Sustainability in publishing: unveiling the greenwashing debate

Sustainability in publishing: unveiling the greenwashing debate

by Suswati Basu
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Sustainability in publishing – is there greenwashing?

In the digital age, where environmental consciousness is gaining prominence, industries across the board are under scrutiny for their impact on the planet. One such industry is publishing, which brings art and commerce together, shaping culture and amplifying trends. As consumers increasingly demand sustainability, the question arises: Is there greenwashing in the publishing world? Just as recently as earlier this month, authors including noted climate activist Greta Thunberg boycotted the Edinburgh International Book Festival over its sponsor’s links to fossil fuels.

Read: Edinburgh Book Festival urged by 50 authors to drop sponsors

We delve into the nuances of sustainability in publishing, explores greenwashing concerns, and highlights efforts made by authors, publishers, and booksellers to minimise their carbon footprint.

Authors’ responsibility towards sustainability

Jock Brocas, author and editor-in-chief of Paranormal Daily News, emphasises the importance of sustainable practices in publishing. While authors may lack direct control over publishers’ decisions, they can influence change through their personal choices such as finding optimum times to work in order to reduce energy bills, as well as investing in sustainable food. The “Deadly Departed” author also advocates for using recycled paper and adopting digital formats, reducing the environmental impact associated with traditional publishing practices. He added: “We all have a personal responsibility to look after the planet, no matter if you are an author or a leader in a global company.”

“We have to be mindful of our environment and do whatever we can to reduce that footprint. We have no control over publishers, but we do have control over our personal environment. Sustainability starts at home and in your office.”

Jock Brocas, Author of Deadly Departed

John Pabon, author of “Sustainability for the Rest of Us,” sheds light on his journey towards sustainable publishing. Pabon admits that sustainability was not his initial priority, but he now encourages e-copies to eliminate physical production. He acknowledges the potential for more sustainable practices within the industry and challenges publishers to take meaningful action, though he adds: “Until they start to blatantly lie about their environmental or social impact, they aren’t technically greenwashing.” However, this tide is beginning to change.

The Margate Bookie Lit Fest: leading through localism

Andreas Loizou, organiser of the Margate Bookie Lit Fest in Thanet, UK, shares how they are leading by example in adopting sustainable practices. Loizou highlights the elimination of printed hard copies for brochures, utilisation of digital screens for posters, and banning single-use cups and plastic bottles. The festival also focuses on programming that addresses climate change, fostering a platform for authors to discuss positive steps towards environmental protection.

“The coast around Margate is getting increasingly polluted because of sewage. That’s a fact. Even five years ago, there were plenty of climate change deniers in East Kent. Now that environmental damage is so clear, more people are interested in how books can show us positive steps.”

Andreas Loizou, organiser of the Margate Bookie Lit Fest

He said: “Organisers need to lead with visible changes in their behaviour,” in a bid for others to change theirs. Local authors from the area Maggie Harris, Rosa Rankin-Gee and Georgina Wilson-Powell will be offering tips on unique storytelling, and protecting the environment. For Loizou, he said that even though festivals can be seen to be negative for the environment, “localism is part of the answer”, hence many of the writers are within walking distance of the event.

The business perspective: green credentials and customer expectations

The publishing industry must adapt to changing consumer expectations regarding sustainability. Customers no longer consider sustainability as a premium value-add; it’s now a baseline requirement. According to The Bookseller quoting research organisation Mintel, less than a quarter (23%) are now willing to pay more for eco-friendly variants most or all of the time. Businesses must listen to their customers, engage with them, and align their practices with environmental priorities. Sustainability has an intersectional aspect, including fair wages, localism, and reducing waste. Businesses need to make significant changes at scale to address climate change concerns.

Impact of book publishing on the environment

The environmental impact of book publishing is significant, with statistics showcasing the consumption of trees, CO2 emissions, and waste. According to Words Rated, US publishing uses 32 million trees yearly, with global book production emitting more than 40 million tons of CO2. Apparently, book publishing ranks 3rd in industrial CO2 emissions. A staggering 16,000 truckloads of unread books wasted annually and 10 million trees cut for unused books.

Read: Greta Thunberg quits Edinburgh Book Fest: greenwashing claims

While digital formats like e-books and audiobooks offer alternatives, they are not without their own environmental costs, such as energy consumption and electronic device manufacturing. Efforts are needed across the industry to reduce these impacts. Using 30% repurposed waste could save 4.9 million trees, which could be one of many solutions.

Publishers’ sustainable initiatives

Words rated reported that several prominent publishers have taken steps to become more environmentally friendly:

  • John Wiley & Sons: Carbon neutral certified, utilising 100% renewable energy.
  • Hachette: Using Forest Stewardship Certified and Sustainable Forestry Initiative fibres for paper.
  • HarperCollins: Ensuring 95% of paper tons are chain of custody certified.
  • Macmillan: Global operations carbon neutral since 2017.
  • McGraw Hill: Reducing carbon footprint through energy-saving technology and recycling programs.
  • Pearson Education: Aiming for 100% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper products by 2025.
  • Penguin Random House: Over 96% of paper sourced from certified mills.
  • Scholastic: Targeting 60% Forest Stewardship Certified paper usage.
  • Simon & Schuster: Using certified paper purchases and recycled materials for shipping cartons.

Challenges and opportunities

While progress is being made, challenges remain. The industry’s reliance on traditional formats limits innovation and necessitates more sustainable manufacturing technologies. Publishers need to overcome barriers like high costs and limited availability of materials. Collaboration and industry focus on research and development are crucial to finding solutions.

Read: What does living sustainably mean? – with My Happy Place author Rachel Fowler

In the pursuit of greater environmental responsibility, book publishing companies have an array of strategies at their disposal. To mitigate their impact on forests, publishers can commit to using paper sourced from responsible forestry practices. Additionally, selecting eco-conscious suppliers for book cover materials and endpapers can further enhance sustainability efforts. Embracing vegetable-based inks not only enhances print quality but also curtails toxic emissions. Employing carbon offsetting measures, such as tree planting corresponding to book sales, can help neutralise emissions. Moreover, a shift toward digital publications minimises the carbon footprint associated with physical copies. By adopting these multifaceted approaches, publishers can contribute meaningfully to a greener industry future.

The sustainability debate in publishing is complex, encompassing authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers. Greenwashing concerns highlight the need for transparency and genuine efforts to minimise environmental impact. From festivals embracing sustainability to publishers adopting eco-friendly practices, the industry is beginning to steer towards a greener path. As culture shapers and storytellers, publishers hold the power to make meaningful changes, creating a more sustainable society through collective action. However, vigilance is essential, as certain aspects of publishing have questionable connections, necessitating caution over any complacency.

Devi Lockwood speaks about her book 1,001 Voices on Climate Change

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