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Are we burying ourselves in junk mail?

"My Dear Friend,

I arrive in your mail uninvited and maybe unwanted. I plead for your business or your money. You call me |junk,' but; I'm one of the best forms of advertising around. Just ask American Express - or any environmental group. Now, see if you can recycle me. Good luck."

You may remember the great mailbox debate of 1990. very first of 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth was to "Stop Junk Mail." We were each chewing up one and one-half trees a year with our daily load of bulk mail, reported the little blue book from the Earth Works Group, and we were all producing almost two million tons of garbage. For what? Why not tell Ed McMahon to keep his $10 million, the underwear sirens at Victoria's Secret to get dressed, and the panda bear at the World Wildlife Fund to nibble on berries instead of on our bleeding hearts? Junk mail wasn't the most serious crisis in the world, but it was a sign of our consumer culture run amok, a vast paper slick hitting almost every mail slot in the land.

And yet, just as we decided to stop this nonsense, another letter arrived from Greenpeace, one of 47 million that it pumped out in 1990, urging us to save the planet. As Peter Bahouth and Andre Carothers of Greenpeace wrote in the Utne Reader that year, our mailbox wasn't a mini-landfill, it was "a sanctuary for delivering those political views that cannot survive the media's censorship, and a lifeline for the growth and preservation of the nation's ailing tradition of citizen involvement in public issues." Nonprofit groups send 12 billion pieces of bulk mail a year and collect $50 billion in contributions, and they have lower postage rates than commercial businesses, thanks to about $500 million in subsidies from Congress and the U.S. Postal Service.

The commercial mailers rushed to their own defense, reminding us that shopping at home by mail or by phone, which 55 percent of American adults do, is actually "the greatest carpool on Earth," saving 100 million gallons of gas a year, while eliminating 100 million tons of automobile pollution. No wonder the great mail box debate petered out. It wasn't such a simple thing after all.

Direct mail exists because it works. It generates response rates from the public that are tens, hundreds, even thousands of times better than ads in newspapers or on TV. It is a $210 billion industry that ranges from corporate giants like AT&T, which sends out 250 million pieces a year (now on recycled paper fortunately), to local stores announcing "$2.00 OFF" on a pizza or a car wash. It supplies our hobbies, be they cars, gardening or reading magazines, and supports our dearest causes. We may call it junk mail, a phrase coined by newspapers to disparage the competition in the fight for advertising, but the Postal Service finds that we throw out less than 11 percent of it unopened. We're curious, and 49 percent of us don't mind what we get. Almost five percent even want more. For a while in 1991, Equifax, one of the largest credit bureaus in the country, even tested the idea of charging people $10 to $15 to add their names to more lists.

Yet how much paper do we really need? One year Kari Pentkof of Fairfield, Connecticut got 1,263 catalogs, including duplicates, triplicates and copies to people no longer at her address. "I'm probably guilty because I do a lot of shopping by mail," she admits. But why such an avalanche? Michael Darling, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University, decided to study his daily load. In one year, his house received 601 different catalogs with 35,000 pages of products he didn't want. He does buy shirts once or twice a year from Land's End, and he orders parts for his MG that aren't sold locally, but he doesn't need 26 catalogs in a year from American Express, 24 from L.L. Bean, 18 from Williams-Sonoma and a 274-page catalog from Spiegel as big as an art book. To top it all off, he got an 11-page plea from an environmental group urging him to help save trees.

Over 42 percent of us want less mail, the Postal Service knows, and 2.5 million people have now joined the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Mail Preference Service to purge their names from most mailing lists. We may answer only one or two letters in 100. The others, most likely, go directly into the garbage. In 1990, we got 3.8 million tons of bulk mail and recycled only 200,000 tons of it. The rest fills two percent of the municipal waste stream. Pentkof now takes her catalogs to the town dump for recycling, and Darling leaves three or four bags of junk mail on the curb each month to be collected. But he knows from walking his dog early in the mornings that he's one of the few people in the neighborhood who bothers.

