It might be hard to imagine, but most people didn’t have easy access to goods a century ago. If you were a rural American, you sometimes lived miles – even day-long trips – away from the nearest store. So you relied on mail-order catalogs.
Targeted to customers who were unable to make it to the store, manufacturer catalogs like the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue quickly began offering every item imaginable. Before long, these catalogs were filled with hundreds of pages; from dry goods to medicine and early cars to clothing, it was a kind of heaven for shoppers.
The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said for the millions of trees being used to produce them.
Paper production is toxic to our environment. Deforestation, the act of cutting down massive amounts of trees, results in the release of numerous chemicals, including the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), and those responsible for acid rain, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).
Fortunately for us, we’ve moved into the age of ecommerce. Thanks to the internet, we have access to thousands – even millions – of items. And the best part is it doesn’t take any paper to create a website.
But what if online retail stores suddenly started printing their offerings? How many trees would it take? Would their catalogs trump the mail-order catalogs of yesteryear?
To see how much waste popular e-retailers would create if they began printing their own catalogs, we determined the volume of their sites, along with the number of items listed. We then used that information to generate an average physical catalog size.
Curious to see how many trees ecommerce is saving? Keep reading for further information.
COMMERCE OF YESTERYEAR
As the mother of all catalog providers, Sears, Roebuck & Co. quickly became intertwined with the American psyche. While the company entered the mail-order business 20 years after Montgomery Ward, it surpassed its competitor because of its innovative marketing ideas. It printed on smaller paper so that its catalog was always on top of the mail stack and provided forms in German and Swedish for the growing immigrant population in the U.S.
Consumers also loved its straightforward prices and incredibly diverse selection of items. In fact, the catalog boldly claimed, “If you don’t find it in the index, look very carefully through the entire catalog. Nearly everything in merchandise can be found in this book.”
By 1897, the typical catalog was 4.3 pounds, had 786 pages, and contained over 73,000 products. Its dimensions were 11.1 inches high, 9 inches wide, and 1.9 inches deep. At the time, its circulation was 318,000 – which meant that it would have taken 0.5 percent of a pine tree to print each catalog, and more than 6,000 trees to print one for each customer. Based on the number of catalogs in circulation at the time, 13.4 acres of pine trees would have been used!
IF RAKUTEN.COM (BUY.COM) WERE A CATALOG
While a catalog can fit many items onto one page, a Rakuten.com catalog would still weigh 15.5 pounds, have 2,824 pages, and contain nearly 300,000 products. Its dimensions would be 11.1 inches high, 9 inches wide, and 6.8 inches deep, and it would take 1.9 percent of a pine tree to make just one catalog.
Even more, if you were to calculate the total number of trees saved based on unique visitors, more than 55,000 trees would be needed to give every single visitor their own catalog – nearly 124 acres of pine!
IF OVERSTOCK.COM WERE A CATALOG
Overstock.com was one of the first sites to liquidate excess inventory through the internet and can be compared to one of the many bricks-and-mortar outlet stores in existence today. Since 1999,Overstock.com has come a long way – growing from less than 100 products, its warehouses now ship between 2,000 and 5,000 packages per day. It’s no wonder that all those products add up to 34.2 million Google-indexed pages.
Compared to a Rakuten.com catalog, an Overstock.com catalog would weigh 126 pounds, have about eight times more pages (23,032), and sell 2,418,400 products. Its dimensions would be 11.1 inches high, 9 inches wide, and 55.7 inches deep (in fact, the depth would be the same length as the height of a hippo!). The Overstock.com catalog would also require more pine to produce – 15.7 percent of a tree for each one. And if you were to consider how many unique visitors come to the site each month, 2.4 million trees (just shy of 5,294 acres) would be needed to supply that demand.
