Greening the book business

06 April 2020 Greening

Alison Flood asks publishers and booksellers what they’re doing to make their work more sustainable – from The Author (Spring 2020)

As I began writing this feature on UK publishers’ efforts to be more sustainable, I received an email from Scribe UK. The press had just set up a reforestation grove with Trees for Life, a conservation charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands, donating an initial 30 trees to the grove and naming it after Michael Christie’s forthcoming novel Greenwood – fittingly about a world without trees.

Editor Molly Slight says the team decided to make the donation ‘instead of mass-producing paper marketing materials’ for the novel. Christie comments, ‘It’s not just a marketing strategy, it’s also a very significant message to send to readers and the whole publishing industry as well.’

A similar message was sent to the publishing industry in July, when the Booksellers Association launched its Green Manifesto, calling on publishers and distributors to take up several environmental commitments, including phasing out single-use cardboard in favour of recyclable materials, reviewing both the delivery and returns processes, and ceasing sending out unsolicited book proofs and marketing materials to booksellers.

There are three core principles at the manifesto’s heart: ‘that the need for change to prevent further environmental decline is urgent and permanent; that there is much that individuals and organisations can do; that there is much that the UK book supply chain can do to help’. The challenges range from improving returns to creating more sustainable ways to print, package and ship millions of books a year. So what are publishers doing to be green?

More than 190m books were sold in the UK in 2018; a key issue is clearly paper. ‘Our biggest impact on the environment is, of course, the effect we have on forests through the use of paper in our books, and we recognise the need for this to be sustainable,’ says Hachette UK spokesperson Paddy Johnston.

Major efforts have been made by publishers to address this: when the Publishers Association surveyed publishing companies in 2018, it found that 88% of respondents had adopted a formal policy on sourcing sustainable paper, and a further 6% had one under consideration.


'More than 190 million books were sold in the UK in 2018; a key issue
is clearly paper'


At HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, 99% of the paper used in the UK is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, with plans to get this to 100% in 2020.* (If paper is FSC-certified, it means it is made with materials from well-managed forests and/or recycled sources; the mark is recognised by WWF as the ‘hallmark of responsible forest management’.) At Hachette UK, in 2018 96.5% of the books published by the trade publishing companies of Hachette UK were printed on FSC-accredited paper, and 91.5% of Hachette UK’s total output was printed on FSC-accredited paper, with Johnston expecting a small increase for 2019.

Angus Phillips, director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing at Oxford Brookes, says the rise of ebooks also helps make publishing more sustainable, because they mean that demand can be met more accurately. (Overstocks are also reduced by using point-of-sale data to inform printing and buying decisions, and by the growth of digital printing.) ‘Publishers do not need to overprint ahead of a possible surge in demand’, he says. ‘When J.K. Rowling was exposed as the author Robert Galbraith, the sharp rise in demand was met immediately through the availability of the ebook. Genre fiction, which may be read quickly and only once, has seen a shift to ebooks.’

‘Of course, recycled paper is best’, observes Mike Berners-Lee, author, professor and leading expert in carbon footprinting. ‘Ereaders are great as long as they are used for a lot of books.’

Next up is plastic. At the UK’s largest trade publisher, Penguin Random House, ‘major changes’ were made in 2019 to ‘significantly reduce’ the level of plastic and energy used in warehouse systems and processes.

‘Our review showed that our heaviest usage of single-use plastic was in: 1) the plastic shrink wrap around pallets of books transported from the printers to our warehouses, and 2) the plastic inlay placed within our own cardboard boxes to protect books during transit to retailers and wholesalers,’ says spokesperson Jessica Colman.

To remove the need for plastic shrink wrap, PRH invested in multi-use pallet lids, working with its main printing partner, Clays, to ensure that by the end of 2019 90% of the palleted stock delivered to warehouses used these lids.

The publishing giant has also stopped inserting plastic inlay within its cardboard cartons, which are used for delivering books to independent bookshops, with around 3,200 cartons sent out a day. It invested in a cardboard shredding machine that breaks down boxes received from printers in the Far East into a shredded fill for these boxes – ‘so not only have we removed this plastic, but have ensured that the product replacing it is both recycled and recyclable’, says Colman. ‘This is a significant plastic saving.’

According to PRH, since the lids and the new shredded cardboard void fill were introduced, it has reduced single-usage plastic waste in its distribution by 47%.

At Hachette’s huge new Hely Hutchinson Distribution Centre, which opened last April, efforts are also being made. Smaller orders now use cardboard wraps only – no plastic at all – and no envelopes with plastic bubble wrap are utilised. There’s ‘still some plastic in use’ for larger orders, says Hachette’s Paddy Johnston, ‘as it’s a necessary solution for wrapping large pallets and for reducing the movement of books in large cartons in some, but not all cases’. Other initiatives include switching away from plastic air bags and filling to cardboard-lattice fills in boxes, and Hachette has also invested in a robot to wrap those pallets that require shrink wrapping, maximising the elasticity of the film and thereby using the absolute minimum amount of plastic.

