In an era where environmental consciousness is crucial, industries across the board are striving to minimise their ecological footprint. The publishing industry, in particular, has been increasingly scrutinised for its environmental impact, from paper usage to distribution practices. Recently, emc design attended the Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference event, which shed light on the strides being made towards sustainability while also highlighting areas that require further attention.

The team participated in a session titled ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Sustainability through Innovation,’ highlighting positive initiatives in the physical production of books—from paper sourcing to distribution and buy-back programs. However, it was also acknowledged that more action is needed beyond simple offsetting measures.

There are some basics that all publishers should be aware of:

  • Paper stock and choice: Not all paper is the same. Different types have varying environmental impacts based on their source and manufacturing process.
  • Printing techniques: While foils and gloss varnishes can improve books’ visual appeal, they should also be mindful of their environmental impact. Many of these techniques render books non-recyclable, and the adhesives used in binding processes may also pose recycling challenges.
  • Packaging: Packaging plays a significant role in the environmental impact of the publishing industry because it contributes to resource depletion, waste generation, and carbon emissions throughout its lifecycle.
  • Distribution models: Adopting environmentally sustainable distribution models is crucial for reducing the publishing supply chain’s ecological footprint.
  • Reducing overprinting and implementing buy-back schemes: Overprinting and surplus stock contribute to unnecessary waste.
  • Carbon Off-setting:Off-setting alone is not the answer!

These initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction, but publishers need to do so much more to reduce waste and contribute to a circular economy.

Understanding the Circular Economy

A circular economy is a system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products, especially to continue production in a sustainable or environmentally friendly way. It consists of five core principles: Reducing, Reusing, Refurbishing, Repairing, and Recycling.

  • Reduce: Cut back on consumption by sharing and renting instead of always buying new items.
  • Reuse: Find multiple uses for items to extend their lifespan and minimise waste.
  • Repair: Choose products designed for easy repair to reduce waste.
  • Refurbish: Revitalise items by replacing worn-out parts, prolonging their usefulness.
  • Recycle: Transform old items into new resources, reducing waste and conserving materials.

Many companies across different sectors, such as H&M, Adidas, HP, and Accenture, have embraced the circular economy. Publishers could benefit from exploring sustainability practices adopted by these diverse sectors, adapting, and implementing them to suit their specific needs.

Driving Waste Reduction Strategies

One such strategy is the comprehensive reuse of content as part of a broader approach to waste reduction. Educational publishers have been pioneers in this area for years. It’s standard practice to take existing courses and repurpose them for new markets, sometimes tailoring them partially or entirely for specific audiences or editions. What exactly gets reused? Everything – from the words and content to the artwork and images. Publishers diligently seek re-clearances of licences and permissions, adapt various parts, and source new content when necessary.

In recent years, publishers have adopted more strategic approaches to cataloguing and organising the assets they acquire. For instance, rather than commissioning multiple versions of the same artwork, publishers are exploring the possibility of creating one versatile vector graphic that can be easily updated to suit different needs. However, this shift comes with implications. The trend toward owning artwork perpetually means that artists often lose copyright control once they agree to these specific licences. There’s a growing argument that the value of commissioned pieces should reflect this perpetual ownership model. Unfortunately, budget constraints in some publishing houses have led to reduced investment in artwork, making it financially unsustainable for artists.

While asset management systems have undoubtedly aided publishers in reusing assets more efficiently, larger organisations still grapple with fully understanding and addressing the extent of wastage within their operations. There’s a clear need for continued innovation and commitment to sustainability principles in the publishing industry to maximise waste reduction efforts and promote a truly circular economy.

Wastage in Writing, Editing, and Production Processes

It is also crucial to address the significant wastage that occurs during the writing, editing, and production processes. Often, more text is generated than can feasibly fit within the page or resource plan. Designers may set this surplus content only to later cut it, resulting in wasted electricity and carbon emissions associated with storing and transferring larger files. When considering the time and resources expended, writers spend more time than necessary, editors edit more words than needed, and designers allocate unnecessary effort. When multiplied across the thousands of educational materials produced within a single publishing house, the cumulative impact is considerable.

To mitigate this waste, authors should aim for prescribed word counts, and there should be a proactive plan in place to repurpose any excess content if it remains unused. Streamlining proofing cycles can also help minimise over-editing and reduce waste during production. Thankfully, the growing focus on accessibility in materials will naturally lead to a reduction in decorative assets and a heightened emphasis on functional and navigational elements. Consequently, this shift will contribute to a reduction in the amount of ink required for printing and decrease the electrical storage necessary to house extensive asset collections.

Designing Out Waste for Environmental Sustainability

Designing out waste involves taking a proactive approach to product design aimed at minimising waste generation and releasing pollutants throughout a product’s lifecycle. This involves designing products in such a way that they are not disposable, lack value, or have a short lifespan of less than five years. Instead, products should be built to last, be durable, and offer lasting value to users. To achieve this, it’s important to avoid using toxic materials in product construction, ensuring that the product can be safely handled and disposed of at the end of its life.

For the publishing industry specifically, designing out waste and pollution involves implementing innovative solutions to address the environmental impact of printed materials. That research indicates that approximately 320 million books find their way into landfill sites annually, underscoring the urgency of this issue.

Other solutions, initiatives such as World of Books buy-back schemes, where used books are collected and resold or recycled instead of being discarded, help to extend the lifespan of printed materials, and reduce waste sent to landfills or incinerators. With these measures, the publishing industry can significantly contribute to environmental sustainability while also meeting the evolving needs of readers and consumers.

The Environmental Implications of Digital Solutions

While there’s a common assumption that transitioning to digital products could alleviate environmental concerns, the reality is more complex. While digital delivery through “the cloud” offers convenience, it’s important to recognise its environmental footprint. Storage facilities supporting digital content demand significant space and consume substantial amounts of electricity to operate efficiently. The widespread adoption of AI to improve efficiency presents another dimension of energy consumption that is often overlooked.

Digitalisation undoubtedly offers advantages in terms of accessibility and distribution, but it’s essential to consider the broader environmental implications. As industries increasingly rely on digital solutions, it’s imperative to address the environmental consequences holistically and strive for sustainable practices throughout the entire digital ecosystem. Only through a comprehensive approach to sustainability can we truly minimise the ecological footprint of digital industries and pave the way for a more environmentally conscious future.

Collaboration for Change

Collaboration is absolutely essential for advancing sustainability goals within the publishing industry. Organisations, regardless of size or sector, must join forces to address environmental challenges effectively. No organisation alone can achieve the scale of impact needed to make meaningful progress towards sustainability.

The IPG, in particular, is spearheading numerous impressive schemes to promote sustainability within the publishing sector. Initiatives such as the Sustainability Action Group, the Sustainability Taskforce and the Book Journeys Project demonstrate the IPG’s commitment to driving environmental stewardship. Additionally, the IPG’s Zero Carbon Toolkit provides valuable resources and guidance to help publishers meet the targets set forth by the Book Journeys Project.

While these schemes are important, all publishing organisations must collaborate and collectively advocate for change. By joining forces, the industry can amplify its impact and accelerate progress towards a more sustainable future. Together, we can drive sustainable change and propel the publishing industry towards a greener future.