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Even a Small Publisher Can Print Sustainably

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PUBLISHED JUNE 2017

by Karla Olson, Director, Patagonia Books


Karla Olson

As a small publisher, you have to depend on many in the industry for expertise and best practices on the myriad aspects of the publishing process. This can lead to a cacophony of opinions and advice at every stage, from good writing and professional editing to successful marketing. Perhaps most confusing for independent publishers, however, are options in printing. Without a big production department behind you, it is difficult to keep up with the industry jargon and developments and feel like you are getting a straight answer. And if you, like many independent publishers, wish to include sustainability practices, your choices get even more confusing.

According to a 2015 study by the Natural Marketing Institute, 85 percent of the US population values sustainability practices, and 63 percent consider sustainability in their buying decisions. I’m going to guess that these percentages are even higher for book buyers, so this is something you should pay attention to.

To start, there is much debate about whether e-books are more sustainable than print books. Studies show that reading a newspaper in print instead of online produces 20 percent less carbon dioxide. But even beyond that, since approximately only 25 percent of all books are sold as e-books, you can’t begin to reach your potential audience if you go e-only. Giving readers a choice between print and digital is essential.

So, what can you do to print your books more sustainably?

Since most of a book is paper, start by always considering 100 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper. PCW paper is made from paper that is diverted from the landfill and then scrubbed and made into new paper. No trees are cut down; it is made from paper that already exists. Virgin fiber is made from trees that are cut down, whether they are from old-growth forests or paperwood “plantations.”

Here are a few facts from the Green Press Initiative that show why cutting down a tree to make paper is never the best choice for the planet:

  • Deforestation accounts for 25 percent of annual carbon emissions.
  • Paper comprises 40 percent of all material in landfills.
  • Decomposition of paper releases methane.
  • Some paper manufacturers claim they plant more trees than they use, but paperwood “plantations” replace natural forests, which greatly reduces biodiversity.
  • Chemical herbicides and fertilizers are used on most plantations, which pollutes the soil and water supply.

On the other hand, when you use PCW paper, you:

  • Keep paper out of the landfill.
  • Use 30-40 percent less energy than when creating new paper from virgin fibers.
  • Conserve 2,000-3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for each ton of virgin fiber it replaces.

You’ve probably heard that PCW is too expensive and that the quality isn’t good enough for book printing, but that’s just not true anymore. Demand is up, which means the paper is more readily available, and the price is coming down. Many printers have PCW papers available as in-house stocks, which also helps to lower the price and keep the book on schedule since they don’t have to be special ordered. The quality has improved as well, to the point that most PCW papers are just as smooth and white as those made from virgin fibers. And printers have learned so much about how to print on PCW paper that production now runs smoothly with less waste.

For the last two years, Patagonia has printed all of its books on only 100 percent PCW recycled paper. Check out our website to see the results: patagonia.com/books.

So again, I ask, what can you do?

Make a commitment to the environment and to sustainability as part of your publishing brand and imprint. You make a statement or take a stand with your book, and you should also with the materials you choose. Commit to lead to greater demand, greater choice, greater awareness, and greater impact.

Educate yourself. There’s information available through the Green Press Initiative, the Book Industry Environmental Council, and many other organizations.

Find a printer partner that works to constantly improve their sustainability practices and environmental options. There are many within the IBPA community. Your printer, too, can provide guidelines and references to help you better understand your options. Many will create an Environmental Benefits Statement specific to your book. Include it on your copyright page and your website to raise awareness within your community.

Demand 100 percent PCW recycled paper, and you will be surprised at the choices you have. You’ll also help drive demand so that the price will come down and there will be even more choices. We need to work together to make this happen.

As we’ve learned at Patagonia, small steps and actions add up to big changes over time. Please do what you can for the planet, reach out to other independent publishers, and be part of the sustainable publishing movement.


Karla Olson is the director of Patagonia Books, which publishes books as a mission outreach within the sports clothing company Patagonia Inc. She has been in the publishing industry for over 30 years and is the owner of BookStudio, a publishing consultancy. For the past two years, she has held a seat on the IBPA board of directors.

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