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Seeing the Catalogs for the Trees


Catalogs are convenient, but do their environmental costs outweigh their benefits?

By Lindsay Tigue
Spring 2008

What has 40 pages, a long list of products and is partly to blame for deforestation? Answer: The mail-order catalog.

Mail-order catalogs have been around almost as long as retail stores. In 1872, the first mail-order company, Montgomery Ward, began printing single-sheet leaflets. Soon after, Sears began printing its well-known catalogs. Now, more than 100 years later, the catalog industry is in full swing.

Despite the successes of online shopping, consumers prefer thumbing through a catalog and dog-earing their favorite pages before making purchases, online or in-store. According to a June 2003 survey by the Direct Marketing Association, many online shoppers still keep catalogs in their home, with 56 percent keeping their copies for three months or until a replacement arrives.

Catalog companies mailed 19.26 billion catalogs in 2007, according to a study by Resource Information Systems, Inc. (now known as simply RISI), a U.S. based company that analyzes the global forestry industry.

The practice of shopping at home has never been easier, but all of this convenience comes at a significant cost to the environment. Each year more than 8 million tons of wood is cut down and transformed into catalogs. This practice contributes to deforestation across the globe, especially in the Canadian Boreal Forest, where the majority of paper in U.S. catalogs comes from, according to ForestEthics, an environmental advocacy group. Boreal forests are ecosystems of coniferous forest.

“The lightweight paper used in catalogs is best made from species that grow in the boreal,” said Lars Laestadius, Russia project manager for Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute that strives to facilitate informed decision-making to people living in forested areas by providing reliable maps and forest analysis.

Cut the Catalogs Check out these Web sites to find out how to cut catalogs in your own home. This free service lets users browse catalog lists and check off which ones they no longer want to receive. This service costs $41, but stops 80 to 95 percent of unwanted catalogs and junk mail and covers the entire household for five years. Also, one-third of the fee goes to the environmental or community organization of your choice. Register with the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service for a $1 fee. This five-year service is designed to help consumers decrease the amount of nationally generated commercial or nonprofit mail they receive at home. For $15 this organization ensures subscriber names and addresses including current and past residents are removed from large direct mailing databases and chosen catalog mailing lists for three to five years. In addition, five trees are planted for each new subscriber.
Globally, one quarter of the remaining “intact” or “original” forest on earth is located in the Canadian Boreal—roughly the size of 13 Californias. It reaches from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean, and within it there is a biologically diverse population, including many bird species, wolves, bears and the endangered woodland caribou.

“Boreal forests have unique biodiversity features,” said Ruth Nogueron, program coordinator of North and South Americas for Global Forest Watch. “Considering that biodiversity is defined as the variety of species, genes, ecosystems, and ecological processes and phenomena, boreal forests are key for ecological processes such as migration of birds.”

Despite its wealth of biodiversity, only 8 percent of the Canadian Boreal is protected, according to the Global Forest Watch. Unprotected forest means logging, and the Canadian Boreal is unfortunately no exception; currently two acres of it are logged every minute, 24 hours a day, according to ForestEthics.

Deforestation affects more than wildlife. Trees also serve as carbon sinks. When trees are cut down, the stored carbon within them is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In addition, paper production is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases among all industries, said Victoria Mills, project manager of the Corporate Partnerships Program for Environmental Defense. “It is a tremendously energy intensive process,” she said. There are also environmentally threatening energy-related emissions from the paper mills.

Save the Trees
Though deforestation continues at an alarming rate, strides are being taken to make the catalog industry more environmentally friendly. ForestEthics has had one of the most successful campaigns to encourage more sustainable catalog production. Its mission is to reduce the amount of catalogs, increase recycled content and to use paper only from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization promoting responsible forest management. ForestEthics and other environmental organizations promote Forest Stewardship Council standards because of its independence from the forestry and paper industry.
ForestEthics’ approach is simple: direct attention toward logging companies’ biggest customers.

“This campaign is important because huge corporations, which have so much influence and power in our society, need to be held accountable for their actions. That is what we are all about,” said Jeff Green, a Denison University student and ForestEthics activist.

Environmental Defense is also working to make the catalog industry’s practices more sustainable. It wants companies to realize the affordability, equal attractiveness and prevalence of recycled paper.

