Friday, April 4, 2008

How green is the book publishing industry? Review of the new report on the industry's environemtal impacts

About three weeks ago I wrote here about the publication of the 'Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry', the new detailed analysis of the book industry's ecological footprint. Yesterday I finally finished reading it.

Firstly, I would like to give big kudos to both to The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) and The Green Press Initiative (GPI) for the report. I enjoyed reading it and I found it thorough, well structured, substantial and very clear. Since the 86-page report is all about findings from the book industry, I would like to share with you the findings I found the most important in the report.

1. What's responsible for the biggest part of the book industry's carbon footprint? The answer is very clear from the report: forest and forest harvest impacts with 62.7% share of total carbon emissions. Second is paper production at the mills with 22.4% share.

The conclusion is very simple - the paper consumed for the production of books (1.6 million metric tons in 2006) is the main responsible for the industry's carbon footprint of 12.4 million metric tons or 8.85 lbs. of carbon dioxide per a book (2006 figures).

The report puts its finger on many environmental issues associated with the life cycle of books - from transportation and energy consumption by publishers and retailers to the huge amount of books that are printed but are unsold (more than 1 billion books in 2006!) and then are either returned for pulping or reach landfills. But it is very clear that the main environmental issue, when it comes to the industry's carbon footprint, is the amount of carbon taken from the forest when the trees are cut down for the production of paper. Any change in the carbon footprint of the industry should start right there.

2. The sources of paper and Endangered Forests: The report shows that the sources of paper used for the U.S. book industry are all over the world. The paper is sourced from the U.S., Canada, parts of Asia and Europe, and in addition wood chips, pulp and roundwood that are used by paper mills in these areas come from South America (Chile for example), Tasmania (Australia) and Indonesia.

One main problem with the use of forests in these areas as source of paper is that in many of these areas, trees are cut down in Endangered Forests, which results in significant environmental impacts. One result of this process is the conversion of reach ecosystems in these areas into tree plantations, which means severe damage to biodiversity, fundamental changes and losses in natural systems, severe impact on species, etc.

Two examples for such areas outside the U.S. are the "interior temperate rainforest" in British Colombia, Canada and the native siempre verde forests of Chile. In the U.S., a good example is the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Forest of the Southeastern United States. Unfortunately, it seems that though the use of FSC-certified paper becomes more popular (though as you can read later, this is not totally clear from 2007 data), too little is done to protect these natural resources from the exploitation of industries, including the paper industry.

3. Some increase in the use of post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper: In the report it is estimated that the percentage of recycled paper in books was 5% in 2006, which is no different than previous data, but it also presents few more indicators that show that this assumption might be a bit conservative and the actual percentage might be higher.

For example, 13 printers who took part in the survey, reported on increase in the use of PCW recycled paper from 2,038 short tons in 2004 to 19,145 short tons in 2006. Also, the six mills that participated in the survey reported on increase in recycled content from 2.4% in 2004 to 13.3% in 2007. Of course, these data may be biased and hence the caution of the report, but nevertheless it seems that there is a growth in the use of PCW recycled paper, not only in absolute numbers, but also relatively to the total use of paper.

4. More policies, but not enough quantitative targets: Many publishers, printers and other companies in the book industry are developing or have developed environmental policies (60% of the companies responded to the survey). The Green Press Initiative Book Industry Treatise on Responsible Paper Use that was already endorsed by 150 publishers, is being used as a benchmark by many others in the industry.

This is good news. The problem is that some of the issues that these policies refer to lack quantitative targets, which are very crucial to the successful implementation of these policies (just think of the difference between saying 'I'll lose some weight this year' and 'I'll lose 10 pounds this year').

For example, only 11% of the companies that replied to the survey said they have quantitative targets for limiting the sourcing of fiber from Endangered Forests or High Conservation Value Forests. Only 14% have policies that advocate reduction of paper consumption. The only exception is with the increased use of recycled paper - 54% have quantitative targets.

5. Certified paper use: The report explains that due to partial reporting for 2007, total increases in certified paper use cannot be reliably calculated. Nevertheless, four of the six mills that replied to the survey reported on an increase in Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper for books. The FSC certification is also the most preferred certification program on publishers and printers - 94% of the publishers that replied to the survey chose it as their preferred certification program (SFI reached the second place with 35%).

The report also brings few stories of publishers mainly that went through a process of green changes in the last couple of years, such as Random House, Scholastic, Lantern Books and others. These stories as well as the data and the analysis in the report are evidence of the change that is going over the book industry. It is only the beginning, but it's definitely there. Now the question is more and more not when or if the change will happen, but how long it will take.

All in all the report is very extensive, but there are still few points that I wanted to learn more about and I hope to see in the next report:

- There was no reference to the growing e-book industry. True it is still a fraction of the whole book industry, but it has the potential to grow fast with the last developments (Kindle for example), and we see more and more publishers that are experimenting with publishing digital versions of new titles. I think it's important to evaluate the environmental impacts of e-books and analyze whether or not e-book can be considered a green alternative.

- I also hope to have comparative data on the book industry in other areas such as Europe. Is the U.S. book industry in better or worst position compared to its European equivalent? are there any lessons it can learn from the experience of others? I think it would be interesting to get that perspective.

- What are the main reasons that stop publishers and other companies to go green? is it lack of supply? financial reasons? lack of green vision? The report brings a detailed list of the primary challenges in the process of going green in the book industry. What I would like is to learn more on the significance of each one of these obstacles that stop the industry from moving faster. Similar to the way the carbon footprint is analyzed by segments to see which is more significant in order to know where the focus should be, these obstacles can be further analyzed to learn which obstacles should be dealt firstly.

Last word: If you are involved in the book industry, it's a must reading. If you want to order the report, you can do it on GPI and BISG websites. The summary of the findings is also available for view.

Raz @ Eco-Libris