By Donella Meadows
–December 6, 1990–
The competitive market economy can be counted on to turn any good thing to ridiculous excess. Commercial mail to my house once consisted of three Sears catalogs a year. Then a few L.L. Bean catalogs showed up. Now I get as many catalogs a day as I used to get in a year. I am a target of a direct marketing feeding frenzy, and I have had it.
My patience snapped one day last summer in the post office. I was tossing the junk mail unopened into the waste bin, as I always do. I was picturing the stream from forests to logging trucks to paper mills to printing presses to mail trucks — the monumental waste of resources that brought this offensive dross into my life. The multicolor print was screaming tricky come-ons from the envelopes, grabbing at my attention. My postmaster heard me cursing under my breath and said, sadly, “You know, we go to a lot of work to put that stuff in your boxes.”
I went home and wrote the Direct Marketing Association, asking not to receive unsolicited commercial mail (11 W. 42nd Street, P.O. Box 3861, Grand Central Station, New York 10163-3861). I’d been meaning to do that for a long time.
The flow was not staunched. It takes months for the Great American Catalog Machine to respond to complaints. And the DMA only prevents addresses from being sold to new mailing lists, it doesn’t take them off old ones. Since I was already on every mailing list in the nation, I had to do something more.
So every time a catalog came, I cut out my mailing label from it, pasted it to a postcard, scrawled an angry request to have my name deleted, cut and pasted the catalog-sender’s name to the other side, and sent it off. I did this religiously for a month. I used up 100 postcards.
Let me warn you. This kind of direct action can turn one into an incendiary zealot. When I just tossed the junk mail out, it didn’t register in my mind. Now that I was actively engaging with it, I realized how much there was and what trivia it was trying to sell. I got madder and madder. Why should I spend my time and money warding off a marketing world gone out of control?
We anti-junk-mail-junkies tend to find one another and form support groups. I was starting on my second 100 postcards when I met Karen, who was way ahead of me.
She saved all her junk mail for a year. Then she packaged up the accumulation and returned it to the senders with angry letters requesting that they cease and desist. (The postage cost her over $300.) She gave them a few months to respond. If they didn’t, she called their 800 numbers. Her husband and children took up the cause. Some days, she says, it took them hours on the phone.
Karen also asked the few companies whose catalogs she did want not to sell her address. If she caught them selling it anyway (she called the senders of new catalogs and demanded to know how they got her name), she cancelled their catalogs, even if she liked their goods.
After a year of this her junk mail has slowed to a trickle, and she has become ferocious. She is prepared to keep up eternal vigilance against the mailing lists that breed constantly in the dark, rancid corners of the economy.
Her experience gave me pause. I’m not prepared to spend the rest of my life fighting junk mail. The whole premise here is wrong. It shouldn’t be necessary for peace-loving citizens to work constantly to fend off manic vendors. They should be allowed into our homes, our telephones, our mailboxes only if we invite them. Even then, to make wise use of the earth’s precious resources, their offerings should be limited to a reasonable number.
The sources of the problem, I think, are two. One is the replication and sale of mailing lists. The other is the subsidy we taxpayers give commercial mail. Therefore, to rid ourselves of this plague and to conserve the nation’s resources, I propose to our elected representatives the following measures:
- It should be against the law to sell or trade mailing lists for commercial purposes. The information on those lists — our names, addresses, credit ratings, and buying habits — should be our private property. (Marketers will claim that this move will bring the economy to a halt, which is nonsense, of course. We had a perfectly viable economy before there was such as thing as a computerized mailing list.)
- Commercial mailers should be charged the same rates as the rest of us. (Marketers say this will deprive the post office of $8 billion in annual revenues. They don’t say how much it will save the post office in costs. Bulk mail saves only the expense of sorting at the input point. It still must be bundled, trained, trucked, sorted, and delivered at the output point.)
- Nonprofit mailers, including environmental groups, also abuse the bulk mailing privilege. They should be allowed lower rates for no more than three mailings per year. That should go for Congressional frankings too.
Since our government is as freely bought and sold for commercial purposes as our addresses are, I have no faith that these sensible steps will be taken, unless we make a VERY LOUD NOISE. In the meantime I have taken the one move that throws real fear into the heart of mail merchandisers — a move, I might add, that has saved me money and left me feeling surprisingly liberated. I have cancelled ALL catalogs, including — and especially — the ones I’m likely to buy from.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990