Monday, September 10, 2012

Junk Mail

The one thing I did well at the Big House was to reduce our receipt of junk mail to a tiny, tiny trickle. It was such a tiny trickle that we received no mail at all probably two or three days a week. Given the amount of paper that a family with three school-aged children can generate, this made a significant dent in the amount of garbage that required my attention on any given day.

Now we're in the new house and we are coping with the junk mail generated by the previous inhabitants. This is not a commentary on their habits or values. But wrestling with the volume of junk mail that other people are accustomed to was a bit of a shock. I'd taken the reduced inflow for granted.

I have said before that living a simple life requires diligence in your willingness to say NO. We have built an intrusive culture in the last 20-30 years. Not only do we let advertising into our homes through television, radio, and magazines (including the internet versions of those media), but we've got people literally calling our homes, knocking on our doors, mailing things to us, and even standing outside our favorite stores demanding things of us. Whether they're charming or pitiful or earnest or demanding, they're intrusive. I just want to go about my business. I want to choose my own businesses to patronize, my own charities to support, and my own causes to champion.


I'm learning the art of the firm NO. It has to be very, very firm; any sign of sympathy or wavering only invites more charm or puppy-eyes.

No Means No.

I've been busy with other things and automatically recycling the catalogs without thinking too much about them. Until this weekend. This weekend, whichever kid carried in the mail actually grunted from the weight. The main offender was a pair of Restoration Hardware catalogs, bundled together in a plastic sleeve, one of which was 690 pages. There were four other catalogs in the stack, and, oh yeah, my husband's paystub.

That's it. I'm done. Time to take action.

My previous success at stopping junk mail required a visit to only two websites. is a generalist site. You create an account tied to an email. After activating the account, you individually choose each type of mail -- credit card offers, catalog offers, magazine offers, and other -- and choose to block either ALL new offers, or only offers from specific companies.

You can't actually block credit card offers directly from When you select credit offers, you are referred to an outside site,, where you are asked for a lot of detailed personal information, including address and social security number. This is terrifying, so I checked around. The best source I found for the reliability of the website was actually the Federal Trade Commission website: it issued an alert titled "Where to Go To Just Say No." Not only do I love the title, but it is the first hint I have seen in quite a long time that the government actually cares about the quality of life of ordinary Americans.

In the course of my research, I saw conflicting claims that opting out of prescreened credit offers can raise your credit by as much as 20-30 points. This is unconfirmed. Some say that it only helps your credit by keeping you from accepting new offers, others that it helps by keeping organizations from pinging your credit report without your knowledge (too many hits on your credit report can impact your score). The FTC alert only addresses the impact of unsolicited offers can have on your quality of life, and that is my motivation for blocking the offers. Simply opting out in itself does nothing to your credit score, so the effect, if it exists, would occur over time.

Finally, there is  I love Catalog Choice. It blocks individual catalogs. It is the source  for blocking the individual publications that pass through the DMAChoice net. These are companies that you, or the prior resident of your abode, have done business with, but which you no longer want to hear from. They offer a pretty detailed list of reasons you can give for refusing mail from an individual company, ranging from "I want to help the environment" to "I prefer to do business with this company online only" to "the person on this catalog doesn't live here anymore/is deceased." (!!) As with DMAChoice, you create an account tied to an email, and then you use the actual catalog to stop receipt. When I first started working with Catalog Choice in 2007 a lot of the companies required me to follow up personally, either through a phone call, a visit to their website, or an email directly from my email address. Catalog Choice was, and remains, incredibly helpful in working through those obstacles, but it is a tribute to the organization's effectiveness that when I added the nine catalogs I was blocking from our address today, three of them had standard acknowledgement messages pop up on the Catalog Choice website thanking the user for letting them know our preferences. There will be no wait for my preferences to take effect with those companies.

Who says one person can't make a difference?

My other favorite thing about Catalog Choice is the statistics they display on their website. I don't know if they're accurate, but they give me warm fuzzies. Over the last five years I have requested that 46 catalogs be blocked; probably a third of those are marked as "Waiting Confirmation" (from the company), but I no longer receive the item. So I don't know if the unconfirmed items are included in my personal environmental savings. As of today, this is the impact on the environment from catalogs blocked through Catalog Choice:




GALLONS OF WATER: 785,922,380

(Environmental impacts calculated using the EPN Paper Calculator)

I say again: Who says one person can't make a difference?

Happy Blocking!

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book came to my attention through one of the fashion blogs I follow, FashionAtForty. In this post she (not only looks really cute) but also gave a pretty good overview of what she had found in the book thus far, having read only the first half.

I have  conflicted feelings about clothing. On the one hand, I'm very aware that I should be able to look great with fewer items than what I actually own; on the other hand, all of my sources for current trends -- blogs, magazines, style shows, and shops -- show people in an almost infinite mix of shapes, colors, and prints. How much is reasonable to carry in my closet? How much is a reasonable clothing budget?

