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Turning Over a New Leaf: How the Publishing Industry is Responding to its Climate Impact

By Chloë Marshall, Natalie Klinkenberg, Frankie Harnett and Alice Fusai


The publishing industry has a lot to answer for regarding the environmental damage for which it is responsible – but it’s not as simple as recycled paper. 


While it’s difficult to calculate exactly how many trees are cut down each year for paper purposes, it’s impossible to know how many of these trees are destined for the production of books. The size, species and condition of a tree are all factors that affect the amount of paper it can produce. This means any estimate is based on vague averages and often biased data. 


Additionally, as books vary in length and paper type, an estimation of how many books a single tree can produce is a similarly irregular figure, ranging from 20–100 books per tree. While sources differ, estimates suggest that anywhere between four and eight billion trees are used for paper every year (this is around 25%–50% of the fifteen billion trees felled annually), forming a significant portion of global deforestation. But it’s not just trees: the resources such as water and energy used in the production of books, as well as the environmental impact of shipping production materials and final products contribute greatly to the carbon footprint of the industry. That’s not counting other, less obvious factors to consider such as the chemicals in ink or the plastic in some dust jackets. 


Despite efforts to reduce its impact, it’s unclear whether the industry has even made a dent in righting its wrongs. Moreover, greenwashing is a very real problem when it comes to some big companies’ so-called “green” initiatives. 


One of the initiatives created by the UK’s Society of Authors is a campaign called “Tree to Me.” The campaign sets out to “add authors’ voices to efforts to achieve net zero in the publishing industry” according to the Society of Authors’ website. It lists ten questions for authors to ask their publishers and start conversations surrounding a book’s sustainability and how they can reduce environmental impact during the book’s production. The website emphasises that the campaign isn’t meant to be a way for authors to make demands or accuse publishers, but rather to highlight the space for sustainable practices and work toward improving the sustainability of the author’s book.

 

Publishers have taken their own initiatives too, although there is still room for improvement. At Macmillan, operations have been carbon neutral globally since 2017 and in the US for over ten years. Penguin Random House had over 96% of its paper sourced coming from certified mills as of 2021, and has saved over 14,000 tons of CO2 emissions, reducing their worldwide emissions by 49%. Wiley has even partnered with Trees for the Future with the goal of planting a million trees within three years to reduce their printing volume by a million copies.


The market for environmental print methods has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Last year, Park Communications published the most comprehensive guide to sustainable printing, Sustainable Print Design, which offers a detailed cover of suppliers and techniques for the newest methods of sustainable printing. One of the core methods they examine is the use of recycled paper. The guide has a useful paper finder tool on the back cover, which compares different types of paper, looking at cost comparisons, paper qualities, the environmental impact and the supplier's best option for each one, acting as an invaluable tool for sourcing materials. For example, paper from supplier Favini reuses food waste, wool and leather residues, and G. F. Smith’s paper uses a material Notpla which is primarily composed of seaweed-based material. Unfortunately, this is not always an option for smaller indie publishing houses, as according to Allison Branch, the managing director of Park Communications, even standard recycled paper is 30% more expensive than non-recyclable virgin fibre paper. However, the industry is working hard to increase accessibility to these environmental options and help them become more widespread. 


For example, Hazel Press, an independent publishing house focuses on the climate crisis, feminism and the arts. What sets Hazel Press apart is not just the profound subject matter of their books but their commitment to eco-friendly practices. All of their books are printed in the UK using eco-print processes and materials. The company strives to employ the least environmentally damaging methods available, employing 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based inks to produce their books.


But being eco-friendly doesn’t simply mean employing informed production processes, it also manifests in a conscious choice to produce less. Hazel Press seems to be aware of this as well. In 2023, they introduced "Catkins," a captivating series of occasional chapbooks. These limited-edition gems, with a print run of just fifty copies, are crafted in response to specific places and events. The most recent addition to the Catkins family is Bindweed by Anna de Waal, which captures the essence of Hazel Press's commitment to both artistry and environmental consciousness. For those eager to embark on a literary journey with Hazel Press, their titles are accessible directly from the publisher, with worldwide shipping available. 


With readers and authors becoming more environmentally conscious, the industry has to keep up with the ever-evolving best eco-friendly practices. As these are dependent on cost capacity, it is evident that only the major publishing companies will be able to offer the best green products; another challenge for the indie press to stay afloat and another threat to diversity in the literary output. A key point in this could be cooperation, meaning a standardised approach to printing established by associations and printing companies. 


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