The Bookseller’s first hybrid event of the annual publishing conference, FutureBook21, held a range of sessions on the topic of sustainability. With the theme of the conference as a whole being RESET, and conversations focusing on what processes need to be challenged and change needed to be fostered for the industry moving forward, it is understandable why the book industry’s environmental impact was such a prominent topic. From the various talks throughout the day, there were a number of themes that emerged.

Content or Production

Discussions throughout the day focused around the question of where the industry could make the most impact in relation to the climate crisis. Mark Maslin, author of How to Save Our Planet (Penguin) and Professor of Earth System Science at UCL, started off the day with a talk about the power of books to enact change. With the powerful message of “publish to stop us dying,” Maslin put forth that the publishing industry has the potential to reach a range of audiences with valuable materials on the climate crisis and has to work to engage audiences with these titles so that governments, organisations and individuals are all empowered to make change. Of course, we all believe that books have power – or most of us wouldn’t be striving to work with them day in and day out – but Siena Parker, the Social Impact Director at PRH highlighted that content alone may not be enough; if the industry just published works on the environment but didn’t enact any change itself this would seem a bit hypocritical – or even, a form of greenwashing. Indeed, Georgia Amson-Bradshaw from Ivy Kids suggested that publishers needed to start being held accountable for enacting sustainability processes, and this can only start with transparency with consumers. Alongside commissioning and investing in a range of texts on the climate crisis, the publishing industry also needs to be looking at the environmental impact of its processes and revolutionise its own systems.

The supply chain

It seems that the best place for the industry to invest their resources, then, is in the supply chain.

Siena Parker commented that 98% of PRH’s carbon footprint originates from their supply chain, rather than from within offices and Zoe Cokeliss Barsley, Director of Sustainability at OUP suggested that 75% of most carbon footprints originate from the supply chain, with 40% of this coming from paper production. The supply chain has also been the focus of IPG, whose Sustainability Action Group has conducted research into the environmental impact of the publishing supply chain, with a focus being placed on greenhouse gas emissions and waste production. The results from this were revealed at the IPG Autumn Conference on the 3rd of November 2021, and Boldwood Books founder Amanda Ridout, who led the Action Group, shared these with the audience at the Bookseller’s conference on Friday (19th November). Amanda revealed five targets for the publishing industry to tackle, ranging from localised printing, eliminating single-use plastic packaging, more efficient transportation, and the electrification of transport fleets. Ivy Kids, an eco-imprint of Quarto are enacting many of these targets by having moved to localised printing and using 100% recycled materials for their books.

Of course, many of these initiatives often start with discussions within the office. But instead of this looking like introducing a reusable cup scheme or switching to green energy suppliers, publishers should also be suggesting to use recyclable foils and glitters when designing covers, questioning printers on their ink and whether they use certified paper, asking how paper mills are reducing their climate footprint and work with warehouses to reduce their packaging.

Collaboration, not competition

This leads to the final key message that was delivered at FutureBook about sustainability – collaboration. Molly Hawes, Senior Climate Action and Engagement Manager at Springer Nature highlighted that “we all stand to benefit with protecting our planet” and thereby we all should be working to make sustainability the norm. This includes those all along the supply chain – publishers, printers, wholesalers, distributors – with there even being a suggestion from Kate Stilborn, Director of Operations at Blackwells, of the potential value of an industry conference solely focused on sustainability. 

One blog, or even one conference could not encompass all aspects of sustainability that the publishing industry needs to consider. FutureBook conversations also focused on offsetting and the need to be removing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the suitability of POD to trade and children’s publishing and the need for further discussions on pulping and the end-life of books. This conference has shown that there are many avenues for action the publishing industry can take to build a sustainable future and that there is a dire need for these conversations to be ongoing at all conferences and involving all levels of the industry. Collaboration is vital – for action, for change but also for collective hope.