IF SHOP.COM WERE A CATALOG
Shop.com was formally a pay-per-click ecommerce portal that guided shoppers to partner websites. Eventually, however, it began directly selling its own products through its distributors. On top of that, Shop.com offers a cashback program in the hopes of word-to-mouth advertising. With 2.14 million Google-indexed pages, it’s obvious that this online retailer has a lot to sell.
That’s why it’s not hard to imagine that a Shop.com catalog would take up some space. More specifically, it would weigh 325 pounds, have nearly 60,000 pages, and contain 6.24 million products. Its dimensions would be 11.1 inches high, 9 inches wide, and nearly 144 inches deep! More than 40 percent of a pine tree would need to be used to publish just one catalog. Additionally, based on its unique visitors each month, more than 234,000 trees – or 520 acres – would be needed for each person to have their own catalog.
IF JET.COM WERE A CATALOG
Although Jet.com has only been around since 2015, the online retailer has been making waves across the internet. With 16 major categories to choose from, Jet.com works with other retailers to give consumers additional savings after they place items in their cart. However, if Jet.com were a catalog, the only thing that would need saving would be the trees – it has more than 9.6 million Google-indexed pages.
In fact, a Jet.com catalog would weigh roughly 1,300 pounds, have more than 234,000 pages, and display 24.6 million products. Its dimensions would be 11.1 inches high, 9 inches wide, and 566 inches deep – the same length as nearly four houses stacked on top of each other! Even worse, it would take about 1.5 pine trees to print a single catalog, or 35,000 acres to make enough catalogs for every visitor.
IF AMAZON.COM WERE A CATALOG
When it comes to online retail, Amazon.com looms above all. In fact, it’s probably accurate to say that Amazon is to modern Americans what Sears, Roebuck & Co. was to people a century ago – almost anyone you ask will have used it or knows about it. But whereas the Sears Catalog could fit in the hands of the consumers, an Amazon.com catalog could easily crush someone.
With about 300 million Google-indexed pages, this behemoth online retailer has led an impressive existence on the internet since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, Amazon’s warehouses have more square footage than 700 Madison Square Gardens combined. So how does an Amazon.com catalog stack up?
Well, for one, it would weigh nearly 29,000 pounds. It would also have roughly 5.26 million pages and contain more than 552 million products. As for the trees, it would be a soul crusher. It would take almost 36 trees for just one catalog to be printed! Ready to faint? For every unique visitor to get a catalog, it would take a total of 3.93 billion trees or 8.75 million acres. That’s more than the total acreage of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined! Without a doubt, we would be in big trouble if Amazon suddenly went offline.
ECOMMERCE IS HERE TO SAVE THE DAY
While the idea of having a shopping catalog sent to your house sounds nice, it’s actually incredibly wasteful. According to the Paperless Project, the world already produces more than 300 million tons of paper each year. Add on sales catalogs from online retailers and the results would be cataclysmic. For example, if Amazon.com – one of the biggest online retailers to date – decided to print its entire inventory, more than 8.7 million acres of pine would be destroyed. What’s more is that Jet.com would contribute more than 15 million trees to this. Even smaller online retailers, like Rakuten.com and Shop.com, would create substantial waste.
So what does this mean? While it’s nice to reflect on the past – The Sears Catalog was pretty cool – it’s a good thing that we’re looking toward the future. Not only is ecommerce saving millions of sheets of paper, but it’s reducing our carbon footprint and providing a convenience that wasn’t available even 20 years ago. In many ways, ecommerce is saving the world.
In this project, we researched the number of products available to purchase on several e-commerce sites. These totals were found through searching the websites with special null characters, which ask for all products to be returned. Others were found by tallying the category counts visible.
We also mentioned how many trees each catalog would require to be produced. This is based on standard paper-making procedures, percentage of the tree not suitable for making paper, and the average size of a pine tree, along with estimating a similar product density to the Sears Catalog. The Number of products in the Sears Catalog was estimated by finding the number of items per page via sampling pages, then multiplying by the 696 pages containing products in the catalog.
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