The Greening of Direct Mail

The DMA didn't need 50 Simple Things to know it had a hot issue on its hands. In 1989, Robert Teufel, president of Rodale Press, chaired an environmental task force of DMA members, including Publishers Clearing house, L.L. Bean and Seventh Generation, which studied all of the issues affecting their industry, from recycled paper to mailing lists to toxic inks to polysterine packaging peanuts. It produced an excellent guidebook for the 3,000 DMA members in the U.S. And it found that the basic problem isn't what the public assumes. "We came to the conclusion that trees are not the issue. They are renewable. We see the real issue as landfills," says Chet Dalzell, director of public relations for DMA. The vast pine plantations growing fiber for paper aren't the endangered forests on national TV. But the cost of disposing of garbage is skyrocketing, from $30 billion in 1992 to a projected $45 billion by 1995. Cities and towns that must pay this tab desperately need ways to slow the paper tide or make polluters accept some of the responsibility.

One chapter in this debate recently happened before the Postal Rate Commission which had asked for public comment on the idea of charging lower rates for mail made with recycled paper. People stuck with the garbage endorsed the idea. Jeffery Smedberg, a recycling coordinator for Santa Cruz County, California said that a "significant portion" of the "potentially recyclable" paper still being wasted was "the huge quantity of unsolicited and unread mail" because there's no market for this "mixed waste paper." The City of San Diego liked the idea, and so did the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which noted "the proliferation of unsolicited mail...with little evidence of concern on the part of its originators for the environmental consequences of their mailings."

Those who make a living from direct mail insisted that the idea was unworkable, since the post office has no easy way of seeing what paper is recycled and what isn't, and unneeded, since their industry has already begun turning green. "In 1992, according to a DMA survey, 58 percent of paper purchasers for direct marketing companies bought recycled paper. Eighty-five percent planned to increase their use of recycled paper," wrote the DMA. The Advertising Mail Marketing Association added that a recent survey by Catalog Age magazine found that the use of recycled paper has more than doubled in the past two years to now appear in 38 percent of the catalogs covered. (It's actually used for order forms more often than for the display pages.) The Postal Service agreed with the direct mailers, praising their "strong and lasting commitment to recycling."

The greening of direct mail is in the eyes of the beholder, since magazines full of advertising or products wrapped in plastic are bought voluntarily, while junk mail arrives uninvited. It is waste we didn't ask for, and we may wonder why we should have to take the trouble of telling the DMA and others to stop it. But we live in an increasingly shop-at-home world, thanks to longer working hours, more women with careers, and senior citizens, who fear crime at the malls. The mail order business boomed in the 1980s, helping to bury the giant department stores like Macys, and it still grows faster than retail sales. People who shop at home, over 55 percent of us, like it. Thomas Stoneback, a vice president at Rodale Press, says that very few subscribers to his company's magazines take up the offer not to rent their names to other mailing lists. "If I take a gardening magazine, I'm going want all of that other information on tools, books and seeds," he says. The more enthusiastic you are about your hobby, the less likely you are to find a store nearby to supply your needs. Nurseries, for instance, may sell three basic varieties of tomatoes - red, yellow and little - hardly enough for a tomato connoisseur who wants beefsteak or big boy tomatoes available by mail from Burpee Gardens.

General merchandisers find the same phenomenon: people who shop by catalog rarely ask that their names not be rented to other lists. This industry has cultivated a enormous following with a huge tolerance for paper. J.C. Penney, the largest catalog company in the country, sends out 100 million items a year, all to previous customers. Fingerhut mails 500 million catalogs, Spiegel 277 million, Lillian Vernon 138 million, and L.L. Bean 100 million. These items are hardly wanton waste, since the companies use sophisticated computer data bases and mailing lists to reach the people who actually buy from them. Fingerhut, for example, has 13 million loyal customers who supply 80 percent of its business. Nonprofit groups work the same way, finding loyal donors who contribute year after year. So rather than trying to kill direct mail, or continuing to bury it in landfills, Stoneback says we need to find a bright new future for it as recycled newspaper or tissue paper. Rodale even composted some junk mail in an experiment and found that it makes very good soil. "Entremanureship," Stoneback calls it.

