Publishers of the World Unite!
The back cover of the book Green Patriot Posters, published by Metropolis Books.
Seems like we have been predicting the end of the printed matter for a while now. But whatever happens to newspapers and magazines, books are here to stay – for the simple reason that people love them. Books, to some, are objects of worship.
Now, I am willing to bet that there is significant overlap in the population of book lovers and the population of people that self-identify as “green” or are concerned about things like climate change. That makes sense, given that reading books is about acquiring knowledge and concern about our ecological crisis is founded on a trust of knowledge, as opposed to ideology or wishful thinking. Yet, how many book lovers, or more importantly how many book publishers, pay attention to how a given book is printed? I would say very, very few and that needs to change. Here is how it could work:
When we recently published a collection of posters about sustainability, Green Patriot Posters (Metropolis Books, 2010), we faced a choice: print the book in China in the normal, cheap, and carbon-intensive way or find an alternative. Given the title and theme of the book, we felt there was absolutely no way we could do the “normal” thing. We found a better way. We printed the book here in the United States, thus reducing fuel consumption and emissions on shipping, and used the following:
- A trim size and page count chosen to minimize waste
- Vegetable-based inks
- Paper that was manufactured by Mohawk Fine Papers, using 100% wind power (through the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates, RECs, which, by the way, anyone can buy) and 100% post-consumer waste fiber
- A printing company (Monroe Litho) that also uses 100% wind power in its printing process
With just the paper alone we saved nearly 200 million BTU’s of energy and 24,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. We preserved 258 trees for the future.
When we made the decision to print sustainably, we had the drive but didn’t really know anything about it. That is why we turned to great resources online such as Re-Nourish.com, the Green Press Initiative and The Living Principles. More importantly, we relied on each party involved to make concessions to get this done. The publisher, the printer, and the paper manufacturer all had to come down on their margins; the editors and book designer had to compromise on our page count and trim size.
But let’s be frank here. Even with the concessions made by the publisher, printer, and paper manufacturer, printing sustainably in the no-holds-barred manner we chose was still impossible from a business perspective. In the end, we relied on the generosity and vision of Environmental Defense Fund, the law firm Hiscok & Barclay, and individual donors to come up with a subvention to cover remaining differences in cost.
We felt we needed to do this for our book to have integrity and to make a statement. However, clearly donor intervention is not a feasible option in most cases. So that is why I want to make two closing points.
1) For sustainable printing be more viable what is needed are economies of scale. The more publishers and other institutions with print needs come to a single a printer with jobs, the more that printer can come down on its prices. Many printers like Monroe Litho have close relationships with paper manufactures (like Mohawk). The paper manufacturer can also get involved in lowering prices. The trick is to consolidate bids. To that end, publishers could bundle bids to a single printer. Ideally there is some entity out there willing to take on the job of consolidating these bids or, even better, some intrepid soul willing to found a non-profit dedicated to the task. It is conceivable that this non-profit could be funded, in part, by both the printers and publishers, to facilitate domestic and sustainable printing. Throw in a founding charter that holds participating members to some standard and you have a force that could transform the publishing industry.
2) With Green Patriot Posters we chose to go the full nine yards, but that is not always necessary. The point is to drive things forward. Select the practices that you think are feasible for a given project. That is where resources like re-nourish.com can be very helpful in helping you sort through options.
We need to change our economy into something more sustainable. Publishers could be a leader in this effort. Yet, it is appalling how many books that are ostensibly about sustainability are not printed the least bit sustainably. My bet is there are enough motivated players out there in the publishing world, but that they lack the knowledge or organizational support to get moving on this. It’s time to look in the mirror.
I invite anyone with questions or motivation on this subject to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.