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Committing to Environmental Excellence

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by Todd Pollack, Director, Green Press Initiative

Todd Pollack

In 2006, Random House became the first large publisher to adopt a formal environmental policy, but many independent publishers were using environmentally responsible paper long before then and helped demonstrate that using such paper in books was possible and economically feasible. Since 2006, most of the larger publishers, and many more independent publishers, have followed suit by committing to environmental policies.

The Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) recently released a new report that looks at trends in environmentally responsible paper use and policies in the book industry. The report, which was based on surveys of book publishers, printers, and paper suppliers, found that, while the use of recycled fiber in books increased dramatically between 2004 and 2009, it has declined since then, with especially steep declines between 2012 and 2014. A similar pattern was seen with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified papers. It should be noted that these figures are based on surveys of paper manufacturers that were asked to report on paper that “could be used to manufacture books.” However, much of this paper could potentially be used for other purposes (catalogs, magazines, etc.), and books make up a very small percentage of the printing and writing paper market.

In fact, the survey also revealed that most publishers are meeting, or are on track to meet, their environmental goals and expect to use the same amount or more recycled and FSC certified paper in the future. This suggests that while manufacturers are making less recycled and FSC certified printing and writing paper, book publishers are snatching up a disproportionately large percentage of it compared to their size in the printing and writing paper market.

And while, in aggregate, paper manufacturers are reporting declines in recycled and FSC certified book papers, some have reported increasing the amount of recycled paper they are providing to book publishers. The result is that, while there are certainly many challenges associated with increasing the use of environmentally responsible paper, there are also a lot of opportunities.

An environmental policy is an important tool that can help a publisher take advantage of the opportunities that exist to minimize negative environmental impacts. Each publisher’s circumstances are unique depending on their size, the types of books they publish, relationships with suppliers, and a number of other factors, but the strongest environmental policies have a number of common elements, including commitments to recycled fiber, commitments to using FSC certified paper, goals to eliminate controversial sources of fiber, and specific and measurable targets.

Recycled Fiber

Reusing paper means fewer trees need to be cut down to make new paper, but there are also a number of other benefits associated with using recycled fiber. A magazine (like this one) is in a state that is much closer to a “new” piece of paper than a tree, so it takes less energy to recycle it and make new paper than it does to turn a tree into paper. For the same reason, manufacturing recycled paper also produces less waste water, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces a number of other pollutants. Finally, one of the biggest advantages of recycled paper is that it reduces paper going into landfills where it would degrade and release methane—an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, each ton of recycled fiber that replaces a ton of virgin fiber in freesheet paper will save the equivalent of 24 trees and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to what one car would produce in a year. These numbers are from the Environmental Paper Network Paper Calculator, which can be used by any publisher to calculate the tangible benefits of using recycled paper for any project, or by reaching a specific recycled fiber target. The calculator is available at papercalculator.org.

A lot of paper is sourced from plantations, and using recycled paper also reduces the pressure to continue to expand or create new plantations at the expense of natural forests. Compared to natural forests, plantations support far less biodiversity, they are often heavily managed with the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and they store significantly less carbon than a natural forest.

FSC Certified Paper

While there are a number of different forest certification programs, most environmental organizations view the Forest Stewardship Council as the gold standard due to its ability to track paper back to individual forest management units and the strong requirements that must be met to achieve and maintain certification. While there are many factors that differentiate FSC from other certification programs, most environmental organizations highlight a few key points:

FSC offers the strongest protections for High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs). While there are a number of criteria that identify HCVFs, FSC protection ensures that areas with especially significant or vulnerable species or ecosystems are off limits to logging.

FSC is the only certification that requires a consensus solution when conflicts arise between certificate holders and local or indigenous communities. Other certifications may require consultation, which require a meeting with these communities, but that is very different than requiring a consensus solution.

FSC does not allow for new conversion of natural forests to plantations. With the exception of a few specific circumstances, such as when a very small area is converted as part of a plan to protect a much larger area of natural forest, FSC does not allow for certification of plantations that replaced natural forests after 1994.

Specific Targets

While any type of commitment to increasing the use of responsible paper is better than no policy at all, identifying and committing to a specific target and timeline makes for a much stronger policy. As with most goals, setting specific, measurable targets leads to better outcomes and ensures that everyone in the company can measure against the target periodically. Perhaps even more important, it lets suppliers know what your goals are. In this regard, annual benchmarks, or smaller steps leading up to the long-term target, are especially helpful. Communicating these benchmarks to printers and other suppliers allows them to understand your future needs and begin taking steps that help you succeed. If printers or other suppliers are not accommodating to these goals, it may be necessary to look for other suppliers and sharing these benchmarks with them, as it will help you identify what alternative suppliers are best able to help you achieve your goals.

Avoiding Controversial Sources

While it is important to include targets for recycled fiber and FSC certified paper, many publishers will still have a certain portion of their paper that consist of uncertified virgin fiber. If, for example, 80 percent of the paper you use meets high environmental standards, but the remaining 20 percent is outsourced from the Indonesian rainforest, the negative impact can still be quite large. To ensure that what may be a small portion fiber that is not recycled or FSC certified is not offsetting all the positive benefits of the environmentally responsible paper that is being used, many publishers will include requirements in their policies to avoid fiber from controversial suppliers or regions without effective social or environmental laws.

There are, of course, many additional considerations that can be addressed in an environmental policy, such as improving energy efficiency, using more environmentally friendly inks, or reducing the distance books travel—from the time they are produced to the time they reach a reader. Assessments of the book industry’s environmental impacts have shown that paper contributes to the vast majority of the environmental impact of a book. As a result, efforts to reduce impacts in other areas can certainly contribute additional reductions in a publisher’s environmental impact as long as they are in addition to, and not substitutions for, efforts to use more environmentally responsible paper.

As previously discussed, the BIEC trends report illustrates the many challenges associated with increasing the use of environmentally responsible paper, but the surveys also show that publishers of all sizes are able to set and meet environmental goals. A strong policy is a tool that can be leveraged to advance progress both internally and externally. Internally, it can be used to communicate a commitment to all employees and allow them to measure progress and make adjustments where necessary. Externally, it sends a message to suppliers about your expectations and lets readers know that your company is committed to minimizing its environmental footprint.

Todd Pollack is the director of Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit program that works with book industry stakeholders to conserve natural resources, preserve endangered forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize impacts on indigenous communities.

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