It is another Wednesday morning, and I am again sitting at the front desk of my dormitory at 9 am. The US Postal Service just delivered today’s mail, and the other Wednesday-morning deskworker and I are preparing to search for names, check mailbox numbers, sort the mail, and place it into mailboxes.
I hate working the mail shift, but I do it because I get paid nine dollars an hour for relatively brainless work. Even though I lose a few hours of sleep, I get some good laughs and entertainment in return, especially on a day like today when an array of catalogs stocks two entire mail bins. After three years at this job, I continue to be amazed at both the number of catalogs certain people receive and the type of items that can be acquired through a catalog.
Take, for example, Resident Jane Doe, who gets J. Crew, L.L. Bean, Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret, Pottery Barn, Bed & Bath and Beyond, and Staples catalogs, each of which arrive on average once per month. Residents like Jane Doe are notorious amongst deskworkers for the volume of mail they receive, and their room numbers are firmly imprinted on our brains because we have looked them up so many times. I can always tell when residents like Jane Doe have been away for a long weekend, because their mailboxes become so packed that they cannot hold even one additional piece of mail. Of course, 80% of the mail in her mailbox consists of catalogs and other junk mail.
The companies themselves contribute greatly to the number of catalogs these residents receive. Jane Doe probably purchased one item from J. Crew through mail order or at a J. Crew store, and as a result, she will always receive catalogs from J. Crew at this address, even after she has moved away from this dorm. Furthermore, the fact that she receives other clothing catalogs may also be attributed to this one purchase. Since it’s already almost two months into the semester, I do not mind this never-ending stream of catalogs as much because I can generally identify the residents who do not reside in my dorm building anymore and can quickly sort through their mail.
Their “flood technique,” however, still makes me want to tear my hair out of my head. Today, Pottery Barn customers received both a general catalog and the seasonal autumn catalog, which display almost exactly the same products, only the autumn version focuses on color schemes of brown, orange, red, and black. Christian Book Distributor customer will find Christmas Book Bargains, Christmas 2000, and Christmas 2000 Kids catalogs in theie mailboxes. By the time I check the same resident’s name the third time for the same catalog-sending company, I am ready to call their toll-free number to file a complaint. I realize, however, that I would need to call over twenty companies, stay on hold for at least ten minutes of each fifteen-minute phone call, and endure much exasperation in the process. I shudder at this thought as I write Jane Doe’s mailbox number on the fourth catalog she will receive today.
It is difficult not to draw conclusions about the consumer habits of certain people in the dorm through observing the volume of their junk mail. The types of catalogs they receive, however, arouse even more curiosity. In today’s pile I notice a seemingly innocent catalog titled “Harriet Carter: Distinctive Gifts Since 1958″ which is destined for the recycling bin, because the resident has already moved away. I browse through the catalog, and among the more benign items of Santa Lampshade Toppers and Microwave Plate Covers, I do find quite a few items that intrigue me.
From page eight, for example, you can purchase a latex rubber monster that pops out of your toilet when you lift the lid. The description even proudly advertises its ability to stay “totally invisible when the lid is closed.” Though I can envision a person purchasing the Toilet Monster to play a prank, I can hardly imagine someone forking over $19.98 + $5.98 for shipping and handling for a piece of rubber with suction cups.
Harriet Carter also designed other clever items for use in the bathroom. Page 53, the centerfold of this catalog, displays the prize item for your golf-loving friends: Toilet Golf. As the catalog eloquently illustrates, this handy item allows you to “tee off while you’re taking care of other business.” This tactical use of multitasking renders me speechless. Even though I am only halfway through this display of “distinctive gifts,” I expedite the fate of the catalog as the next new member of the Homeless Catalogs in the Recycling Bin.
I wonder how much paper waste catalogs generate, so I perform a simple calculation. Out of 270 million Americans, let’s conservatively assume that only half receive catalogs. The other half is either too young or does not have enough money to participate in this aspect of trash production. If we again conservatively estimate that each person gets only one catalog (a conservative estimate indeed!), and that an average catalog uses forty sheets of paper and is sent out six times a year, then we arrive at the estimate of 32.4 billion sheets of paper used per year for catalogs. That’s 64 million reams of paper.
All this paper would form a stack over two thousand miles high. This volume of trash overwhelms me, especially because many of these catalogs probably end up in the trash without the slightest attention from their recipients. A fair number of the catalogs that I spend two hours sorting and stuffing into mailboxes travels straight from the recipient’s mailbox to the recycling bin under the mailboxes. As a deskworker, it annoys me that people don’t even look at the catalogs, but I wouldn’t want to look at them either. If a catalog manages to keep my attention for more than two minutes, it is pretty lucky.
On the other hand, the existence of catalogs and of the eccentric products they promote in light of the age-old economic rule of production and consumption reveals another truth: without the consumers to purchase items such as the Toilet Monster from catalogs, neither the product nor the catalog would exist. I can imagine that the purchaser of a Toilet Golf set may buy the item with full intention to use it. However, in a mere few weeks he or she will probably find it sitting in the back of the closet along with the Toasty Magnetic Moccasins, Auto Pilot Road Navigator, and Paper Shredder. All of us own one item or another that sits around as a dust collectors because we fell victim to the American obsession with acquiring things, which intertwines with the American obsession with fashion. The need to keep up with the latest fashion drives us to fork over money for an entirely new wardrobe each season or for the new high-tech “toy” every year. Furthermore, advertisements, movies, television, and the Internet continue to point us to buying and owning more stuff as a necessity of life.
Catalogs are also carefully designed to convey the message that, if we don’t acquire a certain item, our lives are not quite complete, not quite happy, and not quite “with our time.” They display pictures of beautiful people in beautiful settings to convince us that purchasing their items will “improve” our lives. Why do we let these companies inundate us with these ideas? Perhaps we should write to or call these companies to ask them to stop sending their catalogs. The short-term exasperation of this endeavor will not only result in reducing our mind clutter, but will also prevent weight loss from our pocketbooks in the long run.
In practice, eliminating junk mail will be much more difficult than recognizing the problem. As a start, however, the US Postal Service could exclude catalog-sending companies from the bulk-mail rate. Also, each state could levy heavy taxes on catalog-production. Raising the cost of sending these catalogs may make these companies think twice about sending so many of them. As the Internet becomes more universally accessible (or at least accessible to the people who have money to spend on mail-order products), it may be advantageous for companies to spend more of their resources on developing web-based advertising, especially if the price of producing and sending catalogs increases.
Catalogs become trash, and they incite buying that eventually leads to more trash. At the end of the day, we have wasted paper, wasted resources on useless products, wasted space in the landfills, wasted our time, and wasted our money. There’s a valid reason that we call this type of mail “junk mail.” If it has been labeled as junk even before it has arrived, why not get rid of it altogether?