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Can Going Green Help Publishers, or Just Planet Earth?

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Can Going Green Help Publishers, or Just Planet Earth?

by Raz Godelnik

Forecasting the future of books and the book industry seems to be becoming a national sport. All bets are open, but although no one really knows what the future holds for the industry, there’s no doubt that changes are happening fast and that publishers who don’t adjust to current trends will find themselves in a very unfavorable position.

One current broad trend is going green. You can see evidence of it almost everywhere and increasingly often. But is going green a good fit for book publishers? Can going green help the book industry meet its ever-growing challenges?

Obviously it would be better for Planet Earth if the industry’s carbon footprint (12.4 million metric tons, 2006 figures) were reduced, but publishers need evidence that going green also makes business sense.

I think that evidence exists.

Tying Green to Better Business Models

First, let’s clarify the definition of going green. To many publishers, it might mean only using more recycled and FSC-certified paper (see below for details on this tactic). But a better definition is improving the social and environmental consequences of publishers’ activities. When we look at it this way, the process has many different faces and many kinds of tie-ins with business goals.

One recent example is provided by Dorchester Publishing, which is going green without meaning to go green. The company announced recently that it had dropped its traditional print publishing business after its book unit sales fell 25 percent last year, and that it had switched to an e-book/print-on-demand model for economic reasons.

Now, e-books have their ecological upsides and downsides (see “Is E-Reading Really Greener?” in the August issue), but by moving to a print-on-demand model, Dorchester Publishing is also saying goodbye to the traditional returns model, which is a wasteful system estimated to involve 25 to 40 percent of books sold in the trade. Green? Definitely. Good for business? Dorchester certainly thinks so.

This interesting step was made without mentioning the word green even once, apparently because Dorchester thought about business and not the environment. And the result was a double win: spend less and waste less.

Dorchester is hardly the only publisher that’s enjoying these win-win rewards. Among other examples: Hachette Book Group, as part of its new environmental policy, reportedly hopes to reduce the number of books in landfills by making better projections of consumer demand, using more on-demand printing, and working with retailers to lower returns.

Getting Value via Values

Looking for more efficient business models is one part of the going-green picture. Another part is not only about efficiency but also about values.

In his book The Responsibility Revolution, Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, explains the value of values for companies. He presents a study done by Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School on companies and values that concluded: In “companies where values and standards are widely shared, employees make better decisions, collaborate more effectively, and react to opportunities (and crises) more effectively.” As Kanter explains, values “are no longer an afterthought”; they are “a starting point that helps companies find profitable growth.”

Kanter’s study focused on multinationals, but Hollender points out that “a genuine commitment to values can benefit a company of any size.” Chelsea Green Publishing is a great example. Looking at its mission statement, it is easy to understand how this publishing company sustainably and successfully grows its business and even manages to do well in times of recession.

Chelsea Green’s Web site explains: “We are determined to keep Chelsea Green independent and to create a business model that will reflect, at as many levels of structure and function as possible, our commitment to sustainability. As a business, we are dedicated to what Paul Hawken calls ‘restorative economics,’ built around an integrated concern for intellectual capital, social capital, natural capital, and financial capital.”

The Paper Choice

By changing the mix of paper you use—increasing your use of recycled and certified fiber and avoiding use of paper from endangered forests—you can acknowledge the environmental impact of your publishing program while committing to do better.

Although eco-friendly paper is still more expensive than “regular” virgin paper, the supply of eco-friendly paper is growing fast; the quality is getting better; price differences are shrinking; and readers are increasingly apt to be aware of publishers’ paper choices and the consequences of those choices.

And there are new options for combining increased efficiency with efforts to reduce the use of virgin paper. For instance, Scholastic is working with its mills to create lighter grades of paper that look the same as heavier ones. And a number of publishers are switching from paper catalogs to online catalogs, which have an additional benefit: They can be updated as publication and/or marketing plans change and develop.

Overall, you are most likely to benefit by adopting a strategic approach that mixes different green elements. Of course, going green is no magic pill and cannot ensure prosperity. But aspects of going green can help publishers deal with inefficiencies in current business models and adapt to the evolving world of digital content, while also contributing to the health of the planet we live on.

Raz Godelnik, who teaches a course on Sustainability and Green Business at the University of Delaware’s Business School, is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris. Founded in 2007, Eco-Libris is a green company working with publishers, authors, bookstores, and book lovers worldwide to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. For more information, go to ecolibris.net.



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