It’s Not Easy Being Green In The Book Publishing Industry

In the six years between 2006 and 2012 numerous book publishers were praised for their initiatives to decrease their environmental footprint. News story after news story were published detailing publishers’ goals for reducing waste in the future (Milliot 2016). Years later, however, little has been said about whether or not these companies reached their goals or if they even tried. With the recent global climate strike and significant discussion about how society should deal with environmental issues, it is interesting that little has been said about whether or not these publishers achieved the goals that gained them so much publicity. By looking at the history of the environmental goals of two large publishers who received a lot of publicity for their efforts, Random House and Hachette Book Group, this paper outlines the ways they have kept their promises, why the conversation has all but disappeared, and analyzes if the industry should be doing more to reduce its environmental impact. 

Green initiatives are a huge part of the modern corporate world. Many companies, not just those in publishing, have adopted corporate social responsibility initiatives that improve the way they are viewed by the public (Schooley n.d.). These initiatives can take the form of ethical business practices or philanthropy, but because the publishing industry produces so much waste, the corporate social responsibility of many publishing houses is to reduce their environmental impact. Using 32 million trees and producing 40 million metric tons of CO2 annually, the publishing industry is the “third largest industrial greenhouse emitter when it comes to pulp and paper” (Kaplan 2019). One such publisher invested in reducing these numbers was Random House, who said in a 2006 interview that it was time to “stop making eye-rolling excuses about how burdensome and expensive environmental initiatives are” (Donadio 2006). They set goals for reducing their environmental impact over the course of four years, pledging that 30 percent of the paper they used would be made from recycled materials by 2010 (Donadio 2006). Likewise, in 2009, Hachette Book Group created a comprehensive environmental policy that “set out goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and find responsible paper sources” (Kaplan 2019). These initiatives, as well as the many others like it at the time, were at the forefront of conversation in publishing industry news, but very little has been reported since about whether or not these companies actually reached these goals.

While slightly difficult to find, most publishers, particularly the larger ones, have a page on their website that discusses their sustainability practices. Penguin Random House, the publishing house emerging out of the merger between Random House and Penguin, has a “Creative Responsibility: Sustainability” page that states their sustainability progress thus far and goals for the future (n.d.). The company did not reach Random House’s original goal, using just 0.5 percent recycled materials in 2017 (PRH 2017). However, this doesn’t mean environmental initiatives are no longer a concern, merely that the goals and objectives have changed. Rather than using recycled materials, Penguin Random House has shifted their focus to using responsibly sourced materials. 98 percent of the paper they used in 2017 was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which they aim to increase to 100 percent by 2020 (PRH n.d.). Similarly, Hachette Book Group has a “Corporate Social Responsibility” page outlining the progress they’ve made since they began their initiatives in 2009 (n.d.). 100 percent of the paper used by the company in 2018 was certified as coming from a sustainable source (Hachette n.d.). Their carbon footprint, however, grew by 5 percent in 2018 due to several of that year’s titles needing heavier paper stock (Hachette n.d.). While these publishers may not have achieved their exact goals, their efforts to ensure their materials are sustainably sourced shows that environmental initiatives are still important to them. But if publishers are still making strides to respect the environment, why has the conversation about it gone away, and why are their sustainability efforts not at the forefront of their websites?

Green architecture pioneer, William McDonough said in an interview with the New York Times that “the medium is the message” (Donadio 2006). The way publishers produce their books sends a message to consumers. If publishers care about their printing practices and reducing their impact on the environment, consumers will be more likely to view them in a positive light. This is reiterated by Forbes, which states that about 90% of consumers will view a company positively and be more loyal to and trusting of them if they support environmental issues (Butler 2018). A possible explanation of the lack of conversation, then, is that concern for the environment has become the new normal. According to Forbes, modern consumers expect companies to be involved in environmental impact efforts (Butler 2018). Publicity from media no longer draws the same type of attention. Rather than applauding companies for their social responsibility, consumers question why companies haven’t done this sooner. The relevant information is on the publishers’ websites for those who want it, but it doesn’t need to be front and centre anymore to draw customers in.

