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Each year, retailers mail out 64 catalogs for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Here's what you can do to stop the onslaught. More....

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In 1894, Sears mailed out its first general merchandise catalog.  Distribution was made  economical by a discounted postal rate and the advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896.  The “Big Book” offered everything from sewing machines to firearms, clothing, eyeglasses, wigs, wallpaper and eventually even houses.  In the end, it was often recycled as toilet paper in the outhouse. 

Sears Catalog from 1926
A page out of the 1926 Sears "Big Book"

Sears, Roebuck and Co. discontinued the “Big Book” in 1993, but still does specialty mailings.  Each year, retailers send out an estimated nineteen billion catalogs.  That equates to 64 catalogs for every man, woman and child in the U.S.  While some merchandisers like Williams-Sonoma and Victoria’s Secret (the “poor man’s Playboy magazine”) are printing on recycled or certified virgin paper, all these catalogs put together still consume an estimated 3.6 million tons of paper annually.

Catalogs may never go away.  Even though today many of the same items are available on the Internet, mailings allow retailers to come into your home, instead of requiring you to go to their website.  Catalogs can showcase a greater variety of items than could ever be displayed in a single store, and offer a connection to customers that live far away.  Many people enjoy the tactile experience of flipping through the pages.  The Direct Marking Association also argues that if every shopper exchanged two trips to the mall for catalog shopping, it would result in 3.3 billion fewer miles travelled each year.

Unfortunately, many catalogs are repeats or unsolicited, and are thrown out or recycled without ever being opened.  A variety of services have popped up to help consumers stop the onslaught of junk mail.   Catalogchoice.org [not .com] offers a free service to quickly and easily “opt-out” of all common catalogs.  Registration is quick and simple.  Your privacy is protected, since they do not sell, share or rent your address.  Just tear off the back page of a catalog you want to discontinue, log-in, select the catalog, enter your customer number, and hit a button.  More than 350,000 users are using this system to stop mailings from companies such as LL Bean, Land’s End, Lillian Vernon, Brookstone, Gardener’s Supply, etc. 

Catalogchoice.org is a project of an environmental advocacy group, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.  Similar services for a fee are offered by greendimes.com (for $20/year, they immediately remove you from dozens of lists and then eliminate unwanted catalogs, while planting ten trees on your behalf), 41pounds.org ($41 for five years, claims to stop 80-95% of unwanted catalogs, requires you to list catalogs, and then prepares pre-stamped postcards for you to mail), stopthejunkmail.com ($19.95/year, no postcards, also enables removal from other mailing lists like credit card solicitations, with a 100% guarantee). An old standby is the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference List ($1, send written request with your name as it appears on all catalog labels to The Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.)  To avoid getting back on lists, ask retailers to note in your record that your name is not to be rented, sold or traded to others.  Also ask them to remove you from their database for mailings, or to delete duplicate listings.  This will prevent them from wasting both money and trees.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on January 11, 2008

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