A greener future for publishing

Bridget Shine
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 25th March 2020

It's time to act on sustainability, writes Bridget Shine

Just as it is in society as a whole, so sustainability is a major issue in publishing - and, once the coronavirus crisis is over, will resume its status as the most pressing issue of our time.

That point was brought forcefully home to us at the Independent Publishers Guild's [IPG's] 2019 Autumn Conference by Clare Farrell, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion. When we invited her to join us, we knew that we would hear some urgent and challenging messages, and she didn't disappoint. She talked about the climate crisis as an “extinction event” that should terrify but also motivate us. "Things seem impossible until they are done," she said. "But we haven't yet tried to imagine the possibility of solving this crisis."

How should we tackle this emergency in our part of the world? Not all of us left our conference and joined the kind of civil disobedience that Extinction Rebellion has begun, but the IPG and many of our members were definitely inspired to act by Farrell's impassioned session. And while this can seem like a daunting and even insurmountable challenge, we are determined to make a start in small but cumulatively significant ways.

"It is clear that a lot of environmental actions come with a commercial compromise attached"

In the weeks following our conference, we surveyed independent publishers about their views on sustainability, actions they are already taking, and what they hope to achieve in the future. The survey identified a long list of environmental impacts that publishing needs to consider, and that we condensed into six key priorities.

Paper and printing Of these, the most substantial is paper and printing. Edward Milford, development director of the IPG and the founder of Earthscan, a pioneering publisher of books on sustainability studies, estimates that this accounted for around three quarters of his company's carbon footprint - making it an obvious place to begin change. Using recycled paper, responsible sourcing and chain-of-custody standards like the Forestry Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification can help.

Supply chain and packaging The second and third priorities are the supply chain and packaging. The mode and distance of the transport of books around the world have a major environmental impact; and packaging, while a relatively small issue in terms of carbon footprint, is perhaps the most immediately visible and important from a consumer's point of view.

Returns Connected to this is the issue of returns, an obvious area in which to reduce wasted transport miles and packaging. It is an issue that has vexed the industry for many years, but one that the sustainability debate has made much more urgent.

Office activities and business travel The final two priorities identified by our survey relate to actions by individuals: office activities and business travel. These are often where small, but quick wins can be found - by reducing energy consumption and switching to greener sources, for example, or by working from home more often and travelling by train instead of air.

Good practice in sustainability is rarely a black and white issue, and our survey threw up a lot of questions to which the answer is often: “It depends”. Just how sustainable are your paper sources? Are ebooks really a greener alternative to print given the amount of energy needed in manufacture? There are business realities to consider too. More local and responsible printing can come at a premium, and booksellers may argue that the system of returns is essential to their work. Reducing travel means that we concede some of the kind of face-to-face contact that is so valuable and pleasurable in publishing. It is clear that a lot of environmental actions come with a commercial compromise attached.

The IPG and our members grappled with these and other issues at the first meeting of our Sustainability Action Group in late January. The event identified a lot of very positive ideas for practical action, like smarter printing decisions to reduce over-stock and pulping, and better use of overseas travel for publishers and authors. We also discussed the need for more collaboration with other trade bodies like the Booksellers Association, which has been confronting sustainability issues with the Green Bookselling manifesto; and the possibility of industry-wide guidelines and an accreditation scheme to encourage best practice.

We'll be taking these and other ideas forward in 2020, producing new resources to support independent publishers. It's vital that we continue the discussions about sustainability in publishing, and we welcome all opinions and ideas from anyone who would like to contribute.

Publishing has made some great strides on sustainability, not least through the terrific publishing on environmental issues that has emerged from many independent publishers over the last few years - which in itself is a crucial contribution to change. But as Clare Farrell told us, it's time now not just to talk, but act.

Bridget Shine is the chief executive of the IPG.

This article was commissioned for the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.