A Sustainable Book Publishing Supply Chain
***Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series as we take a look at the state of sustainable book publishing. As the only Gold Microsoft Partner in the publishing space, sustainability is core to knk Software as Microsoft strives to be carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon negative by 2050. This blog series explores the issues facing publishers attempting to navigate sustainability goals.
No conversation about publishing and sustainability would be complete without discussing the resource-heavy supply chain for book production. There are significant efforts already underway in the publishing industry to address waste in paper use, eco-friendly inks, and reduce the burden of so-called “book miles.”
Efforts by the Forest Stewardship Council and carbon-balanced paper initiatives stand out. However, this post will introduce two other sustainability issues that are of a major concern for publishers:
- In the print business, the biggest single contributor to pollution is that of transport and the problem of “book miles,” and later
- In the digital business, the value – and downside of data centers.
TRANSPORTATION AND BOOK-MILES
Book-miles express the number of miles that a book travels from printing to consumer, a number which is often quite unsustainable long-term. Most publishers recognize this, and many have made commitments to address it, including pledges to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
These goals, contain 17 interlinked global areas of focus designed as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” A significant part of SDG Goal 9 (Industry: Innovation and Infrastructure) is that of Sustainable Transportation. The role of transportation was first recognized by the UN at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit and has remained a focus ever since – in Johannesburg in 2002, Rio in 2012, and in several meetings since.
The question of transportation for the publishing industry is of critical importance.
In a study released in November 2021 by the Independent Publishers Guild’s (ipg) Sustainability Task Force, they calculated that an overwhelming majority (99%) of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions came from two transportation sources – delivery and returns.
By contrast, waste from packaging did not contribute a significant amount to total GHG emissions (0.03%). In the worst of the six use-cases they studied, 183 grams of carbon per book was the transportation cost for a book printed in China and shipped to the UK. For perspective, 283 grams of carbon are emitted in driving a car for one mile.
It’s clear that reducing book-miles is one of the most important ways that publishing can reduce its carbon footprint. knk interviewed Karina Urquhart, Executive Director of Book Industry Communications (BIC) in the UK, who suggested that the industry should look at new business models to improve transportation sustainability, even exploring ideas like eliminating returns.
The retail industry would not let that go easily of course, but smarter ordering (and cancellation) systems might help. If we all agree that the concept of returns is still valid, we need to explore more environmentally friendly ways to support it. Maybe we should exclude backlist items or find ways to support returning books locally and/or pulping/recycling locally. In general, we need to look at sustainability as a new economic strategy with new business models and new KPI’s rather than just taking a tactical approach.
Given that excessive book-miles are a serious contributor to pollution, there are two issues to consider, one ongoing and one more temporary. The ongoing problem is that US and UK publishers have outsourced a good deal of their print capability to specialist printers in Asia.
With the prevailing consumer choice of rapid delivery, the cost of delivering a book that is printed in China, distributed from a US or UK warehouse, and delivered overnight to the consumer, is completely unsustainable.
At the end of the day, consumers must accept that there is a premium to be paid for this kind of service if we are serious about dealing with climate change. The industry will need to assess whether moving some book printing capacity back onshore is a more cost-conscious and sustainable option.
Clearly, we will also need to adjust consumer behavior and encourage the rise of the “ethical environmental shopper.” Can a carbon-neutral organization use that quality as a unique selling proposition?
Can industry organizations influence greener consumer behavior by selling themselves as “green” – and promoting what exactly that means for the planet? Is there any mileage in showing consumers how their behavior impacts the planet? For example, if online consumers were informed at check-out, that “You can have this book tomorrow or if you’re willing to wait and take it next week you are reducing your impact on the environment by X,” then that might factor into their buying decision.
Consumers are already leaning that way. All they need is a nudge.
THE PANDEMIC’S IMPACT ON SUSTAINABLE BOOK PUBLISHING
The temporary problem is the shortage of trucking capacity in the US once the book has been imported, caused mainly by the pandemic. Although the major trucking and distribution companies are in process of re-equipping their fleets with electric vehicles, that’s not a short-term solution nor a wholly satisfactory one.
The world simply needs to ship less.
A better solution is to use technology and implement “Sell-First, Print-Later” strategies (rather than Print-First-Sell-Later as we have done traditionally), along with more use of local printing and delivery systems that cut much transportation out altogether.
Although there are many such technology solutions in use today, we will need to commit to more of them if we are to resolve the issue of “book-miles” and book transportation sustainability.
Up next, we’ll explore digital publishing’s role in sustainable book publishing.