THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: Now Let Us Complain About Catalogs
In what appears to be an uncoordinated campaign, three friends have brought me three different mail-order catalogs, asking me to condemn them publicly.At first I resisted, because I prefer to dump on catalogs as a class, rather than singling some out, which might leave the mistaken impression that others are OK. However, three requests add up to a near-mandate in the column-writing business, so, after an obligatory blanket condemnation, I shall indeed denounce the catalogs in question, which strike me as, in order, 1) normally smarmy, 2) infuriating, and 3) pathetic.Even from companies with which we want to do business catalogs flood into our lives too often, too thick, too glossy. They are just successful enough at seducing us to buy things we otherwise never would want to keep the mail order business going. However only two to four percent of catalogs mailed produce an order. Catalog sales must be one of the world's most wasteful endeavors.Let us be clear what is being wasted. The trees and inks that go into the catalogs. The fuels that print, assemble, sort, label, bale, truck and deliver them. The space in our kitchens or garages where we hold them before more energy takes them to the recycling center or dump. The cost of all this shows up in our taxes (for the recycling or dump) and in the price of the product.Over 90 percent waste. That was my complaint about catalogs, until I studied the ones my friends brought me.The first is the spring 2000 L.L. Bean Home catalog. Running through pictures of towels and lamps and down comforters run lines like these: "home is feeling like you're in a country cottage (even if you have a city address)." "home is room to play, room to grow." "home is the sound of cartoons and giggles." "home is a place where traditions are made." Normal nauseating catalog copy.I think what irritated my friend was the implication that braided rugs and flannel sheets make a home. That warm and comfy feelings can be bought. That traditions and giggles come from stuff, rather than from people and love.But that's just the everyday advertising lie. Summon up a profound human value, especially one that is threatened by the frantic wastefulness imbued in the totally unnecessary product being advertised. Intertwine the material product with soulful evocations of the nonmaterial value. Want youth and energy? Buy Coke. Love your kids? Buy toys. Want a peaceful, relaxing home? Buy L.L. Bean chenille bedspreads.The second catalog, the early spring 2000 (ominously implying a late spring follow-up) output of a company called Harmony, made me much madder. Harmony, it says, is owned by an enterprise called Gaiam, a combination of "Gaia" and "I am." Dedicated to "natural health, ecological lifestyles, personal growth, and sustainable commerce," it is, says the catalog, one of the leading lights of "the fast-growing LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) industry."Uh-oh, I thought, as I opened the first page to a shiny $239 water filter. As a card-carrying environmentalist I see entirely too many of these catalogs. Biodegradable trash bags. Ultrasonic bug repellers. Magnetic massage machines, all-cotton sheets, $450 ozone-generating air purifiers.Want health, cleanliness, nature? Buy green-tinged stuff. These eco-porn catalogs are extra annoying because they offer a whiff of unearned virtue with each purchase, as if every "green" product, like every other product, didn't come from the earth, pollute in its manufacture and delivery, and eventually go back to the earth as waste. A real environmental catalog would inform the consumer about that impact. This Harmony one doesn't even bother to say what kind of plastic the spinning composter is made of or how many watts the electric aromatherapy machine draws.Want health, cleanliness, nature? Buy less, buy with full information, buy only what you need, stay far away from the fast-growing LOHAS industry.The Christmas catalog from Hammacher Schlemmer is the one that broke my heart. The first page offers a $4000 stand-up snowmobile and a $1200 silent violin with head-phones, so you can practice without disturbing anyone. This catalog is meticulous about wattage information. The electric pants press draws 250 watts, the pop-up hot-dog cooker draws 660 (but it does heat two hot-dogs and buns), the heated cat bed with orthopedic mattress draws only four. For this kind of mindless exhibitionism we pollute the planet and change the climate.The advertising lie here is old as the hills and so very sad. Want respect? Buy a $17,000 rotating Christmas lawn display with 1,130 lights. Want to feel important? Buy a $129.95 gentleman's leather tray to empty your pockets into at night. Want to ease your affluent loneliness? Buy a $39.95 hand-held interactive Monopoly game with five electronic fellow players, each with a different personality and a 400 word vocabulary.Think of the effort, the money, the resources put into designing, making, advertising, buying, shipping, storing, and disposing of these unsatisfying substitutes for very real nonmaterial needs. Imagine putting even a fraction of that effort directly into home, comfort, health, cleanliness, nature, respect, friends and love.Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.