achieve, is a catalog opt-out list.

Enter Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org), a "free service that allows you to decide what gets into your mailbox." Catalog Choice is a sponsored project of the Ecology Center, endorsed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Its mission is to reduce the number of unsolicited catalog mailings and promote the adoption of sustainable industry practices.

In other words, this is a very green organization with a very green goal-perfect for a guy like me to hold up and say, "See? I'm doing my part!"

The great thing about the service (aside from being free), is that it's ridiculously easy to use. Simply log in, find the catalog you'd like to opt-out from, and enter your customer number from your mailing label. It even works if you don't have the number. Can't find the catalog you're looking for? Add it to the database. Behind the scenes, Catalog Choice is working with the players in the industry to pass along your preferences and ensure that they comply with your requests.

There are a few who refuse to play nice, but for the most part, anyone who is in the business understands the futile nature of spending several dollars mailing catalogs to someone who doesn't want them. Most have given up the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, we'll see something that will spur us to order again, even though we haven't ordered anything from them in six years...

The site is delightful in its simplicity and a breeze to use. It is expanding its offerings to include opt-ins (which I think will also be successful), but it really is focusing on reducing waste.

And it's working: almost 700,000 consumers have opted out of more than nine million catalogs. I don't miss the 23 that I've opted out of at all.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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