Week 9: Showing more love to the letterbox.
Updated: May 16, 2020
The letterbox can be a magical thing. If I think about a birthday or special occasion, the memory of receiving a card makes me smile. The nostalgia of receiving a letter from a friend, a postcard from a travelling relative, or a comic book on a wet Saturday morning, reminds me of how our letterboxes used to be.
As the world has become digital, this happens less, and the letterbox is becoming a quieter place for cards and positivity. As bills and other regular life chores move to direct debit and paperless statements, bills arrive with less regularity too. There are still sporadic cards and wishes of love, but the letterbox has become more a place of requested items.
With one exception.
I cannot remember the last time I requested an application for a credit card, and the one we have we try to use sparingly. It has been over a decade since I had a personal loan, if you do not count our mortgage.
For me personally - the fact that I don’t right now use these services is not because of being affluent, but is a choice based on prolonged personal experience of the anxiety and pressure of being in mild but persistent debt, living in London. Some people can psychologically handle it, but I found it difficult, so trying to avoid credit is not a boast but rather a fact.
Yet, day after day we receive temptations and offers for credit cards, personal loans, business loans, through our letterbox. The organisations in question I guess know the statistics, and know that the chances of a new customer are extraordinarily slim, but it’s a numbers game – so still they come.
I know that it’s our doing, we are not somehow victims. I have ticked a box to give permission, or not ticked something to opt out. The letters that arrive are nowhere near the volume that I remember from communal flat entrances in London, or that used to block the door when you returned from a Summer holiday when we were children. We are also not in the catchment area of several take-away outlets involved in a war for customers, and so do not experience the level of leaflets that we used to when we lived more urban lives. But still they come.
It is a mild annoyance in terms of the practicalities – in the sense that I have to physically open, shred, and recycle the paper, something that takes seconds to do. I have therefore subconsciously ignored the problem rather than thought about a solution. But as we become more educated and orientated in our lives towards planetwise choices, the emotional reaction to the discovery of just a few unsolicited letters on the doorstep each day has become more orientated towards the waste of paper and energy we are encouraging, versus the likely small effort required to filter it to the mail that we would like to receive.
This week, we therefore want to give our letterbox more love. We are paying more attention to what comes through the letterbox, starting with eliminating ‘junk mail’ as quickly and efficiently as we can.
Without going into too much detail about the process, it does turn out this is very simple, and if you are reading this in the UK then it takes about five minutes to gather some good tips by researching on the Which? website (https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/how-do-i-stop-unwanted-junk-mail), or the Citizens Advice site (https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/post/stop-getting-junk-mail/).
For friends outside the UK, I guess it is similar steps, or similar national advice boards that can give the best route, and of course universally we can all take the first step is by marking the envelope as unsolicited mail, and ‘returning to sender’ in the next available post box. The letter goes back, and there is an incentive to remove you as the provider will not only know you don’t want the service anymore, but they will also have to pay the return postage.
You can also register with the postal service or an association’s consumer protection arm (such as the DMA in the UK) to be placed on a ‘opt out’ list that may, or may not, be a legal requirement for marketers to consult ahead of sending out to mailing lists. This will all help, and all took a very short time to do.
On top of this, there is also the option to opt out of the ‘open’ electoral register in the UK, something that I did not realise was possible. This is register that sits in your local Government office, alongside the regular electoral register, and is a list that your council will sell, unless you mark that you want to be excluded. This does not impact your ability to vote, or gain any credit – and although slightly more difficult to achieve as you might need to wait for the next electoral register update to check the ‘opt out’ box, it is a choice.
Having done all these things, which took a collective effort of around 30 minutes – I now feel confident that our letterbox will receive a little more love. We will not see the impact perhaps for a few weeks, as we work through new letters and circulars, and we know that also as an escalation point if these methods do not stop the flow of letters. This is through the more recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation amendment in European law, which allows you to individually write to organisations to ask them to stop. Information for this is available also through quick online searches.
This could be the end of this week’s permanent change, except that I had a strange feeling that perhaps I was not being true to our project, and also true to our aim of giving love to the letterbox.
Receiving unsolicited mail, is not a habit, and therefore not a little change that we have actively made to our lifestyles. It will make an impact, especially if we all take care to opt out of junk mail and diligently return unsolicited mail. But it feels we can take this a step further.
The overwhelming feeling on reflection, is that I also do not feel junk mail is our letterbox’s biggest source of negativity in recent years. A bigger problem that is lurking, is more simple than that, and under our control. It is something that lurks in our recycling containers. It is something that we have been progressively more guilty of, especially in the last few years.
I have our defence to this lurking habit ready. We are self-employed, we have a three year old child, and we live in a semi-rural location. Our lack of time and headspace to make thoughtful decisions and run multiple errands for purchases such as nappies, books, toys, and household products – and our generationally predisposed habit of relying on technology when it makes things convenient – have all contributed to a habit that we need to break.
