At this point in the development of capitalism, it is well understood that the most profitable businesses are those that sell a product that consumers cannot resist buying. Cigarettes, oil, electricity, insurance and heroin are all examples of products that once a consumer is hooked, he cannot help but to buy. I put greeting cards in this category.
Americans purchase 6.5 billion greeting cards each year, blowing $7-8 billion for the privilege, according to the Greeting Card Association.
Sure, it’s not much money per person, maybe $30 each on average. But for what?
Trees are mowed down or, in the best case, recycled paper fiber is processed into sheets of printing stock. These sheets are then printed with cute little phrases and pictures (often in China), are shipped to the U.S. then distributed to individual stores. At the local stores, the customer plays his or her role, flipping through the cards as quickly as possible until one is found that will “work” — not perfect, just “good enough.” The card is mindlessly purchased, a name is unemotionally signed and the card sits until it’s time to hand it over to the receiver. That moment is funny, too, with the giver anxiously waiting while the receiver opens the card, fakes a chuckle at the joke and says a heartfelt “thank you.” If it’s a group setting, the card is then passed around so everyone can enjoy the hilarious joke. And, then, of course, after the journey from forest to factory to store to lucky recipient, the card is usually recycled into an eggshell carton, fulfilling the much more important job of gently cradling an egg.
My biggest complaint, though, isn’t about the environmental waste of greeting cards nor is it the financial cost, which is relatively small on an individual basis. No, it’s the societal pressure to acknowledge these special dates with a decorated and branded piece of paper. Somehow the greeting card industry has managed to create a world where I must buy something to remain in good social standing. Instead of getting points for buying something for you, I get punished for not buying something. Now by spending my money on a greeting card, I get to zero. It has become, literally, the least you can do. (OK, actually sending birthday greetings on Facebook is doing even less, but you get the idea.)
For many years now, I’ve mostly opted out of buying cards for people. I feel no pressure to tape a card on top of a gift just to complete the picture. I don’t buy a card for someone to acknowledge their birthday. Cards I’m OK with are condolences card for deaths in the family, thank you cards (buy in bulk to have some on hand for less money) and occasionally I’ll spring for one just to hold a gift card. My wife and I have an understanding about this, which helps a lot. Occasionally we’re still caught by this exploitation for certain special occasions, such as a parent’s anniversary or similar event, but it’s been liberating to largely free ourselves from this tyranny.
What about you? Do you still buy greeting cards or have you found a way to escape this trap? Or do you not look at as a trap and buy cards without feeling it’s a such a horrible thing?