“Our work goes back a few years,” said Mills. “We did the first benchmark report, the first report to look at the catalog industries’ paper policies.”

In 1999, the organization started spreading awareness about the issue when they found the industry used very little recycled paper. In 2002, it put out “Does Your Catalog Care?”, which reported that out of 42 companies surveyed, only six used recycled paper throughout the body of their catalogs. Industry leaders such as Norm Thompson, Omaha Steaks and Disney were among those listed.

While ForestEthics and Environmental Defense have similar aims, they implement them in different ways. “Both our organizations work towards environmental conservation,” explained Ginger Cassady, senior campaigner of the Paper Campaign for ForestEthics. “[ForestEthics is] focused on market campaigns and [Environmental Defense] works through legal and legislative systems.”

The Dirty (Half) Dozen
Some of the most well-known corporations are also the guiltiest of sending mass mailings of catalogs. According to the ForestEthics’ paper campaign, the top corporations most apt to send abundant amounts of catalogs include such well-known names as Victoria’s Secret, Sears/Lands’ End, JC Penney, L.L. Bean, J. Crew and Williams-Sonoma. Collectively, these companies mail more than one billion catalogs every year.

Victoria’s Secret was the paper campaign’s first target. ForestEthics says the company sent out roughly one million catalogs every day and approximately 395 million catalogs per year, mostly made from virgin paper. The ensuing, high-profile, “Victoria’s Dirty Secret” campaign, which began in the fall of 2004, lasted two years and received much media attention, including coverage by the Wall Street Journal. It involved hundreds of successful protests in cities nationwide, and two full-page ads in The New York Times. The ads, featuring a scantily-clad model wielding a chainsaw, received attention from regional and national media outlets such as The Today Show, USA Today and Time Magazine.

All this publicity worked. Victoria’s Secret, and its parent company, Limited Brands, agreed on December 6, 2006 to stop printing from paper produced from endangered forests, to increase post-consumer recycled content and to adhere to Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Williams-Sonoma, L.L. Bean and Dell also responded to the Victoria’s Secret Campaign with improved environmental catalog policies, fearing, they too, could receive negative attention. Despite the recent successes, the fight to make catalogs more sustainable is hardly over. ForestEthics is focusing on its second target, Sears Holdings Co., parent company of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and Kmart. Sears sends an estimated 425 million catalogs a year, which includes 270 million through its subsidiary, Lands’ End, according to ForestEthics.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the agendas of groups like ForestEthics. Most notably, some members of the paper and forestry industry question ForestEthics’ exclusive advocacy of Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Forest Stewardship Certification is not the only answer, said Debbie Johnston, director of public affairs and government relations at AbitibiBowater, the third largest publicly traded forest product and paper company in North America. She refers to the company’s Sustainable Forest Management policy, which reads: “The most important factor is whether forest is managed sustainably and harvested responsibly, not whether one particular certification system is used to the exclusion of others.”

AbitibiBowater uses a mixture of forest certification systems Canadian Standards Association and Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which both encourage sustainable forestry practices.

Others have issues with the anti-catalog movement as well. Dennis B. Propst, a Michigan State University professor of forestry and of community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, doesn’t oppose the anti-catalog groups, but encourages rational thinking when it comes to preserving forests.

“Naturalness is not an absolute, but a relative term,” Propst said. “Even if we keep our human hands off forests, they will change on their own due to natural forces: maturation, decay, disease, insects, wind, fire, etc. We cannot put a forest under glass and preserve it in some timeless, mythical, romantic state of no change. But we can scientifically manage them to provide for a wide range of human uses so that they remain healthy and capable of meeting the changing needs of society, including aesthetics and biodiversity—that’s what foresters do.”

Despite his reservations, Propst does agree something must be done to reduce the amount of catalogs people receive.

“I agree wholeheartedly with FSC standards for certification,” he said. “I think there should be more recycled content in catalogs, and I wish Cabela’s (a hunting and fishing outfitter) would stop sending me so many!”

Lindsay Tigue is a 2007 English and Creative Writing graduate from Michigan State University. She teaches English in France. This is her first appearance in EJ . Contact Lindsay at

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