Green publishing?

By ‘green publishing’ I refer to the issue of the environmental impacts of publishing, rather than the publishing of books about the environmental. On the former there has over the last decade been a growing debate – some of it informed, some of it less rigorous. My favorite contribution was the comment from Helen Fraser, then MD of Penguin, reported by The Bookseller (25  Feb 2008): “If we don’t want to find London under 20 feet of water by 2020, we are going to have to do something more drastic than just offsetting”. (This must be a candidate for the silliest comment ever to appear in The Bookseller).

Since the credit crunch, the debate has slipped down the industry’s agenda. The seminar programme at the forthcoming London Book Fair (LBF) includes a session on ‘Greening the book’, but the subject is far from central to the programme as a whole.

The debate has tended to focus on the question of relative impacts of printed and e-books. The LBF seminar is sub-titled ‘Digital or Print?’. Such a focus is understandable – it reflects a decision point by which consumers have an impact – yet it can lead to over-simplified debate.

A common assumption is as follows: print books = bad, e-books = good. The idea is embodied in the popular metaphor for print books, namely ‘dead trees’. Yet things are not quite so simple. For one thing, some dead trees can be replaced more sustainably than others. (The Forest Stewardship Council‘s certification scheme, now widely used, attempts to identify paper originated from well-managed sources.) For another, much depends on what happens to a copy of a book after it has been manufactured. How far does it travel on its way through the supply chain? Is it re-used, through the library service or secondhand trade?

On the other side, e-books are not without environmental impacts. Purchase, downloading, and reading requires energy. The manufacture of reading devices requires energy, water, and raw materials. And, again, much depends on user behaviour. Is the e-book in question read from an LCD screen or with (more energy-efficient) e-ink technology? Or printed off on a home printer? How quickly are e-readers disposed of?

There are, of course, other factors to be considered, beyond the choice between p- and e-books. One that is often ignored is the environmental impact of, not publishers themselves, but their stakeholders – and the question of the extent to which publishers are in a position to influence this.

Another (or, rather – since employees are one form of stakeholder – one part of the above) is the impact of commuting and travel. When the production director, sitting in his office, decides to opt for FSC-certified paper, how far has s/he commuted into work in order to make that decision? What will be the total number of air miles clocked up by those attending the LBF seminar on the greening of publishing? The issue of commuting is perhaps the least sexy, least discussed of all.

Finally, I should add a strongly sceptical note. Much of the debate on the greening of publishing is conducted in terms of carbon emissions. That seems to me very reductive. Assessment of environmental impacts cannot be reduced to carbon counts. Preoccupation with carbon emissions risks distracting attention from questions concerning ecological systems, biodiversity, and conservation. Printers, for example, need to consider not merely how much energy they use, but also such questions as waste management and water discharge – as the environmental policy of a company like Arctic Paper makes clear.


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