Six priorities for greener publishing

IPG development director and former Earthscan chairman Edward Milford summarized the findings of the IPG’s survey of members’ approaches to sustainability at the first meeting of our Sustainability Action Group on Monday (27 January). Here are the six big areas for focus that it revealed, and a few tips for getting started on changes.

1. Paper and printing

This was always the biggest environmental impact for us at Earthscan, accounting for around three quarters of our measurable carbon footprint—so if you want to tackle one thing, this is it. Using recycled paper, responsible sourcing and chain-of-custody standards like the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) can all help.

However, as with many sustainability issues, good practice in this area is complicated. Is the recycled paper you use post-consumer? Just how sustainable are your sources? How much energy is used in various methods of manufacture? The environmental impact of paper and printing is the sum of their many parts.

2. Distribution and the supply chain

Aspects to consider here include the volume and distance of the goods you are moving, the methods of transport, the materials used to move goods and the human elements involved.

There is sometimes an assumption that producing and distributing ebooks generates a lower carbon footprint than print ones—but as a lot of research has suggested, that isn’t necessarily the case. The streaming of music is now thought to have a larger environmental impact than physical products ever did, and the carbon footprint of e-readers and internet retailers shouldn’t be underestimated.

3. Packaging

This is a relatively small issue in terms of carbon footprint, but with plastic so prominent in discussions about sustainability, it’s very visible to consumers and psychologically important. You can review the way you package and send books, and should ask your distributors and other supply chain partners about their own practices.

4. Office activities

There are a lot of small aspects of office life that consume energy, like lighting, heating and staff amenities. Travel to and from work is another impact, though working from home isn’t necessarily a better alternative if energy is being used there too. Changes like switching energy supplier are easy enough, but can be trickier in a leased building.

5. Business travel

This was the second largest of the environmental impacts we measured at Earthscan. A single transatlantic flight emits several tonnes of CO2, so it is well worth trying to minimize air miles—perhaps by travelling by train instead, or by having more remote meetings. This guide to more sustainable business travel may be of interest. Not all travel is avoidable though, and it is worth considering the impacts of reducing it on human and social capital, as well as environmental.

6. Returns

Within aspects of sustainability that are specific to publishing, returns are an obvious area in which to cut wasted transport miles and packaging. Action on returns will need the support of the whole industry of course, and while there are commercial benefits in cutting them, as well as environmental ones, that has to be balanced against the business imperative to grow.

Sustainability can seem like a daunting issue, but it’s easy to take small first steps. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and accept the confines of what you can achieve. A good way to start is to consider your definition of sustainability and identify the quick wins. Quantify what you do and monitor your progress. As much as you can, consider the full impacts of action and not just the obvious ones—as in the relative carbon footprints of print and ebook production, for example.

Beyond the environment, we shouldn't overlook the many different forms of capital within the sustainability issue, like human, social and financial, and all businesses have to balance environmental goals with commercial ones. But in sustainability it should never be a question of choosing some actions at the expense of others—it should always be ‘and’, not ‘or’.

We should all be concerned about publishing's carbon footprint. But it's also important to remember that our industry has a huge part to play in change. More and better publishing can help to move us all towards a sustainable world.

For IPG members’ tips about practical action on sustainability in publishing, see this blog.

Edward Milford is the IPG’s development and is former owner and chairman of Earthscan, a pioneering publisher in sustainability and environment studies that is now part of Routledge.