< back to full list of articles
Publishing and the Planet

or Article Tags

PUBLISHED JULY/AUGUST 2019

by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —


Deb Vanasse

Increasingly, consumers recognize the climate threats posed by shrinking forests and ecologically destructive practices.

By making environmentally friendly choices, publishers can help mitigate these problems while also building goodwill and protecting their supply chain.

After all, print publishing depends on trees, so it only makes sense for publishers to use products and practices that sustain forests-and, by extension, the planet.


Mindful Commitments

As customers choose which products to purchase and which companies to support, they are increasingly mindful of what’s best for the planet, says Jane Mosbacher Morris, author of Buy the Change You Want to See.

“According to Fast Company, half of Americans can point to a specific instance where they made a buying choice around a brand based on that company’s environmental reputation,” Morris says. “And when it comes to millennials, this trend is even stronger. Fast Company’s Millennial Pulse report found that when millennials trust a brand’s environmental and social practices, 90 percent say they will buy from that brand.”

At Chelsea Green Publishing, a healthy planet has been a concern since 1984. “Both my husband and I were environmentalists when we started the company,” says Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin. “We knew that paper for books meant cutting down a lot of trees and was itself a very toxic process that produced hazardous waste. We felt that if we were to become publishers, we had to mitigate this impact the best we could, and we committed the company to use recycled papers and non-toxic inks whenever possible.”

Karla Olson

Founded in 1973 by a worldwide climber and environmental advocate, Patagonia also prioritized the planet from the start, with a commitment to creating fine products while doing no unnecessary harm. When the company added its book division in 2007, it did so with “an explicit mission to encourage reflective living and environmental activism,” says publisher Karla Olson. In October 2018, the company revised its mission statement to encompass not just sustainability but environment protection and restoration. Simply put, Patagonia says, “We are in business to save the home planet.”


The Paper Problem

For publishers seeking to be more earth-friendly, paper is an obvious starting point-after all, as Olson points out, it makes up at least 80 percent of a printed book.

To reduce the amount of paper used, the general aesthetic at Chelsea Green is to fill the page and avoid blank pages. “We want our books to be readable, so we don’t use incredibly small type, but we choose fonts, page layouts, and trims to utilize the page as effectively as possible,” explains production director Pati Stone.

Going digital is another way to cut back on paper. “While we think the printed book can be a wonderful thing to hold and read, we realize many people prefer digital files, and this allows us to reduce the number of books we print,” Stone says.

But as Olson points out, the vast majority of book sales are print, not digital, so if publishers want to reach the widest possible audience, they need paper. Fortunately, there are earth-friendly options. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper products originate in forests managed with stewardship practices that include replanting trees, while post-consumer waste (PCW) paper uses only recycled material.

Chelsea Green chooses PCW paper for most of their one-color books and FSC paper for the rest. “If we could make books out of non-tree paper-hemp, bamboo-we would, but, unfortunately, that is a long way off,” Baldwin says.

Concerned that replanted forests displace healthy ecosystems, Patagonia opts for PCW paper only. “It’s better to not cut down a tree at all,” Olson says.

Sourcing either FSC or PCW paper, both publishers acknowledge challenges as mill closings and high demand for brown paper (cardboard) squeeze the market. To get the paper they want, neither company prints in Asia. PCW paper is much easier to get in Canada, Olson explains, and it’s less expensive there than overseas. By printing closer to home, they also minimize the carbon impact of shipping.

Eco-friendly paper is more expensive, but publishers shouldn’t automatically assume it’s out of reach. In fact, the cost differential may be offset by consumer response. “Make it part of your brand, and people will appreciate that,” Olson says.

In confronting the paper challenge, she suggests publishers work closely with their printers. Patagonia’s Canadian printer, Friesens, has an environmental specialist on hand to help customers navigate their options. A commitment to eco-friendly paper will likely require an extension of the planning calendar to allow printers sufficient time to access specialty papers.

If volume and scheduling allow, Olson suggests asking printers to buy and store the desired paper through the year. As an alternative, small companies might pursue a co-op arrangement to source paper directly from brokers and supply it to their respective printers, as Patagonia has done for its catalog paper. By creating a record of demand, publishers encourage manufacturers to respond with more product, Olson points out.

Despite the difficulties, sourcing the right paper brings rewards. “Working with your supply chain may prove challenging, but if your business partners clearly understand your values and goals, they will get on board to help grow the business,” Morris says. “Consumers care about being eco-friendly and are willing to pay more for a book made with recycled paper, especially when it comes down to just a matter of cents.”


Small Changes, Big Results

Publishers committed to earth-friendly practices consider all aspects of production, packaging, and distribution. For instance, Patagonia doesn’t use metallic inks, which get into the water. They also use a 13-item checklist to qualify their production plants, and they recently decided to quit doing dust jackets. As an alternative, they’re integrating finishes, spot gloss, and embossing into their cover designs.

