Publishing has made some big strides on sustainability in recent years. From more responsible paper sourcing and printing to reduced distribution miles and energy-efficient office practices, many businesses have steadily reduced their carbon footprints. By publishing important books about the climate emergency, our industry has also been at the heart of society’s efforts to educate and inspire on this critical issue.

However, we all realize there is still a long way to go. The news gives us daily reminders of the disastrous effects of global warming, and campaigners help to keep the subject at the front of our minds. Publishing’s environmental impacts are still too great, and we must strive to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

We also know that while individual action is important, proper change must be collective. Our industry’s supply chain is so intricately linked that publishers, booksellers, printers, distributors, and other constituents will only make genuine progress if they work together on ideas and connect up the actions. This is why membership organizations such as the UK’s Independent Publishers Guild are so important.

The IPG has championed sustainability for many years now, through initiatives like the Environmental Award—now Sustainability Award—that has rewarded good practice in independent publishing since 2008. It has also tried to challenge conventional thinking by inviting experts and activists to IPG conferences in the last few years, including Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell and sustainability expert Mike Berners-Lee. The messages they shared were not always easy to hear, but their constructive criticism focused people’s minds on the urgency of the problem.

In 2019 the IPG began to get more strategic about change by launching the Sustainability Action Group, which invited members to discuss new initiatives and share tips for reducing carbon footprints. This soon led to the creation of a crossindustry Sustainability Taskforce, which welcomed high-level representatives from printing, distribution, wholesaling and retail, as well as publishing. It was the beginning of the collaboration on sustainability that is so obviously needed. Starting the journey determined to collect hard data to understand where we were and then to set practical targets for improvement, we launched the Book Journeys Project. We commissioned sustainability consultants Carnstone to measure the sources and levels of greenhouse gas emissions and waste in six different book journey scenarios, with the emphasis on the post-production movement of books—an area where publishers have a lot of influence.

We found that the overwhelming majority of emissions—more than 99%—come from two key transportation stages: delivery and return. Packaging waste contributes too, but it is clear that publishing’s work must focus sharply on how we move books around, both domestically and globally. Equipped with this valuable hard data, we set five main targets for change:

  • More efficient transportation, including the consolidation of vehicle loads, reducing the stops in books’ journeys and taking the most direct routes to end-users
  • Greener logistics, like electrified fleets and zero-carbon transport
  • Responsible packaging and the elimination of single-use plastics
  • Localized printing, including setting up a specialized group to investigate the viability of switching a higher percentage of color printing for UK and European markets from Asia to Europe where possible, and ending air freight
  • Overall net-zero status

We set specific target years by which to complete each of these actions, including 2040 for the achievement of net-zero operations. That might seem like a long way off, but we know that major changes like these will take time, and in some instances require investment. They will be tougher for some businesses than others, especially those who depend on Asia for a lot of their print and production.

We also realize that some smaller publishers may need help to understand the complex logistics of the supply chain and respond, so the IPG’s Sustainability Action Group has just launched a new Toolkit full of practical ideas for better practice. With support like this, we think every publisher can be ambitious in their sustainability strategies, while accepting that the path towards them may be demanding.

Next steps

The ambition of the Book Journeys Project was recognized by the Sustainability Award at the 2021 FutureBook Awards in London. Encouraged by that, the project is now well into a second phase, looking at another big area of publishing’s carbon footprint: the end-of-life treatment of books. Finding ways to reduce returns, pulping, and other wasteful practices won’t be easy, but progress here is a priority.

All of the research pointed towards the need for joined-up thinking on sustainability, and a wish for these book journey targets to be adopted across the industry led to the formation of the Sustainability Industry Forum. It brings together six big UK trade organizations—the Association of Authors’ Agents, Booksellers Association, Book Industry Communication, Publishers Association, and Society of Authors, as well as the IPG—to work together on projects, share best practice and reduce the duplication of efforts. The Forum has set up working groups to address four key areas of environmental impact:

  • The supply chain, including transportation and use of plastics
  • End-of-life treatment of books, including returns and disposal
  • Paper and printing
  • Book finishes and the use of raw materials.

We will meet quarterly, with two representatives from each of the six bodies overseeing the work. This is the first time that the six associations have come together in this way, which highlights the seriousness with which we all take the climate crisis. We hope the Forum will also help to make our industry more transparent and accountable, and take every component of the supply chain with us on the journey towards net zero.

As well as engaging our industry, we need to demonstrate to consumers that we take our responsibilities on sustainability seriously and to speak with one voice on this urgent challenge. Public pressure is mounting on every business to prove their commitment to change, and publishers’ heavy use of paper and other resources makes us particularly vulnerable to scrutiny. Crucially, collaboration will reduce silos and duplication, and speed up practical action. In publishing, as elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about becoming more sustainable, and pledges laid out. But everyone in the Sustainability Industry Forum knows that the time for talking is over, and that urgent change driven by ambitious targets and practical solutions must start now.

Amanda Ridout is founder and CEO of Boldwood Books and chair of the Sustainability Action Group at the UK’s Independent Publishers Guild.