The habit is this: our active use of online mailing services to fulfil impulses and buy products that we can source elsewhere with a bit more thought and effort. In other words, we have become compulsive online shoppers.
There is no excuse for it aside from our choices that we make that are driven by lifestyle pressures, and the fact that many online retailers have made it incredibly easy to act on our purchasing impulses, and has successfully converted us to their service through the ability to make several inconvenient items appear magically on our doorstep in less time than it take the sun to rise and fall, and in less effort than it takes to watch an episode of Peppa Pig.
However, I have slipped into the habit of visiting platforms such as Amazon not just on occasion, when we would like a new book for the bedside table or a last-minute gift, but when we need pretty much anything from nuts and bolts to coffee beans and detergents. I have also become equally relaxed in ordering multiple clothes items in multiple sizes, and then simply sending back the ones I don’t like, and that I probably knew I didn’t like when I clicked the ‘buy’ button. I don't think about how much resource it takes to return an item, because I don't see it, and it is easy.
Convenient online delivery services have become the proverbial elephant through our letterbox, because not only are the deliveries entirely solicited, but they are sometimes done without thought or care for where an item is sourced or without any alternative outlets being considered. We need it tomorrow, because it is available tomorrow. The spirit of asking a neighbour for a cup-of-sugar, planning a weekly shop, is becoming alien to us and to our impulsive, digital society to the extent that we have create enormous, powerful organisations on which we have become reliant. We can read the press about tax evasion, employment practices, but it seems like it's someone else’s problem when we have a desire that can be fulfilled at the click of a button.
That being said, it feels unfair to put all online retailers into the same bracket. The purpose of creating planetwise habits, was to make little changes that create positive cycle, not to encourage ourselves immediately to boycott. It is about finding starting points that we can manage, and then gradually getting better as days and weeks go by.
I also strongly believe that digital retailing has opened up entrepreneurship and has created a global shop window to innovation that allows us access to goods and services that were previously out of reach. Artisan producers rely on many online retail platforms to be able to exist, and artists are able to have their work enjoyed like never before. Even some sustainable brands, seem to need to rely on online platforms to build up awareness and customer for their goods and services. In many cases, it does not even replace one-on-one 'human' customer services, because you are as likely or perhaps even more likely to be able to correspond with the creator or a product through an online retailer as you are a bricks-and-mortar retailer, especially if you are thanking them for the item they created with their talent and love. It’s just this communication has evolved.
Instead therefore of making a boycott statement or making a polarising assumption about all online retailers or all aspects of all online retailers – I will instead think about how we give our letterbox a bit more love, and care more about what it brings. Not all online retailers are evil, and not all of the supposedly evil ones are evil through-and-through. By making little changes, we will try and bring more joy to the doormat, to return it to being a place of excitement and anticipation, rather than simply a convenient cushion to break the fall of the latest cardboard box.
By doing this – it will make us more thoughtful about where we shop, and whether we need something right now. This habit feels more like finding the planetwise common ground. This can be a positive cycle of connection. If I thought more carefully about my purchases before I made them, about whether we really needed them and paid attention to where and how they were made. If we all appreciated and looked after our stuff more. If I accepted that at the end of life someone else can discover the joy of something we have owned. If we did these things, then we begin to make positive connections, and reward the positive aspects of all the online opportunities we have.
Thinking more carefully about a purchase, might mean leaving any purchase made on a smartphone in my basket for at least 24-hours, and looking back later once the impulse passed as to whether I absolutely need the item, or need it right now. Making sure that when I shop for clothes, I do it only to find things we absolutely love, and researching their environmental policies and people policies before we buy. Then only buying something if we think we really love it and it will make us feel good - because that is OK too. Making Amazon our second choice or third choice, not our One Click habit. Using second hand stores more as a buyer and a donator.
If we do these small things, then we can still take advantages of the accessibility of any kind of online retailer in our busy lives, but perhaps balance this by supporting independent producers, local stores, and make more ecological choices.
We believe in progress and technology for good, and so it is not that we don’t need online retailers entirely or that Amazon is somehow actively trying to sabotage our lives. Some online retailers have simply built a competitive advantage based on our time-poor lifestyles, some of which caused by our hyperconnected lives and some of which simply caused by the fact we are flawed, impulsive, humans.
To break this cycle, we just have to help each other think more deeply about our purchases and only buy what we love and need, to help each other to have good habits and look after our products better, and to swap ideas about how the stuff we have finished with can have a new life somewhere else or with someone else. This is a conversation that can be fun, and once you have talked about it, it is amazing how many ideas we can all have together, and how much our friends and family are doing already that we can learn from.
Everything starts with the individual. We are all connected, and everything we do can make a difference. It feels like more and more, we have lost our collective ability to see value and quality. We only see price and convenience.
We are not victims, as we have done this to ourselves – and we can change this, for ourselves, for our planet and for letterboxes everywhere.