The $250,000 Gamble

July 21, 2000

By Michael Jessen

In a world inundated with paper, The Center for a New American Dream is betting a quarter of a million dollars it can do without.

The five-year-old Takoma Park, Maryland organization is gambling it can increase its membership without the customary junk mail appeal. If it succeeds in adding 1,500 new members by October 31, 2000, the center will receive a $250,000 grant.

What else would you expect from a group whose motto is "more fun, less stuff!" and actively campaigns to help its members to shed unwanted junk mail?

Direct mail experts say it's easy to get 1,500 people to join an organization. First you buy a mailing list of 150,000 names and addresses, preferably from a group whose members already subscribe to some or all of your values. Then you send out 150,000 pieces of mail and wait.

No matter that 148,500 will be thrown out. Not to worry that 44 percent will be tossed unopened. You'll have your 1,500 new members, the experts say.

But The Center for a New American Dream (CNAD) has taken on the task of "helping people consume responsibly to improve our quality of life and protect the environment."

Junk mail is "just the kind of unasked-for, intrusive, life-cluttering, earth-destroying, mindless, soul-eroding, easy, cheap, everybody-does-it consumption that the CNAD is asking us to reconsider," says board member Donella Meadows. "With a great gulp, the Center decided not to do a mailing, risking the challenge grant rather than blowing off its principles," adds Meadows.

The continent's letter carriers will only breathe a small sigh of relief due to the Center's decision. Each of the U.S. Postal Service's 293,000 carriers annually delivers 17.8 tons of bulk mail, which just happens to be the typical weight of four elephants.

The Center's award-winning web site (which received over 2.5 million "hits" last year) at has a quiz on its home page asking visitors to guess how much U.S. companies spent on direct mail in 1998. Was it $5 billion, $23 billion, or $39 billion?

When you realize that the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report stated that $22 billion could provide access to clean water, safe sewers, basic health care, and nutrition to all people in developing countries, the $39.3 billion spent by American companies alone takes on a huge new meaning.

Non-profit organizations in the U.S. raise $50 billion by sending out 12 billion pieces of bulk mail in one year. Even a 1-percent response keeps them in business.

The Center's membership drive comes at the same time the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is reporting that world production of paper and paperboard rose from approximately 289 million tons in 1997 to 294 million tons in 1998, the latest year for which data are available. By the end of this decade, production is expected to reach 394 million tons, a 34 percent increase over 1998's level.

As detailed in an article in "Vital Signs 2000: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future" (just published by the Worldwatch Institute), production has increased more than sixfold since 1950 and per capita consumption has jumped from about 18 kilograms to 50 kilograms. (One kilogram is roughly equivalent to 225 sheets of office paper, or two copies of a daily newspaper like the New York Times.)

"Paper is used for hundreds of different purposes, and it is most often viewed as an ephemeral, disposable material," writes Worldwatch researcher Ashley Mattoon. "Only about 10 percent of the paper that is produced goes to making long-lasting products like books. The other 90 percent is used just once and discarded."

About 54 percent of the wood that is used for making paper comes from second-growth forests, Mattoon writes. Roughly 17 percent comes from original old-growth forest -- primarily those in boreal regions of Canada and Russia. Pulpwood plantations make up the remaining 29 percent, though this share is growing quickly.

The idea of the paperless office was one of the promises of the information age but it has become little more than a joke according to Mark Balnaves, Program Chair of Mass Communications and Multimedia at Murdoch University in Australia.

"Most of the studies interestingly have showed that when organizations start to become computer intensive, their paper consumption actually goes up by 50 percent," says Balnaves. "When people use computers they tend to produce more drafts rather than less, so they tend to key in a document, do an edit, run it off and do the same thing again."

Janet Abramovitz, also a researcher with the Worldwatch Institute, writes in another "Vital Signs" article that global paper consumption has been increasing so rapidly that it has overwhelmed gains made by recycling. Although recycling has slowed growth in the demand for wood pulp, it has served more as a supplement than as a substitute for virgin fiber, she adds. And despite recycling, paper still makes up close to 40 percent of municipal solid waste in industrial countries.

"Expanding the collection and reuse of old paper is one of the most promising ways of reducing the pressure to cut more trees, easing overburdened waste disposal systems, and cutting energy use and pollution," Abramovitz writes.

"Producing new paper from old is efficient: for each ton of used paper, nearly a ton of new can be produced -- far more efficient than the 2 to 3.5 tons of trees used to make 1 ton of virgin paper," she adds.

Mattoon provides solid figures about energy used in and pollution caused by paper production.

"Worldwide, pulp and paper is the fifth largest industrial energy consumer, and accounts for about 4 percent of the world's total energy use," he writes. "In the United States, the pulp and paper industry is ranked third in the release of toxic chemicals to the environment -- behind the chemicals and primary metals sectors."

The facts on paper production, use, and recycling prove that the Center for a New American Dream is daring yet environmentally innovative. Any group that deliberately reduces the amount of paper it brings into our lives is obviously an organization worth supporting.

ONE SMALL STEP - Of the wood harvested for "industrial" uses (everything but fuel), fully 42 percent becomes paper. Use electronic banking and direct deposit to save paper used in statements, cheques, and receipts. Pay regular utility bills with automatic transfers. Ask the company to e-mail your statement. This saves time, paper, and the costs of cheques and stamps. You can join the Center for a New American Dream by e-mailing them at or on their secure website at

RESOURCES - Your membership in The Center for a New American Dream will get you an e-mail subscription to what Utne Reader calls one of the top five non-profit newsletters of general excellence in the country. "Vital Signs 2000" is available in paperback from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. It can also be ordered on the Worldwatch Institute web site at Co-op America's web site at has lots of tips on how to reduce paper in your house. A companion web site at will provide businesses with the tools to save dollars and forests while reducing, reusing and recycling paper at work.

The Alliance for Environmental Innovation -- a project of Environmental Defense and The Pew Charitable Trusts -- has produced a report entitled Leading by Example: How Businesses Are Expanding the Market for Environmentally Preferable Paper. The five companies profiled -- Bank of America Corporation, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., McDonald's Corporation, Time Inc., and United Parcel Service -- are either using less paper, recycled paper, paper manufactured with cleaner production methods, or pulp harvested from forests with superior management policies and operations. Many of the companies in this report used the Paper Task Force Recommendations for Purchasing and Using Environmentally Preferable Paper as a reference guide when changing their paper use practices. That report can be found at or can be ordered by contacting Environmental Defense at (212) 505-2100. You can contact the Alliance at (617) 723-2996 or visit their web site at The Alliance has also produced "Greener Catalogs" which benchmarks the paper practices of leading catalog retailers and highlights opportunities for improvement.

On July 19, the Recycled Paper Coalition (RPC) announced Ford Motor Company is the newest member and first domestic automaker to join the group of businesses committed to purchasing paper with at least 30 percent post-consumer content and reducing overall paper consumption. "Ford Motor Company understands the environmental benefits of using recycled content paper and reducing paper usage, and membership in the Coalition will help us improve upon our current paper reduction and purchasing efforts," said Carlos Mazzorin, Group Vice-President, Purchasing and South America, Ford Motor Company. Copies of the RPC 1999 Annual Report and membership information, including a complete list of members, are available from the RPC by calling (650) 985-5568 or sending e-mail to This information is also available online at the Coalition's web site,

Michael Jessen is the president of toenail environmental services, a consulting firm dedicated to helping businesses profit from environmental leadership. He can be contacted at (250) 229-4621 or by e-mail at His firm's award-winning web site can be found at

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