In a sign of just how concerned some industry members are about what they can do to improve the environment, Andrew Van Der Laan, v-p of production planning at Random House, broke away from a conference on climate change he was attending last week to answer questions on the progress the company is making on various environmental initiatives. Van Der Laan, who is the de facto “environmental officer” at RH, views attending such meetings as part of his job. “The conferences are great opportunities to hear how other companies are addressing environmental issues, share best practices and hear new ideas,” Van Der Laan said. “It's also a good way to make sure there are no surprises coming.”

A little more than one year after Random committed to printing 30% of its titles on recycled paper by 2010, the publisher is ahead of schedule to achieve its 2007 target of having 10% of its uncoated paper and 5% of its coated paper made from recycled paper. While Random is prepared to invest several millions of dollars to use recycled paper, Van Der Laan said the move to recycled stock “has not had the cost impact we thought it would.” He attributed that to the ability of Random's publishing groups to vary which books use recycled paper as well as to Random's willingness to be flexible with mills on how they add the recycled paper.

Random is not the only publisher using recycled paper, of course, but it is among the most advanced in terms of developing a comprehensive environmental plan. Other publishers that have implemented such programs, or are about to, include Scholastic, which printed 30% of the Potter run on recycled paper, and McGraw-Hill. And a number of publishers, along with bookstores, manufacturers and wholesalers, are taking part in the Book Industry Study Group's Climate Impacts and Environmental Responsibility Benchmarking Survey. The study, which began in May and runs through November, when a report is to be issued, aims to establish a baseline for tracking climate impacts and progress by the book industry in improving its environmental practices. The study will track the impact of publishing from the time a tree is cut until a book reaches the consumer. Questionnaires are expected to go out to all members in the supply chain before the end of July.

One “champion sponsor” of the BISG study, which is being done in cooperation with Green Press Initiative, is Hachette Book Group. Last week, Hachette announced that it will form an environmental board of senior executives to determine ways the company can reduce its environmental impact. An environmental committee will also be created that will include employees who want to be involved in making the company a greener workplace.

Random formed its green committee this spring; it's chaired by company chairman Peter Olson, with Van Der Laan as deputy chair. The committee has already come up with some day-to-day ways it can contribute to a greener planet, like providing “techno trash” bins on each floor so employees can dispose of cell phones, discs and other digital refuse. Random is also conducting a carbon audit that should be completed by the fall, Van Der Laan said. The audit will help Random better understand the overall impact its business has on the environment and areas where improvements can be made quickly.

Pearson, parent company of Penguin, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2009, while HarperCollins's parent company, News Corp., has said it will be carbon neutral by 2010. Penguin chairman John Makinson said the publisher's contribution to reaching carbon neutrality includes finding ways to lessen its paper consumption through the use of more recycled and other Forest Stewardship (FSC) certified paper and changing work practices by examining such areas as how, and how much, employees travel. To that end, HC, which has its own HarperGreen team, said it is transitioning its sales fleet to hybrid cars when leases expire.

Although the use of more recycled paper can make a significant improvement in the environment, Makinson said lowering returns would also make a huge impact on the planet. Makinson supports the idea of selling certain categories, particularly backlist, nonreturnable, and noted that Penguin has worked out discounting-on-site programs with Barnes & Noble as one way to cut returns. (Amazon already buys many of its titles nonreturnable.)

One company that has already developed an extensive nonreturnable option is Chelsea Green. Eighteen major independent booksellers have signed on to the Chelsea Green Partnership Program, introduced at BookExpo America this year, reports company president Margo Baldwin, and she hopes to interest the chains in the program as well. Under the program, retailers receive a base discount of 50% on all orders and an additional annual credit based upon the amount of business completed during the previous calendar year. Credits can be applied to open or future invoices and to co-op advertising. Baldwin said booksellers like the program not only because of the greater discount, but because they see it can make on impact on reducing waste.

The steps taken by publishers so far to improve their environmental practices are only the first in what several executives acknowledged is a long-term effort to reduce emissions and waste. But it is an initiative that has the support of most publishing employees. Makinson said the most asked questions to his blog concern environmental issues, and RH spokesperson Stuart Applebaum said the green committee has been Random's most well-received initiative ever, greeted by more enthusiasm than even its sabbatical program.