What does a publisher do? Impact on the environment

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of “What functions does a publisher seek to fulfil?” but rather “What operations does a publisher (well, this publisher at any rate) perform?” This is the eighth post in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders‘) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of  stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post focuses on management of interactions with one of the four ‘non-trading’ stakeholders included in the framework, namely the environment. Thus:

Suppliers
Owners, investors Workforce State
Community
Media
ENVIRONMENT
Clients, customers

I mean here the environment itself, rather than agencies seeking to protect the environment.

Before we set up our business, I had no experience of working for an organisation with an environmental policy.  I have, therefore, embarked on a learning programme. I’ve done this by reading (books mainly, though also blogs), since that is more cost-effective than relying on training or consultancy. 

The texts I’ve read fall into three categories, namely (a) general (e.g. Edwards & Orr, The sustainability revolution; (b) business and the environment (e.g.  Gareth Kane’s Three secrets of green business and his blog on Terra Infirma); and (c) the publishing industry (e.g. Rethinking paper and ink from Ooligan Press).

I’ve found the quality of books on sustainable business very mixed. Generally the genre exhibits a lack of rigour – scientific, technical, and financial. Reading the better titles, however, has proved productive. 

The main points I’ve learnt are:

1. begin with an assessment: where is one’s business making the biggest impacts?

2. when  doing so, go beyond the obvious: include not only such things as office supplies and business, but also (a) life-cycle impacts (including those of our suppliers, distributors, and consumers) and hence (b) impacts embodied in materials and equipment.

Our assessment of our impact is that it falls in three main areas:

1. print publishing (through materials, production processes, and distribution);

2. business travel (though we don’t ourselves commute);

3. maintaining an office.

When it comes to planning a policy, many sources advocate starting with small steps, on the grounds that (a) small steps cumulatively can make big differences and (b) small steps can lead to larger steps in due course. We’ve rejected such an approach. As David JC MacKay argues in Sustainable Energy:

We are inundated with a flood of crazy innumerate codswallop. The BBC doles out advice on how we can do our bit to save the planet – for example, “switch off your mobile phone charger when it’s not in use”; if anyone objects that mobile phone chargers are not actually our number one form of energy consumption, the mantra “very little helps” is wheeled out. Every little helps? A more realistic mantra is: if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. 

Though we have in fact implemented some small steps – for example, installing software to reduce office ink consumption – we don’t see such steps as part of an environmental plan: they simply help us to reduce running costs.

The plan we have produced has three planks:

1. Reducing the impact of our print publishing by (a) printing in different locations (thus reducing transportation), (b) using responsibly sourced (and, ideally, chlorine-free) paper; and (c) setting a schedule for phasing out print publication altogether.

2. Reducing the number of business meetings by using IT – principally Skype.

3. Reducing impacts resulting from other paper uses – for example by (a) seeking to avoid being sent junk mail and (b) using supplies of recycled paper of various types (for example, tissue paper, toilet roll). 

These initiatives are at various stages of implementation. The one we’ve made most progress on is (3); the one we’ve made no progress on is sourcing chlorine-free paper, which seems easier said than done. 

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