Reiterations of the saving grace of conscious consumerism are unwavering. We’re lauded for remembering to recycle and feel something betwixt pride and pomposity as our bag for life bursts with cartons of oat milk. And whilst the message here is no different (an emphatic ‘keep it up’ and ‘well done you!’ may be due) this Earth Month, Epoch are favouring introspection at every increment to observe sustainable practice within the publishing industry.
According to estimations published in The Bookseller earlier this year, Nielsen BookScan estimated the full-year print market for 2020 at 202 million books sold for £1.76bn. This is the first time since 2012 that sales have surpassed 200 million. In the face of adversity, the industry defied pandemic plunges and in the hands of readers mount pyramids of literary escapism. It’s good news.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of physicality in the past 12 months appears to have benefited eBook and audiobook sales most significantly, further boosted by the UK government’s abandonment of a ‘reading tax’ of 20% VAT charged on digital titles. Acknowledging that paper – and forgive me for stating the obvious here – is one of the biggest causes for issue, this would seemingly be yet another positive.
Now I’ll refrain from excavating the depths of the print v eBook debate, but my hesitant optimism is owing to the dimming truth that digital alternatives aren’t without their pitfalls. The manufacturing of an e-reader consumes approximately 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels producing more than 65 pounds of carbon dioxide. And that’s before we’ve begun to concern ourselves with accessibility. It is with this in mind that we may begin to fully understand the complexity of publishing and consumption as a business viewed through a prism of environmental sustainability. A relative incompatibility that we will be pondering for some time yet.
As a primary user of natural resources, publishers are increasingly inquiring into their responsibility to meet sustainability challenges and advance their efforts. As well as being driven by positively persistent conversation around global megatrends such as climate change, digitalisation and non-renewable resource depletion, trade bodies have been commendably zealous in outlining the steps towards sustainable development from a book’s ideation through to the closing of its final page in the hands of avid readers.
Back in 2019, the publication of the Booksellers Association’s ‘Green Manifesto’ called on publishers and distributors to take up a series of environmental commitments which included the phasing out of single-use cardboard, reviews of delivery and returns processes and a cease to the mailing of unsolicited book proofs and marketing materials to booksellers. Performing in cohorts with the launch of its Green Bookselling Task Force in 2018, the association has been keeping tabs on the efficiencies that could be introduced and emphasised across the board.
At the heart of the manifesto and a more holistic ethos are three core principles; ‘that the need for change to prevent further environmental decline is urgent and permanent; that there is much that individuals and organisations can do and that there is much that the UK book supply chain can do to help’ as well.
Antonia Mason, the Social Media and Events Manager at St Albans’ Books On The Hill shares the ways in which her store has been implementing sustainable practices at a trade level and working towards these goals.
“At Books On The Hill, we try to be as sustainable as possible. For one, we only use paper and tote bags to help reduce single-use plastic in-store. This has been very successful with our regular customer base reusing tote bags for their purchases.” She continues, “in addition, we also try to work with local suppliers aiming to not only promote local talent but also limit our carbon footprint.”
As well as sighting a renewed cognisance to the importance of supporting independent bookstores such as Books On The Hill, 2020 witnessed a sustained and enthusiastic market for second-hand books, with retailers like World of Books remaining a bibliophile favourite. Again, it’s a topic not without contention. Though greener in the promotion of a circular economy, when books are resold, authors and publishers alike cease to receive royalties. What was it I was saying about incompatibility?
Nevertheless, it would seem that higher up the supply chain progress is being made. A spokesperson for the Publishers Association shared that many of the UK’s large publishers have , in the past few years, set ambitious targets, including pledges from Bonnier Books, Cambridge University Press, and Penguin Random House to be carbon neutral by 2021, 2022 and 2030 respectively. Indeed, the likes of Pearson and Springer Nature are already carbon neutral in their direct operations and business travel.
A quick browse through Penguin’s website further reveals that 100% of the paper utilised in the production of their books is Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC™) certified, signalling a hallmark of excellence in sustainable paper sourcing. These appear not to be the empty promises of greenwashing.
Closer to home, our very own Editor-in-Chief Cara Bentley reflects on what Epoch are doing as a small-scale literary magazine to put our green foot forward. “At the moment, our sustainable practices include using printers who are committed to sustainability, reusing packaging and purchasing environmentally conscious shipping materials. However, these are only our first steps. We are always actively researching other ways to implement procedures in the future.”
The surface-level actions endeavouring to green the book business are to be commended of course. As discourse flourishes around waste, print-on-demand models and preservation, we begin to feel that we’re doing our part to contribute to and propel environmental debate. However, as an industry that will perpetually rely on the diminishment of natural resources in one way or another, perhaps the most potent force for change resides between the lines.
“Our main role as booksellers is to provide books that help people to increase their knowledge on how to help the environment and be more sustainable,” muses Mason. “We curate our shelves very carefully choosing a variety of books covering different important issues. A few best-sellers from this last year that have promoted nature and sustainability have been: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty; Underland by Robert Macfarlane, Wilding by Isabella Tree and English Pastoral by James Rebanks to name a few!”
Here at Epoch, we share in the psychology of giving space to those writers exploring these themes widely, assured in the power of truth in voice, truth in ink. Keep your eyes peeled for the release of Issue 03 later this year, where some of our authors will be sharing their environmental and nature centred observations in response to the theme ‘Roots’.