In the past, paper recyclers haven't had much use for direct mail, which has loads of things that contaminate paper pulp, like the clay coating on catalog pages, the plastic windows in envelopes, and all the foil and glues and gizmos that arrive in junk mail. (Some Carol Wright coupon packets even include Tylenol or Excedrin tablets, which you may need after receiving all this stuff.) But changes are afoot. Flotation de-inking mills, which have arrived in the U.S. after 30 years in Europe, actually need the clay from magazine and catalog pages to mix with newspapers to make recycled newsprint. This business may boom in the 1990s, since newspaper publishers have promised to use much more recycled paper. Several mills have also begun using more mixed papers like mail to make recycled tissue products like napkins, paper towels and tissues. The Marcal mill in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, for example, collects 170,000 tons of paper a year from post offices, schools, offices and local recycling programs in the New York metropolitan area to make products with 60 percent post-consumer waste. Marcal's recycling coordinator, Nadine Mariconda admits that using junk mail takes more work, since workers must cull through the avalanche of envelopes for shampoo samples, watches, T-shirts, tea bags and other surprises that don't make good paper. The workers were happiest, she adds, when they uncovered one mailing of blue envelopes that each contained a dollar bill.

Some mailers are helping the recycling system to grow. J.C. Penney has collected old catalogs at some of its stores, and Gardener's Supply Company started a catalog recycling program with the city of Burlington, Vermont. In 1990, Fingerhut, which has been recycling waste at its Minneapolis, Minnesota headquarters since 1968, helped the nearby town of St. Louis Park start collecting mail for the Fort Howard paper company. Now, says the company's vice president for consumer and environmental affairs, most of the towns in the Twin Cities region recycle catalogs and junk mail. Last year, the DMA awarded Fingerhut a Robert Rodale Environmental Achievement Award for its efforts, from planting trees, to slipping a "Green Horizons" newsletter in with shipments, to switching from polystyrene packaging peanuts to shredded paper. Williams-Sonoma still uses peanuts because it ships so many fragile goods, but it helped launch a nationwide collection system for them with the Mail Boxes Etc. chain in 1991. Customers who get a boxload of peanuts also find an 800 number to call for the nearest store that will accept and reuse them. The network has grown from 1,200 to 3,500 locations.

The boldest pioneer is Seventh Generation of Colchester, Vermont, which sells green products and takes the Iroquois pledge "to consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." It has won a Rodale Award for two years running for its extensive efforts, which range from reusing shipping boxes to charging $2 for catalogs to weed out people who don't want them to asking its suppliers to act greener themselves. But being a pioneer isn't cheap, as general manager Steve Hood told the postal rate commission. In 1992, Seventh Generation had to spend an extra $25,000 to $50,000 for recycled paper for its catalogs. Much larger companies like L.L. Bean say they simply can't afford to use such expensive paper.

Is There Life After Junk Mail?

One environmental group has decided to abandon junk mail. "I don't like to get any direct mail, and I don't know anybody who does," says Peter Seligmann, chairman of Conservation International (CI). He hates it for good reason: 98 to 99 percent of the mail sent to recruit new members is garbage-on-arrival, the sales pitch on the envelope and in the appeal reduces serious issues to the simple-mindedness of a talk show, and it costs lots of money. The Sierra Club recently spent over $3 million on mail and telephone drives in little more than a year to cover the third of its total budget that members provide. The Nature Conservancy obviously spends a pretty penny to mail 23 million pieces a year to add to its membership rolls of 720,000 people. These groups do it because it pays, and they argue that the letters don't just beg for money, they spread valuable information. "Large numbers of people get their news from direct mail, not from E Magazine," says one fundraiser, who adds that letters often focus on issues that may get little press coverage. But Seligmann rejects the information defense. Mixing fundraising with education, he says, is like designing a horse and winding up with a camel.

All of Seligmann's bold sentiments didn't stop CI from plunging right into the junk mail game when the group was launched in 1987. "I made a mistake," he admits. "No, that's too glib. We started with major support from a few individuals, and we wanted to broaden our base for the financial security that a large membership gives you." So CI pumped out tens of thousands of dire letters, warning anyone who opened the envelope that half of the world's rainforests have already been destroyed - "The rest are being wiped out at the terrifying rate of 27 million acres a year, 54 acres a minute." Cynics might have spent the minute wondering about all the paper in their hands, but by 1990, CI had recruited 45,000 members who contributed $1.3 million towards the group's budget of $8.3 million. "I cringed every time I read our letters," Seligmann insists, but CI lived in the same world as everyone else, one that runs on money.