Overdressed didn't give me answers to these questions, but it did offer more meaningful factors to consider when I make purchasing decisions than simply "do I want it?"

The book focuses primarily on "fast fashion," defined as "a radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors'." The introduction, "Seven Pairs of $7 Shoes," and the first chapter, "I Have Enough Clothing to Open a Store," describe the shopping habits of the author herself and of young women known as "haulers," who make YouTube videos of their shopping hauls. The focus of these two chapters is the consumerism that breeds from the price and abundance of fast fashion.

I watched 3 minutes of a 15 minute haul video in the interests of research... I have never seen anything so incredibly painful in my life. She didn't even try on the clothes, just sort of held it up enough to see the fabric, but not the shape of the garment, and talked about what she liked about it.

Chapter 2, "How America Lost Its Shirts," describes the history of the garment industry in the United States.

Chapter 3, "High and Low Fashion Make Friends," examines the relationship between price and value. Summary: there isn't necessarily a correlation between high cost and high quality.

In Chapter 4, "Fast Fashion," Cline recounts the history of fast fashion and its impact on the retail world and also the United States garment industry.

Chapter 5, "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes," was perhaps the most painful section of the book. Cline debunks what she calls "the clothing deficit myth." So often we buy clothes thinking that if they don't work out, no problem, we'll pass them on to a donation recipient like Goodwill and they will find their way to some needy person grateful for our cast-offs. "Of all the clothing that we dump off on charities' doorsteps... less than 20 percent gets sold through stores. About half of it doesn't even get a shot at the stores, going straight into the postconsumer waste stream and on to such facilities as Mid-West Textile" from where it will be sorted and sold by the ton to secondhand clothing dealers, rag companies to be pulped and made into insulation or carseat stuffing, bundled to be sold by the ton to Africa, or put into landfills.

Chapter 6, "Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job," describes the industry conditions for garment workers and some innovative business efforts.

In Chapter 7, "China and the End of Cheap Fashion," Cline recounts how she went undercover to various clothing manufacturers in China and Bangladesh to learn more about the overseas industry. She found many of her assumptions about garment manufacturing were outdated and misguided, and that seeing the conditions, not only of the factories themselves, but of the environments in which they operated, changed her understanding of the fashion industry. She also predicted the coming end of fast-fashion as we know it: the rising standard of living in China will drive prices up, and other countries will not be able to move into the void as national infrastructure in places like Bangladesh will prevent them from being able to operate under just-in-time principles on short deadlines, as fast fashion requires.

Chapter 8, "Make, Alter, and Mend," is perhaps the weakest chapter of the book. This is not entirely Cline's fault. The conditions she describes that led to the rise of fast fashion -- international agreements such as NAFTA, pricing conditions, the intense marketing practices to which consumers are susceptible, and the economy generally -- are not conditions that can easily be altered, no matter how alert consumers are. Where we can make alternate choices in food purchasing practices by choosing to buy organic or local or at a farmer's market, no such alternate clothing marketplace exists. I can attest myself that it is difficult to determine the manufacturing practices of any given clothing brand, and the "fast" nature of fast fashion means that no single brand has consistent practices among its entire line of offerings. Eaters can grow even a small amount of vegetables in their own homes, but learning to make clothing is much more complicated, expensive, and time and labor intensive. Cline spends a lot of time talking up the possibilities of making one's own clothing, or buying refashioned vintage (a possibility that erodes with every passing year), but even she admits that she doesn't know if she'll be spending time sewing her own wardrobe two years in the future. Her most meaningful suggestion is to slow down, to buy more intentionally, to pay closer attention to fit and quality of construction, to be willing to spend more per piece while holding total amount spent steady.

Clines ends the book on a hopeful note in Chapter 9, "The Future of Fashion." She lists a few conscientious designers and clothing retailers who are working to bring quality and morality back to the fashion industry and describes their methods for achieving those ends.

In all, this was a fascinating, eye-opening read. Cline has an engaging voice. She used the contents of her own closet and her own shopping habits to illustrate the nature of fast fashion. She did an amazing amount of research, including, as mentioned, her trips to China, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic, but also research into historical shopping and manufacturing practices, public policy conditions, post-consumer processing practices, and the environmental impact of textile production.

I would really have loved it if she could have offered more guidance into choosing labels and researching the values that guide brands' manufacturing practices. Illustrations would have been incredibly helpful -- both of the factories she visited, and also of the clothing construction she described. It should be noted that I read this book on my Kindle, and I do not know if such illustrations were available in the paper copies.

Other reviewers have commented on some of the editing issues in this book. As I read, I did note where those came up, but in many cases they were misused words rather than formatting or copy-editing mistakes, so I chalk that up to a failure with the publisher. I appreciate Cline putting together such a well-researched, eye-opening book, that will certainly guide my future purchasing decisions.