By Donella Meadows
–February 14, 1991–
Now that postage rates have gone up and we’re all mad, it’s time to revisit the subject of junk mail.
The problem, I hasten to say, is not shopping by mail. That can save resources, if, instead of each of us driving a one-ton vehicle to a store, we let an efficient delivery truck bring packages to us. The problems are rather:
- the 99 percent of junk mail that is unsolicited and that brings no sales;
- its volume, stridency, and deceptiveness (the latest trick is to make it look like a check, so we will at least rip it open before we toss it out);
- the trees, energy, chemicals, expense, and labor it takes to produce and deliver 4 million tons per year of wasted paper;
- the solid waste burden of discarded junk mail (little of which is recyclable);
- the subsidy of this wasteful activity by special low postage rates.
That subsidy is a myth, the junk mailers and the post office say. By law each mail class is required to cover its own costs. I have spent considerable time asking why, exactly, it costs 75 cents to deliver a three-ounce letter for me but only 11 cents to deliver a three-ounce catalog for the Arizona Trading Company or Victoria’s Secret. And who covers the $110 per ton it costs my town to truck away and incinerate discarded junk mail.
The explanations are not convincing. The slippery economics of postal cost allocation are as politically motivated as everything else the government does.
Some of my readers, even more fanatic than I am on this subject, have been sending me ideas about how to reduce excess marketing in our mailboxes. The creativity of a wrathful public is wondrous to behold. Here are some of their suggestions.
First, they say, when you write to have your name removed from commercial mailing lists (Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, 6 East 43rd Street, New York NY 10017), list ALL WAYS your name and address might appear — J. Doe, Jane Doe, and any other variation.
Second, call the Direct Marketing Association (212-689-4977) and CHECK to be sure your name has been registered. The DMA exists to serve junk mailers. It maintains its “do not send” list as a public relations gesture; its heart is not in the task. It updates its “pander list” (as it is called in-house) only quarterly, so it may take a few months for your request to register — and requests do get lost. DMA claims it will keep you off bulk mailing lists for five years. Some of my correspondents have found it necessary to renew their names yearly.
DMA gives dire warnings about putting your name on their pander list ONLY if you want to be taken off ALL national mailing lists. People tell me, however, that the DMA pander list has only slowed, not stopped, their junk mail. As unwelcome catalogs keep coming, they say, call the sender’s 800 number, ask to talk to the person in charge of the mailing list, request to be taken off the list, and ask where the company got your name. Get THAT phone number, call it, and repeat the request.
“Do it more in sorrow than in anger,” says one informant. “After a few calls you get over the anger. You just plod on, knowing you’re working to save both the planet and your own peace of mind.”
If your request is answered with, “I can’t reveal to you how we got your address,” drop the sorrow and go back to the anger. It’s YOUR address! Threaten to report the company to the Better Business Bureau. Say that you’re pressing for a federal law requiring revelation of sources of mailing lists. Then do it.
“Saintly organizations” such as Greenpeace and the ACLU may also sell your name. They’re reforming, but some still defend the practice by saying that they get income that way to use for good purposes. Cancel your membership; tell them you will rejoin when their budgets stand or fall on their own good actions, not on selling your name. Get them to put a box on their membership form to check if you WANT your name sold (not if you DON’T want it).
Whenever you give your address to any organization for any purpose, add a note insisting that it not be sold. Make up a middle initial (Jane Z. Doe) and keep a code list, so you can trace violations. If you catch a violation, call up, blow up, cancel your membership.
Complain to Congress, say my readers, that peace-loving citizens shouldn’t have to go to all this trouble to keep junk out of their mailboxes. Make your point by saving up your junk mail and sending it to Washington. I send off a month’s accumulation at a time, rotating the packages to my two Senators and my Congressman. I include a letter telling them I will continue this practice until they come up with a determined national policy to stop mail abuse.
I suggest to them that a good first step would be to require mass mailers to pay the same postal rate as the rest of us. That wouldn’t eliminate mail sales, which are, as I have said, a good thing. It would force marketers to be precise about sending their propaganda only where it is wanted. It would stop the invasion of privacy, the ever-noisier competition for the attention of the beleaguered consumer, and at least part of our disgraceful waste of the earth’s sweet resources.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991