At this peak, however, CI smacked into the hard truth of direct mail: it costs as much to recruit members as they pay to join. "The process was breaking even," says Dennis Fruitt, CI's director of development. Not until people renew do they become profitable for an organization, contributing money to more than the care and feeding of the mail system. Older groups like the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy have developed loyal followings that sometimes last even beyond death, when members leave bequests in wills. But CI was still young and discontented with junk mail, so Seligmann and the board of directors decided to stop in 1990. It gave the whole organization an ethical charge that still lingers, but CI also watched its members vanish like flies in the blizzard of everyone else's junk mail. "We had captured the generic member who doesn't have a strong affiliation with any particular organization," Fruitt says. They join one, then renew with another, forgetting the first one's name. By now, its membership has dropped to under 13,000 people who gave $424,000 last year, less than five percent of the group's income.

But Fruitt sounds surprisingly upbeat. "We have found our core," he says. These people understand CI's mission, renew and give twice as much money as the generic joiners. Over the next five years, CI wants to grow back to 50,000 members, recruiting them anywhere it can, save the mail box. On a 28-city book tour for his Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, scientist Mark Plotkin handed out brochures to anyone interested in his group. The Natural Wonders chain, which has 100 stores, has recruited 80 percent of its employees to deduct a dollar a week from their paycheck for CI. The Bank of America now sells recycled paper checks to customers that generate a 50 cent donation to the group. And anybody who calls CI for information will certainly receive an invitation to join in return. Fruitt admits that all of these ideas may not be helpful to veteran mailers like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, which have hundreds of thousands of members and little use for corporations. But Seligmann takes The Field of Dreams view. "If you build it, they will come," he says. "I really believe that."

Guard Your Mail Box

If you don't want bulk mail, say so. Send your full name and address to: Mail Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008. The DMA has 3,500 members, who use this master "purge" list. (Sears recently abused the system by mailing one last letter to new "purge" names, asking them to check a "Yes" box to keep getting Sears mailings for "no cost at all!") After joining the service, you should only receive mail from local businesses and charities too small to join DMA.

Whenever you do give your address to a company or group, ask them not to share it with others. Write down next to your name, so anyone inputting you on computer will clearly see it: "In house list ONLY." Or be even blunter, like Wendy "No Mailing Lists" Brawer, who makes sure no one misses the message when she fills out address forms. She prepared a Stamp Out Junk Mail flier that's available with a self addressed stamped envelope from: Modern World Design, P.O. Box 249, New York, NY 10002. Bridget Regan makes a Stamp Out Junk Mail Kit with a rubber "Refused!" stamp and a postcard addressed to the Postmaster General with a smart idea. The post office doesn't return bulk mail to senders, but it should charge them for disposing of their rejected junk, instead of dumping the bill on taxpayers. Her proposal echoes an axiom of environmentalism: Make the polluter pay. The kit is $5.95 postpaid from: Bridgemark Corporation, 90 High Street, Auburn, ME 04210.

Your name can sneak onto mailing lists in ways you hardly expect. Warranty cards, for example, are only fishing for names, since the product is covered whether you return the card or not. And many state motor vehicle departments sell their address lists, a motherload for local merchants and the automobile business. If you're ready to fight the entire system, read a good pamphlet, Stop Junk Mail Forever, which explains how to take your name back from credit bureaus, giant list brokers, even the post office. It costs $2 postpaid from: The Good Advice Press, Box 78, Elizaville, NY 12523. And Dorcas Miller has written The Stop Junk Mail Book, which has 32 postcards to send to your favorite offenders. It costs $8.95 postpaid from: Georgetown Press, Box 535, Augusta, ME 04330/(800)345-0096. She has cut her junk mail by 95 percent, but she still sees surprises. After her husband passed the bar exam, Chevrolet sent him an "All-American Legend" video with "four-time Indy champ Rick Mears" hawking Corvettes. We may be able to stop junk mail, but junk advertising may always find some way into our lives.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earth Action Network, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes evaluation of worst junk mail pieces
Author:Nixon, Will
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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