But even healthier retailers have cut their catalog distribution. Luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus sent out 40 million catalogs in 2013, a 9 percent decrease from 2012. "With the growth of Internet revenues, we have reduced catalog circulation in recent years and would expect flat to declining catalog circulation in the foreseeable future," Neiman Marcus said in a regulatory filing.
Likewise, J. Crew has started saving paper. The company sent out 30.6 million catalogs in fiscal 2013, down from a peak of 55 million in 2005, according to public filings. Total pages are also down to 3.7 billion in 2013 from a peak of 6.1 billion. Heather McAuliffe, a spokeswoman for J. Crew declined to comment.
Restoration Hardware has unique characteristics that help explain its unusual strategy. The company has thousands of products available, but most of the time they can't be picked up in stores. Instead, it has adopted a showroom model where it occupies large spaces and displays as many pieces as possible without keeping any inventory for sale. Similarly, a chunky catalog gives customers a way to browse the vast majority of Restoration Hardware's products and then buy at their leisure.
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But what about all those dead trees? Restoration Hardware concedes that a small fraction, "less than one-tenth of a percent," of recipients have griped about the amount of paper used in the catalogs. The company points out it uses only "forest certified" paper and is the founding sponsor of the Verso Forest Certification Grant, which "provides funding to sustainably manage and harvest forests." The company adds that "from a business perspective, the response has been very, very good."
Indeed, Restoration Hardware told investors it expects its revenue growth to accelerate in the second half of 2014 as a result of the source book. The company posted comparable-store sales growth of 18 percent in the first quarter, one of the highest among any major company in the retail sector.
Restoration Hardware is one the few retail stocks to perform well in 2014. The stock has risen 20 percent so far this year, far outpacing the broader market.
The catalog magic also seems to work for some niche fashion companies. Vineyard Vines, which sells high-end preppy attire, says it sees a direct impact from catalog shipments. "Within days of a catalog drop there is a revenue spike for all business channels," a spokeswoman for the company told CNBC.
Vineyard Vines, known for pastel-colored trousers popular on the East Coast, has been issuing catalogs since 1998. The company sends about 10 versions of a catalog a year of varying page ranges, but continues to increase the number of recipients. "It is the No. 1 marketing tool for driving a consistent increase in sales," the spokeswoman said.