Rachel Donadio's recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, "Saving the Planet, One Book at a Time," misses the point. Donadio asks how much the publishing industry is willing to pay to be virtuous. The question really should be: How much is the publishing industry willing to lose by continuing in its wasteful ways?

I guess it's news if Random House decides to do the right thing, aiming to go from 3% to 30% recycled content by 2010, but Chelsea Green and many other smaller publishers have been doing this for years. Ninety-five percent of the books we publish are printed on recycled paper, and our goal is to use 100% post-consumer-waste recycled content whenever possible. Does it cost us more? Yes. Are we less profitable because we do it? No, because consumers are willing to pay more for books and magazines printed on recycled paper (Chelsea Green books carry a logo explaining that our books may be priced a little higher so we can print on recycled paper). Additionally, we try to keep returns low by not overselling. And when we dohave dead inventory, we recycle or donate it, instead of pulping it for the landfill.

So while Donadio buys into the notion that going green means reducing profits, we embrace a new environmental calculus that demonstrates the cost benefit of a zero-waste approach to publishing. In our view, going green is not only the morally right thing to do, it's the only thing to do if we're to survive and thrive in a peak oil future of skyrocketing energy costs.

Publishing is a resource- and energy-intensive business. Books are heavy, and until e-books morph into the iTunes they aspire to be, manufacturing and transporting them is costly. Every dollar spent unnecessarily on energy is a dollar wasted. Therefore, while going to recycled paper is an essential first step toward mitigating our industry's environmental impact, real change will come only when book sales become nonreturnable.

According to the AAP, global gross sales of consumer books in 2004 totaled 1.4 billion units. Thirty-one percent of them, or 442 million units, were returned. Let's assume half the returned books are shipped out again, and half go into a landfill (and that is where most of them end up). If the average weight of a book is two pounds and the average distance a book travels is 1,000 miles, then an extra 1,305 million pounds of books were shipped an extra 59 million miles using 8.4 million gallons of diesel fuel and releasing 188 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. That doesn't even factor in the energy and environmental costs of 221 million excess units going to waste.

Diesel fuel prices have doubled in the last two years and could double again soon. Do we as an industry really want to see our slim margins further eroded by paying an extra $25 million to ship half a million books around for no reason?

When is the book industry going to wake up? Amazon.com has already demonstrated that buying nonreturnable can work when coupled with sophisticated just-in-time inventory and on-demand ordering systems. Why can't bookstores work like other retail stores and simply mark down their excess inventory? Why is it necessary to ship books back to the publisher just to have the publisher turn around and ship them back as remainders? Processing them must account for at least 20% to 30% of booksellers' time, not to mention postage, which accounts for an ever-increasing piece of the pie, probably running at 8% to 10% of net. If books were sold at a higher discount and then marked down after some time, booksellers would definitely be ahead. Or is this all just a cash-flow management ruse, designed to forestall payment through an endless cycle of credit adjustments?

The future is green. (It's the new fiscal black!) Chelsea Green's overall return rate for 2005 was 14%. We're running at about 17% year-to-date, and that's not a good sign. We are in the midst of formulating a new, nonreturnable sales strategy and invite booksellers and publishers who agree with us to join as partners in this effort. Not only is it the virtuous thing to do, it's the only economic thing to do.

Author Information
Margo Baldwin is president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing Company.