It's a sure sign that Christmas is coming.
A chill in the air. Bing Crosby music at the mall. And the first blizzard. Not snow, but mail order catalogs — their glossy pages imploring Americans to buy everything from flannel shirts to expensive chocolates to the latest in must-have electronics.
Last year, an estimated 17 billion catalogs were sent to U.S. households. That's about 56, for every man, woman and child.
Now, a growing chorus of environmental groups is sounding the alarm that the Yuletide avalanche may not be good, for goodness sake, for the planet. Some are seeking a national "Do Not Mail" registry, modeled on the "Do Not Call" list that Congress set up in 2003 to control telemarketers. They say the public should also have an enforceable, easy way to block junk mail.
"I've had people tell me it's as if their house is being invaded by garbage," said Will Craven, a spokesman for Forest Ethics, a San Francisco environmental group. "We may have a lot of hard choices ahead of us in terms of climate change and the environment. Getting rid of junk mail isn't one of them. It's one of the easy ones."
In March, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 to pass a resolution urging Congress and California to create a "Do Not Mail" registry. Similar measures are being debated in Oakland and Berkeley, and Craven said his group is considering expanding the effort to San Jose.
The catalog industry says such campaigns are unnecessary.
"We are in favor of consumers having choice to receive or not receive the mail they don't want. But we do not believe there should be a national do not mail list," said Sue Geramian, vice president of the Direct Marketing Association, a trade representing 3,100 companies and nonprofits that distribute advertising mail and sell items online. "The industry is capable of self-regulating."
It can cost roughly $1 for companies like L.L. Bean, Victoria's Secret, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers to print each catalog. Even though they make millions with purchase rates in the single digits, retailers say they don't want to waste money by sending people catalogs that are only thrown away.
"Direct marketers work very hard to make sure they only reach customers that want their products," said Geramian.
Last year, advertising mail generated $702 billion in sales for U.S. businesses, according to the Direct Marketing Association, and 3.5 million Americans have jobs that depend on it.
Plus, Geramian said, many Americans like catalogs.
"A lot of people in these economically challenging times might want this mail sent to them so they can have coupons and see promotions," Geramian said.
"I'm not one of those who are over the top about it, but I am concerned about the waste," said Edith Thompson, who said she receives about 50 catalogs in the mail a year. She smiled, but added: "But I do like to curl up with them."
Meanwhile, "Do Not Mail" bills have been introduced in at least a dozen states in the past two years, with Florida, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey recently debating the issue. None has been signed into law, however.
Why? Many businesses and the paper industry oppose them. Some large environmental groups avoid the issue because they send junk mail themselves. Perhaps the most influential player is the U.S. Postal Service, which earns one-third of its revenue from advertising mail.
"Ads pay for the Internet, as well as broadcast TV and radio programs," said Postmaster General John Potter recently at the National Press Club. "So, too, ad mail helps pay for universal mail service in America."
Two years ago, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Berkeley Ecology Center, set up a Web site called "Catalog Choice" (www.catalogchoice.org) that allows people to click the names of catalogs they'd like to cancel or subscribe to. It now has 1.1 million users and 1,072 companies that agree to remove customers' names.
As the popularity of Catalog Choice grew, the Direct Marketing Association upgraded its own Web site, (www.dmachoice.org), which also enables people to opt off advertising mail lists.
"There's nothing wrong with the catalog. It's a great marketing tool," said Chuck Teller, a Berkeley resident who is executive director of Catalog Choice. "But I only want the ones that I want."