Returns, printing and sustainability: Notes from the IPG’s SAG meeting


The IPG’s Sustainability Action Group met on Friday 9 December to discuss research and targets on two key industry issues: returns and printing. Here’s a summary of progress so far and plans for 2023.

The Book Journeys Project: Phase one

The first phase of our award-winning Book Journeys Project culminated in five big targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain. You can read a summary of the Project and more information about the targets.

Phase two

The Book Journeys Project has now moved on to a second phase focused on a crucial sustainability issue: the end-of-life treatment of books. We commissioned Carnstone to measure energy and waste in the transportation and distribution of returns, as well as the impacts of pulping. We did this through eight book scenarios, representative of the different journeys books take—including returns to distributors or wholesalers and then onwards to pulping facilities or back to stock.

Research findings

Here are five key findings from the research.

  • The vast majority—70% to 90%—of returns get pulped. This is usually because the book is unlikely to sell and will take up warehouse space.
  • The bulk of greenhouse gas emissions in returns—at least 80%—come from transportation rather than pulping.
  • High price hardbacks are more likely to go back into stock rather than pulped.
  • Books take a variety of journeys to pulping facilities, including direct from booksellers and via publishers and distributors.
  • There can be some positive aspects of returns, including the reuse of pulped material for paper and board.


While the transportation and pulping of returns contribute to publishing’s carbon footprint, the cause of these impacts goes back to earlier stages of a book’s life—especially over-production. Areas of potential improvements include:

  • Better forecasting of sales to avoid excessive printing that exceeds demand. Of course, this is easier said than done!
  • More efficient transportation—a focus of the targets from Phase 1 of the research.
  • Increased local pulping, handled by retailers with the permission of publishers.

Targets in discussion

Carnstone’s research shows several important discussion points and targets for the Sustainability Taskforce, based on the principles of reducing, reusing and recycling. Next steps include: 

  • Calculate the average returns rate across publishing.
  • Trial new ways to return books and establish new industry standards.
  • Increase return load utilisation.
  • Scope the potential for more local pulping by retailers (less than 50 miles from a shop).
  • Increase the volume of returned books that are reused in some way, including by reselling and donations to charities.
  • Ensure all books are designed with circularity in mind so 100% of returns can be recycled.

More research and discussion is needed on some of these targets, but we hope to finalise exact outcomes and dates soon. The most important data to capture is around returns, which will need collaboration between publishers, retailers, printers, distributors, wholesalers, pulpers, industry organisations and others. That is the focus of the Sustainability Industry Forum in the months ahead. 

Localising Print Project

Our latest SAG meeting also provided an update on the Localising Print Project, our new cross-industry initiative to help publishers reduce the environmental impacts of printing books. With the help of HP we are scoping how much printing that is done in Asia can be swapped for the UK or Europe, and the potential for replicating Asia-based production technology and labour. We know this is a challenging area, especially for full-colour and children’s publishers, but want to see what might be achieved. We expect to report on our research by summer 2023. You can read more about the Localising Print Project in the Bookseller.

Zero Carbon Toolkit

Help with reaching sustainability targets is available in a Zero Carbon Toolkit on the IPG Skills Hub. Produced with Zero Carbon Academy, it has lots of tips and resources to measure and reduce environmental impacts, and it’s freely available to every member of staff at every IPG member. We welcome all feedback on the Toolkit, including ideas for additions.

Single-use plastics

Our latest SAG meeting referenced a Carnstone report for the Book Chain Project about the use of plastics that some publishers may find useful. You can access it here. Various other reports and resources are available on the Book Chain Project website.

The Sustainability Award

We are proud to celebrate IPG members’ progress with the Sustainability Award at the annual Independent Publishing Awards. You can enter the 2023 Award now—please don’t be shy!

Spring Conference

Sustainability will be under discussion again at our 2023 Spring Conference in London and online on 27 and 28 February. Save the dates and join us.

We welcome members’ views on any aspect of sustainability. If you are not yet involved in our Sustainability Action Group, we warmly encourage you to join us. Sign up to hear about future events and work with no commitment.