HarperCollins’ London and Glasgow offices and its distribution centre, meanwhile, are ‘zero to landfill’ sites, with all general waste incinerated and converted into energy, while HC’s environmental steering group is prioritising its end-to-end supply chain processes, targeting improvements in areas including waste and plastic usage.

Across the board, says the Publishers Association, presses have set up ‘employee-led groups that aim to help us make small, manageable changes to our everyday working lives’, from reducing single-use plastic and printing in the office, to selling subsidised keep cups. Hachette UK’s green network has engineered the removal of all plastic from all of the postage and packaging being sent from its offices, and a move to all cutlery and containers in its staff restaurant being reusable and/or biodegradable, along with the introduction of a responsibly sourced vegan menu. ‘The network also provides a space for employees to share knowledge and best practice on sustainability and does great work promoting this within the company,’ says Johnston. ‘Our headquarters sends 0% of waste to landfill – 80% is recycled and the remaining 20% is incinerated, providing renewable energy. In distribution, our warehouse recycles 98% of its waste.’


'…we could be described as an industry that chops down forests…'


HarperCollins, meanwhile, has ‘Green Champions’, who ‘suggest, promote and support the implementation of green initiatives’, says spokesperson Fiona Allen. ‘In our London offices we have removed plastic in our catering and replaced it with metal, paper and bio-degradable corn starch. We recycle all food waste – including working with the charity Fair Share which provides meals for people experiencing homelessness – donate old furniture locally, and have installed IT waste bins for old office and personal tech.’

At Penguin Random House, the ‘Green Team’ team has reduced usage of disposable cups by 54% by using keep cups, says Colman, saved around 25,000 reams of paper by reducing office printing, switched to using 100% recycled paper across all office printers, and switched energy supplier so that the energy used in workspaces is 100% green.

The Publishers Association itself is in the process of setting up a cross-industry Environment Taskforce to ‘coordinate activity and ensure member engagement on matters impacting the whole industry’, says spokesperson Ruth Howells, focusing on the key areas of sustainable production, paper and plastic usage, reducing wastage and unsold products, building a sustainable supply chain, and reducing the carbon footprint of offices. It is planning to work with a specialist consultancy to look at publishing on a cross-industry basis, ‘and make recommendations to our members on key performance indicators, activity and timelines’.

Outside influences, too, are making a difference: last year Stylist book reviewer Sarah Shaffi coordinated an open letter to publishers from journalists, asking them to ‘switch to using recyclable materials when sending out books for review’. Signed by almost 200 people, including authors, agents and reviewers, it seems to have had an effect, says Shaffi: ‘I think we made some good inroads, as most publishers seem to now be using cardboard or green Jiffy bags.’

The voices of authors like Christie and Greta Thunberg are also driving change: with books about the environment a major new stream of revenue for publishers, writers have an increasing say in how sustainable the process of producing their books is.

At Bonnier Books, for example, which publishes Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac’s book on climate change, The Future We Choose, the decision has been made to celebrate publication dates by planting 10 trees with Reforest’Action ( There are still issues ‘around the major book fairs and whether large numbers of people should be flying around the world’, says Angus Phillips. ‘It is argued, however, that these events reduce the number of separate trade visits, and publishers have cut back on attendance.’

Phillips also believes that publishers should shout louder about the origins of the books they’re printing. ‘Just as people want to know where their food comes from, publishers need to tell more stories about how books are created and produced. Readers might be willing to pay more for books that are printed locally and not shipped across the world,’ he says. And the problem of unsold books returned from bookshops and not then saleable is yet to be solved.

Things are, however, a long way from 2007, when, as Phillips points out in his essay for The Oxford Handbook of Publishing (OUP, 2019), the then Penguin Managing Director Helen Fraser said: ‘If we wanted to scare ourselves we could be described as an industry that chops down forests, takes them in lorries to printers and warehouses, then to bookshops, and then all too often back to be pulped and thrown into landfills.’

For Berners-Lee, author of There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, ‘the important thing about publishing is the quality of the material that people read and the way it influences people’s lives’.

‘I like to think that my books are worth the carbon footprint!’ he says.

*FSC has been criticised by Greenpeace for greenwashing and its criteria for pulp is becoming increasingly opaque.

A note from us: What are the SoA doing?

The Spring 2020 edition of The Author is the first to be printed on 100% recycled paper stock. Wells Printing, our print supplier from 2020, is run entirely on renewable energy; they print using vegetable-based inks, and they sent the magazine to members in a compostible mailing wrap (so pop it in your food waste, not in the bin!).

At the SoA we have a staff-led Green Team that reviews the sustainability of our business practices. We have drastically reduced the amount of printing we do over the past couple of years, switching from paper to email subscription reminders, membership cards that don’t need to be replaced every year, reusing packaging materials – and we’re in the process of switching to a 100% renewable energy supplier.

But like every organisation mentioned in this article, we’re a long way from being able to say that we’re carbon neutral. It’s a work in progress.

Alison Flood is the books reporter for the Guardian. She also reviews thrillers for the Observer, writes The Bookseller’s monthly paperback preview, and freelances for a range of other publications on books.

Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Author.

Photography © 4th Life Photography / Adobe Stock