Circular File: Greenmail

Environmental organizations should practice what they post.

Near my desk I have an almost three-foot-high stack of junk mail, all of which was sent to me by environmental organizations. I started the pile of junk mail from green groups — or “greenmail” as I prefer to call it — about a year ago when I received a letter from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). On the envelope’s front was a picture of an ocelot cub. On the back was a picture of a stuffed animal with a message in large type: “Your FREE Plush Ocelot Offer Inside.”

Inside I found a return envelope, seven sheets of variously sized paper, a sheet of personalized address labels and three ocelot postcards. Most of the paper products were identified as having recycled content. EDF included two letters noting the good work they do on behalf of endangered animals and earnestly solicited my contribution so they could continue protecting ocelots. Oh, and to get “Oliver the Ocelot,” I had to send them a “gift” of at least $15.

The letter got me thinking. How much greenmail do I get from environmental organizations in a year? As I started my collection, I noticed some trends. Some groups send a lot of mail, others only one or two letters. The groups I belong to send the fewest. They get my dues and only occasionally ask for more money.

Since I started my collection, I’ve gotten pens, calendars, credit card offers, return address labels, petitions to send to Congress, and offers of “free” clothing, tote bags, duffel bags, backpacks, fleece blankets, t-shirts and water canteens. The cheekiest letters were the six that I received from a group I didn’t belong to that nevertheless printed “Annual Renewal Statement Enclosed” on the front of its envelopes.

All in all, I’ve received more than 100 pieces of mail, weighing more than 10 and a half pounds, sent by 27 environmental groups. And I’m just one of hundreds of thousands of people who get these mailings. I can’t help but wonder about the carbon footprint of this mail and of all the stuff being offered in return for donations.

I don’t mean to pick on EDF. They do good work. They just had the bad luck to send the greenmail that launched my collection. Like all environmental groups, they are a non-profit organization, dedicated to advocating a vision of an environmentally healthy life. However, they also are a business because they have to have more revenue than expenses or they will cease operation. So they send out money-raising letters and offer cute stuffed animals as a come-on for donations.

In a perfect world, these groups would not have to raise funds. But this is not a perfect world. Even though environmental groups support sustainability and decry our culture’s mindless consumerism, they have to sell stuff in order to survive. Is this a waste of resources or just the price they have to pay to stay solvent? The least they could do is to practice what they preach and provide a recycling option for their products.

And maybe that’s what I’m really looking for from these organizations. Send me all the greenmail you want. Just be wiling to take it back and ensure that it is recycled. If take back requirements should be imposed on businesses, shouldn’t they also be imposed on green groups? After all, there’s no such thing as a free stuffed animal.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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