Publishers urged to do more to be green

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'Publishing thinks of itself as a benign industry but you only have to visit a pulp factory to see that’s not really the case,’ observed Toby Sawday, who is responsible for business development and sustainability of Alistair Sawday’s Publishing, a UK-based travel book publisher. He was speaking at the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) International Conference 2008.

According to John Grace, head of the Institute of Environmental Science at the University of Edinburgh, who was also speaking at the ALPSP conference, 24 trees are required to make one tonne of paper. In addition, 1.5 tonnes of coal are required to produce the electricity for one tonne of paper and this is responsible for emitting around five tonnes of carbon dioxide. What’s more the process of harvesting the trees themselves produces carbon dioxide as well as removing the trees’ ability to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Such observations may seem like support for electronic delivery rather than print but it is not quite so straightforward. According to research by the Swedish Royal Institute for Technology in 2007, if somebody read the news in a print newspaper each day they would contribute 28 kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per year, mostly from the production process. Reading it online for 30 minutes a day, however, is responsible for 35 kg carbon dioxide per year because of the electricity used by the PC, network link and peripherals. Reading a newspaper on an e-reader came out on top, with emissions of just 14 kg carbon dioxide per year.

Beyond the complicated considerations about how material is published, there are business processes to consider in improving a publisher’s – or any business’ – environmental impact.

Travel plays a major part in this. Grace recounted how one of his students discovered that the carbon dioxide emitted through travel in the UK was linearly-related to income with no tailing off – the richer you are, the more carbon dioxide you make. And professional emissions play a much larger part of this than people taking their children to school or driving to the shops. The student found that the biggest contributor of carbon dioxide was journeys in the UK for professional reasons. This was followed by vacations abroad and then travelling to work.

There are ways to reduce this though. According to Grace, a train emits 0.01 kg of carbon per person per kilometre, assuming that the train is 40 per cent full. Cars, in contrast, assuming an average of 1.6 people per car, come out at 0.06 kg of carbon per person per kilometre. Short-haul flights, not surprisingly, have the highest emissions, but only slightly higher than cars. Assuming a flight is 70 per cent full, emissions are 0.07 kg of carbon per person per kilometre but this drops to 0.045 kg of carbon per person per kilometre for long-haul flights.

Alistair Sawday’s Publishing has looked at many of these issues in its attempt to be a ‘green publisher’. Toby Sawday said that the company had always sourced green energy, recycled, encouraged car sharing and sourced locally-produced, Fair Trade or organic products, but realised that everyone has personal blind spots. For this reason, the company commissioned an environmental audit.

This audit revealed that one of the company’s biggest environmental impacts was in running its offices. The company bought its own building and then added better insulation, removed any drafts, added a solar thermal water heater, using sun pipes for lighting and a heating system based on wood chips. It also turned some of its car park into an allotment and brought in a pig to eats leftovers from the canteen.

To help in compiling its travel books, the company uses a car powered with recycled chip fat. Sawday said that this reduces emissions by approximately 75 per cent compared with the average car. The company also avoids air travel where possible and practical and double offsets its emissions when it does have to fly somewhere.

To make the books themselves, Alistair Sawday's uses recycled or PEFC/FSC certified paper and vegetable inks. It also uses a local printing firm. Such choices do have consequences though. ‘We estimate that we could save 30 per cent if we printed in the Far East on virgin paper with oil-based inks,’ commented Sawday.

However, there are business benefits, as well as environmental ones, in taking a ‘green’ approach, believes Sawday. For example, Alistair Sawday’s is saving money on running its buildings since they were redesigned. It also helps with staff retention and with the company’s reputation.

This session provoked considerable discussion over the lunchtime that followed it. Many delegates asked if scholarly publishers could do more to have a positive impact on the environment, with the help of organisations such as ALPSP in promoting peer support and providing case studies that are specific to this sector.

Do you have any comments on the environmental impact of publishing or any experiences that you would like to share with other readers? If so, please get in touch with Siân Harris at