In an ad that ran earlier this year in a number of newspapers, a sultry model in a satin bodice and frilly, feathered wings stared poutingly from the page. At first glance, it appeared to be an ad for Victoria's Secret -- except, that is, for the wicked-looking chainsaw the model was holding and the tagline, which read, "Victoria's Dirty Secret." In fact, it was a bold rebuke of the company for using paper from virgin forests to print its catalogs and just one very public salvo in the campaign to call attention to the environmental threat that arrives daily in our mailboxes.
Junk mail is more than just an annoyance -- it's destroying our forests. Set aside all the junk mail you get for the next week. By the time you're done, you'll have a pile that, if your household is typical, will weigh one and a half pounds. It'll be a grab bag of unwanted catalogs for useless products, unsolicited come-ons for credit cards, pleas from Robert Redford for the soul of the Democratic Party, and, of course, those infernal AOL discs -- a snowstorm of unwanted paper and other material. In fact, it is estimated that the average American will spend a full eight months of his or her life handling junk mail.
"In the United States, 59 catalogs per man, woman, and child are sent out every year," says Shana Ortman, the paper-campaign organizer for ForestEthics, a San Francisco-based advocacy group behind the newspaper ad. The group's goal is to bring attention to the unintended environmental consequences of everyday business practices.
The paper in most junk mail comes straight from natural forests, many of them endangered. Indeed, according to the Center for a New American Dream, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes cultural change as a way to reduce society's environmental impact, 100 million trees are cut down each year to create this tide of unsolicited correspondence.
But that's just the start of the junk-mail burden. The center points out that the manufacture of all that paper uses as much energy as 600,000 SUVs would in a year. "And just one-fifth of bulk mail gets recycled," says Sarah Roberts, the organization's communications director. It adds up to more than five million tons of extra trash in America's landfills each year. Nearly 100 billion pieces of bulk mail are sent around the United States each year, and it's junk from start to finish.
Victoria's Secret is a case in point. "They're one of the largest sources of catalogs," says Ortman. "They send out 395 million catalogs a year using paper from the most critical areas of the boreal forest in Canada."
A wide swath of subarctic evergreen woodland that circles the globe in Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia, the boreal forest accounts for about one-third of all the forestland left on Earth. Sparsely populated and still very wild, the region is threatened by vast clear-cuts that provide fiber for the world's seemingly unquenchable thirst for paper.
"People are getting catalogs they aren't asking for from lists that they can't get off of," says Ortman, who places the blame for the wasteful situation on the catalog companies.
More than most companies, Victoria's Secret relies on provocative visual imagery. Pop-culture-friendly images of suggestively posed, nearly naked women are the company's bread and butter. This overt sexiness has enabled Victoria's Secret to grow to more than 1,000 stores across the country and allowed Limited Brands Inc., its parent company, to post more than $1.2 billion in gross profits on revenues of $3.3 billion last year. But it's a double-edged sword: Victoria's Secret pushes the envelope in using sex to sell underwear, but it's easy for activists to subvert the same images to make their point.
That's why, when the company caught wind of ForestEthics' plan to drop by with bodices and chain saws at its "Angels across America" lingerie show in New York last winter, it abruptly canceled the public portion of the event -- featuring Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, and other supermodels -- with just a few hours' notice, rather than risk embarrassing media attention.
Victoria's Secret has made some changes -- increasing using recycled paper in one of its minor catalogs, for example -- but Ortman notes that it has also recently renewed its contract with a major supplier of paper from endangered forests. (Victoria's Secret representatives did not return calls for comment.)
The Victoria's Dirty Secret campaign is just the most visible element of ForestEthics' attempts to get the direct-mail industry to change voluntarily. "We are trying to cause an industry shift," says Ortman. "When we started the catalog campaign two years ago," she continues, "we announced at the annual meeting of the Direct Marketing Association in San Francisco that we were going to be looking at them now. A lot of them were blown away. They hadn't really thought about where their paper was coming from."
So it cascades into our homes, even though nobody likes junk mail and 44 percent of it gets tossed out unopened. That's why the Center for a New American Dream is lobbying Congress for the creation of a national "do not junk" list that would allow people to block all unsolicited mail to their addresses. The concept is based on the wildly successful Do Not Call Registry, which has largely relieved households across the land of dinnertime telephone interruptions. The center reports that more than a quarter million people have gotten involved in efforts to reduce junk mail.
In the meantime, although it's sometimes nice to receive 100 pages of unsolicited soft-core porn in the mail, is it really worth the environmental cost? Junk mail is one of those few ecological problems about which you can make an immediate difference while also improving your life. When you get a catalog or flyer you don't want, call the company and ask to be removed from all its lists. It may seem tedious at first, but in a few months the deluge really does slow down.
And the environment's thanks isn't the only gratitude you will earn: The Center for the New American Dream estimates that each U.S. Postal Service letter carrier lugs around almost 18 tons of junk mail each year, adding one more indignity to the burden of sleet and snow and dark of night.