Sustainability in Publishing

How green is the publishing industry?

A question that definitely doesn’t seem to be on enough people’s lips is ‘how green is the publishing industry’? It’s not unreasonable to think of the obvious use of trees in book production and conclude that publishing has an inherently negative impact on the environment, but in truth there are a lot of strategies in place aiming to reduce carbon footprint and bolster the use of sustainable materials.

Significant strides began to be made with the formation of the Green Press Initiative in 2001, whose mission according to their website is ‘to work with book and newspaper industry stakeholders to conserve natural resources, preserve endangered forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize impacts on indigenous communities’. A major innovation made by the GPI was the introduction of the Book Industry Treatise, which called for companies from across the publishing and book production sector to make public pledges to strive for the sustainability. Nowadays, the Green Press Initiative is relatively quiet (their website is quite out of date), but happily for the environment’s sake the mantle was taken over by the Book Industry Environmental Council; originally set up by the GPI.

"are the companies with the ability to make great changes putting thought into action?"

The representatives that sit on the council work in or have significant experience in the paper and publishing sector, creating a positive and practical set of codes, benchmarks and methods to collectively improve attitudes to the environment. Perhaps the most significant step the BIEC (and in part the GPI) took was to introduce in 2009 their overall ‘Climate Goal’, a clear set of targets for the paper and publishing industry as a whole that will reduce negative environmental impacts. The main target is: to reduce the U.S. book industries greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (from a 2006 baseline) by 2020, with a long-term target of an 80% reduction by 2050.

The ways in which they think this can be achieved could be spoken about for days, but this article is about how green the industry currently is; are the companies with the ability to make great changes putting thought into action? An excellent measure of how the UK industry in particular is getting on is the 2015 WWF timber scorecard, which was produced to give (very public) figures about how the top businesses were using sustainable timber and timber products. The scorecard rewarded openness in communicating sustainability practises and gave negative feedback in instances where little or no attempt was being made to seek out more responsible options. The infograph below shows the September 2015 results for the UK’s top publishers…I can’t imagine they were very happy with the findings.


Only MacMillan scored the top rating of three trees, and at the other end of the scale both Oxford and Cambridge University Presses scored a round zero . However, there is hope yet! The WWF produced a new scorecard in 2017, and the UK paper and publishing industry has made significant progress. The report notes that ‘A third of all companies reviewed in this sector have improved their score from the 2015 review. Five improved to a '3 trees' rating.’ Those now rated at the highest level include Hachette UK, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, whilst Cambridge University Press made a huge effort to increase from zero to two trees within the space of two years. Strangely, MacMillan dropped a place to two trees, although they remain comfortably ahead of Oxford University Press, who still scored zero. New additions Blackwells were likewise rated at zero trees.

Whilst there is clearly still vast room for improvement, it appears that the largest publishing companies are devoting significant time and energy to improving their impact on the environment. The rise of the e-book market has been mentioned by various sources as a factor in the decline of emissions, but even putting this aside it is clear that genuine effort is going in to promoting sustainability. Penguin, Macmillan and HaperCollins (among others), have all committed to increasing the amount of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper they use to 100% by 2020; in effect safeguarding responsible timber use and ensuring that a compromise can be reached between the material need of a publisher and the importance of protecting forests. Notably, Arcadia Publishing has already achieved this benchmark, making it the first of its size to use only FSC certified paper, according to Publishers Weekly.

For an industry that relies so heavily on paper products, then, it’s fair to say that on the whole the publishing industry is rising to the challenge of becoming more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Partly it has been forced into change by expectations and bad publicity, and there are obviously cases where not enough is being done, but the true importance of helping rather than harming the natural world does (to their credit) seem to have captured enough major companies that significant improvements have already been seen. Long may it continue.

*All statistics for the WWF timber scorecards were taken directly from the WWF website.

Click here for the 2015 Timber Scorecard

Click here for the 2017 Timber Scorecard

Click here for the article by Publishers Weekly on Arcadia.

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