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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Junk Mail Begone

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks about junk mail with Jim Calhoun, the Chief Executive Officer of Popular Demand, Incorporated. The company operates a website, "unlistme.com," that removes people from junk mailing lists and signs them up for a new type of commerce.


CURWOOD: Each year, every US home receives, on average, 34 pounds of junk mail. That translates into 4.6 million tons of paper nationwide. And that's just the paper. Ink, water, and energy are also needed to generate the billions of catalogues, credit card offers, and the like. There are ways to reduce the stream. One of the latest is unlistme.com. It's the brainchild of Jim Calhoun, the Chief Executive Officer of Popular Demand, Incorporated. Jim Calhoun says advances in computer technology can give consumers more leverage, but technology has also caused the amount of junk mail to balloon.

CALHOUN: It sounds a little bit like a cliché, but in the last couple of years it's really become possible to monitor somebody's commercial history primarily through their credit card transactions and things like that, where companies will act as clearing houses for your credit card purchases, and then they sort of know what it is that you buy. Marketers get a hold of this data, turn it around, and try and infer what it is that you might be likely to buy.

CURWOOD: Okay, so this explains why last fall, when I went to a men's store and bought a bunch of shirts, I got all these catalogues from people who made shirts.

CALHOUN: Exactly.

CURWOOD: But tell me, Jim. Aren't catalogues an environmentally friendly way to shop? I mean, at least you don't have to get in the car and waste gas or trundle all the way across town and park.

CALHOUN: Absolutely. And you know, we're certainly not anti-catalogue. It's just a manner of making sure that the people who are getting them are actually getting value out of them. Really, just the way the math of marketing works, there's a lot of waste built into the system.

CURWOOD: Tell me about this math of marketing. Why is it we get just deluged like this? I mean, I can't respond to 10 credit card offers.

CALHOUN: The people who sent you those offers know that you're going to respond to just a fraction of the things that come in your mailbox. They know, for example, that statistically, 50% of the time you'll throw it out without even opening it up or looking at it. If you're a credit card company or whatever, you want to get a 2% response rate.

CURWOOD: So if I am a direct marketer, and I go out and I cut down 100 trees to send out the junk mail, 98 of those trees have died in vain.

CALHOUN: Exactly. So that's where you get this giant amount of waste that is a byproduct of just the fact that companies need to acquire customers and grow.

CURWOOD: So what's the solution here?

CALHOUN: Well, the primary service that we're offering for consumers right now is a free direct-mail suppression list service, so we go ahead and reduce your junk load as a consumer. The next step is where you can say: I'm not interested in hearing about stuff by junk mail, but I'm in the market for a new computer, gardening equipment, whatever it may be. What we do is go out and say okay, company X, we know 10,000 people are interested in these products. If you'd like to talk to them, you talk to them through us as a middleman, and then we, on a frequency that you control as a consumer, you can say you want to hear about deals once a month, once a week, never. And then we'll send out an e-mail that says there are 5 deals on your personal home page that match your interest. You can check them out. And that's it.

CURWOOD: Jim, one thing.


CURWOOD: People don't write a whole lot of letters any more. I mean, when I open the mailbox, there's junk mail and there are bills. If I sign up with you, all I'm going to get is bills.

CALHOUN: Bills and an occasional letter. I think it should be a good thing.

CURWOOD: Jim, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

CALHOUN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, it's been fun.

CURWOOD: Jim Calhoun is head of the San Francisco-based Popular Demand. You can reach the group's Web site at www.unlistme.com.



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