NEW YORK — The early warning signs of another holiday season are all around. Green and red decorations are showing up in stores. Ads are appearing for this year's crop of Christmas movies.
And America's mailboxes are bulging with catalogs.
But a new service, started by three environmental groups, is giving people a chance to gain some control over the postal flood tide that inundates them with billions of catalogs a year.
Called Catalog Choice, the online service allows people to compile a list of catalogs they do not want to receive. The service then contacts the retailers with a request to take the person's name off their mailing lists or makes a file available for download that merchants can feed into their mailing database.
"Some people want to get some catalogs, but most people probably don't want to get all the catalogs they get from companies that they've never bought anything from," said Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of Catalog Choice's creators.
From toys to trinkets, this is the season for these colossal compendiums of consumerism. If a customer is going to receive just one catalog a year from a merchant, autumn is the time it will plop through the mail slot.
And retailers also send catalogs to people who have never ordered from them, in hopes of boosting holiday sales.
"This time of year, I fear my mailbox," said Kerry Brock, 50, a painter and interior designer in Weston, Conn., who has used Catalog Choice to request that she be taken off the 55 merchants' mailing lists so far. "I got a catalog today for something called Musician's Friend. Is that because I bought a recorder for my son I don't know how many years ago? And West Marine. I don't have a boat. Why am I on their mailing list?"
Other relatively new organizations such as GreenDimes.com and 41Pounds.org offer opt-out services of one kind or another, but they charge up to $41. Catalog Choice is free.
And the Direct Marketing Assn., the industry trade group, runs a mail preference service that, for $1, will put a person's name on a do-not-mail list for three years. That service, which is several decades old, has more than 4.5 million subscribers.
But in less than a month and with little fanfare, more than 90,000 people have registered for Catalog Choice and logged more than 550,000 opt-out requests.
The service started with a list of about 600 retailers, but site visitors have used the "suggest a retailer" feature to raise that to more than 1,000 retailers, according to Executive Director Chuck Teller, who runs Catalog Choice out of a Berkeley office.
"The effort necessary for any individual consumer to get off these lists is significant compared to everything else we have to do in our lives," he said, meaning that until recently, the only way to get off a mailing list was to contact the merchant directly. "We think we introduce some efficiency into the process."
In addition to the defense council, the groups involved in starting the service are the National Wildlife Federation and the Ecology Center, which runs Berkeley's curbside recycling program. Funding for the service comes from three foundations.
From the sponsoring groups' perspective, the idea behind Catalog Choice is to reduce the environmental impact caused by the mass mailings.
Every year, U.S. households receive 19 billion catalogs of all shapes and sizes. The environmental groups estimate that it takes 53 million trees to produce the 3.6 million tons of paper in those catalogs. Add in the energy required to make the paper and ship the catalogs, and groups say that the process adds 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere yearly, equal to those from 2 million cars.
But the association requires that its members remove a name from its mailing list if asked. And the sharply higher postage rates that went into effect this year have given merchants an added incentive to make sure that their catalogs are going to households that want them.
So far, the retailers at the top of Catalog Choice's opt-out list are L.L. Bean, Lands' End, Pottery Barn, Victoria's Secret and Eddie Bauer. Teller says all the merchants they've contacted have agreed to honor the requests, and to demonstrate that Catalog Choice has nothing against free enterprise, the website includes links to all the merchants, giving users the chance to shop online after asking to be taken off a mailing list. "It's not like I don't want to do business with you," Teller said. "I just don't want to get your catalog."