Single-use plastic is another area of concern. “We don’t shrink wrap our books because we prefer to use packaging that is recyclable,” Stone says. But because shrink wrap reduces the number of damaged books, another form of waste, Patagonia is working to source a plant-based alternative.

Careful planning also helps reduce waste. “We print the number of books we think we will need for 10 months to a year and reprint as books are needed,” Stone says. “That way, we aren’t recycling or remaindering as many titles as larger publishers.” Toward this end, Chelsea Green has also switched some of its backlist to print-on-demand (POD). Currently, there are no recycled paper options with POD, but Olson is urging Ingram to consider a change.

Waste is inherent to many aspects of book distribution. As Olson points out, printers typically ship in boxes of 24 copies. But few retailers want 24 copies of a title, so Patagonia asks its printer to package no more than 12 books to a box, thus eliminating the need to repackage for retail shipment.

The returns system is also inherently wasteful, but the industry has shown resistance to change. “We’ve argued that having books sold on a returnable basis causes a lot of wasted energy and resource use and should be abandoned,” Baldwin says. “We did not win that fight, but return rates have come way down due to both internet retailers and e-books.”

Acknowledging the challenge, Olson continues to promote conversations about more earth-friendly distribution practices. For instance, booksellers can be more judicious about slating books for return when the damage is inconspicuous. And when damaged books are returned, Patagonia doesn’t destroy them. Instead, they’re sent to retailers as giveaways for book events.

Taken collectively, these small changes can yield big results. “My message to everyone, whether it’s businesses or consumers, is that every penny makes a difference,” Morris says. “More often than not, you have a much bigger impact than you realize.”


Partners for the Planet

The journey toward eco-friendly publishing need not be taken alone. As Olson points out, print brokers are often interested in addressing these problems, too. By offering to test new earth-friendly alternatives, publishers can help usher in change.

To address growing interest in environmental concerns, Olson has conducted an IBPA webinar on sustainability, and she shares eco-friendly ideas and methods with booksellers, book clubs, and publishers. For instance, she suggests booksellers devote a section of their stores to books produced using environmentally sustainable practices.

Another resource is the Environmental Paper Network, which offers a paper calculator that publishers can use to demonstrate the environmental impact of their paper choices. “We include the list of savings in our books,” Stone says. “It is good to see that we are saving trees, water, and other resources with our paper choices.”

For a commitment to protect and restore the environment to succeed, Morris recommends workforce-wide engagement. “A company needs to clearly communicate eco-friendly production goals to their employees, creating a green culture where everyone thinks about and acts on the eco-friendly strategies and policies that are in place,” she says. “When everyone throughout the process knows that an eco-friendly approach is required, that will be top of mind and therefore impact decisions at all levels.”

Investments in resource efficiency, a secure work environment, and sustainable materials boost profitability, Morris adds. “Having clear, strong values makes for a strong business and, therefore, a strong bottom line,” she explains, noting that eco-friendly production generates goodwill and positive brand-building.


Planet-Friendly Options

Morris, Olson, Baldwin, and Stone offer these suggestions:

  • For print books and caalogs, use recycled paper.
  • Reduce unnecessary packaging, particularly plastic wrap.
  • Discourage returns.
  • Grow digital publishing.
  • Support book donation programs.
  • Digitally streamline your company’s manuscript and proofing processes to reduce the amount of paper used.
  • Print in North America only.
  • Try not to overprint.
  • Sell or give away overstock. If you have to destroy overstock, recycle it.
  • Use POD technology for slow-moving stock.
  • Use recycled and recyclable shipping materials.
  • Encourage employees to reduce their environmental footprint in the office on a daily basis. From replacing plastic cups with reusable mugs to printing double-sided to ordering custom products made of recycled materials, there are all kinds of way to have a green impact at work.
  • Choose swag that reflects the company’s environmental values
  • If you own your office space, commit to a zero-carbon footprint.

Good Stewards

As environmental sustainability becomes a fact of life, forward-thinking publishers are committing to changes in sourcing, production, and distribution. “Staying ahead of the curve can only benefit your business as we move into a future where eco-friendly practices will be essential, Morris says. “As companies become better at defining the values that are important to them, their ability to buy the change they want to see will increase.”

Agile and attuned to the marketplace, independent publishers are uniquely positioned to create-and demand-earth-friendly products. As consumers seek these eco-friendly options and publishers respond, the planet gets the ultimate win. And when the planet wins, we all benefit.


Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.


Want to learn more about eco-friendly publishing technologies being developed to create new printing paradigms? Check out our previous IBPA Independent article,Innovations in Publishing Technology and Book Manufacturing“.

Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
©2016 Independent Book Publishers Association