None of these efforts could be possible without two very important organizations working to make publishing a more sustainable practice: The Forest Stewardship Council and the Book Chain Project. The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization helping to manage deforestation and environmental degradation by identifying well-managed forests and recognizing companies making an effort to use responsibly-sourced materials (FSC n.d.). They provide companies with certifications to let consumers know the product they are buying was made with sustainable resources (FSC n.d.). While they don’t provide an extensive list of certified companies (though you can search for a company by name), many publishers proudly display their certification, as Penguin Random House has. The Book Chain Project helps publishers make informed buying decisions by providing them with resources for learning and forums for sharing ideas (BCP n.d.). Their members include “27 leading book and journal publishers, over 400 print suppliers, and more than 300 paper manufacturers” (BCP n.d.). While the participant numbers for suppliers and manufacturers are incredible, the number of publishers involved is concerning. Not enough publishers are making the effort they should, perhaps because of the work involved. But as Random House said in 2006, it’s time to stop using this as an excuse.

What makes the Book Chain Project so important is that it is educational and collaborative, allowing those in the industry to brainstorm ideas that work for them. Many solutions have been presented over the years about how to fix the sustainability issue, but most of these don’t consider the realistic implications. Perhaps the most common suggestion is that publishers should get rid of paper altogether and switch to e-books (Two Sides 2018). There are two major problems with this. The first is that print is still preferred by consumers, many of whom experience digital fatigue (Two Sides 2018). The other issue is that electronics also have an impact on the environment (Two Sides 2018). Two Sides reports that to manufacture just one computer requires “240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals, 1.5 tonnes of water and numerous precious… or rare earth minerals… as well as those which are dangerous for the environment” (2018). These are not small numbers and have just as big of an impact on the environment. Another common suggestion is for publishers to switch to only producing print-on-demand titles. Only producing print on demand books would eradicate brick and mortar bookstores selling new books (used bookstores would likely survive as their business does not rely on keeping new books in stock). Large companies like Indigo in Canada and Barnes & Noble in the US would never let this happen. Not to mention that a large portion of book sales come from brick and mortar stores. Customers cannot browse online the same way they can in stores, which is how many sales happen. The Book Chain Project allows people in the industry to look beyond the obvious (and problematic) solutions to brainstorm ideas that will work. While 28 publishers working together to create a better industry is great, this should be a higher number, with approximately 67 book publishers in Canada and hundreds more in the US (Canadian Authors n.d.).

Those who were involved when green initiatives began are still making an effort to decrease their environmental footprint, but this number is relatively small in comparison to the total number of publishers in the US and Canada. While those involved are making an impact, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. There isn’t currently a permanent solution to decreasing the environmental impact of book publishers, but collaborative brainstorming within the industry is definitely a step in the right direction.



“2017-2018-Environmental-Progress-Report_10-10-19.Pdf.” n.d. Accessed October 31, 2019.

Canada, Forest Stewardship Council. n.d. “Who We Are.” FSC Canada. Accessed October 30, 2019.

“Consumer Research.” n.d. Two Sides North America. Accessed October 29, 2019.

“Corporate Social Responsibility: Definition and Examples.” n.d. Accessed October 28, 2019.

Butler, Adam. 2018. “Council Post: Do Customers Really Care About Your Environmental Impact?” n.d. Accessed October 27, 2019.

“Creative Responsibility.” n.d. Accessed October 29, 2019.

Donadio, Rachel. 2006. “Saving the Planet, One Book at a Time.” The New York Times, July 9, 2006, sec. Sunday Book Review.

“History – Book Chain Project.” n.d. Accessed October 30, 2019.

Kaplan,Desiree. 2019. “Book Publishers Go Green To Reduce Their Carbon Footprint.” n.d. Green Matters. Accessed October 26, 2019.

Milliot, Jim. 2016. “Publishing and Sustainability.” n.d. PublishersWeekly.Com. Accessed October 26, 2019.

“Myth: Electronic Communication Is More Environmentally Friendly than Paper-Based Communication.” n.d. Two Sides North America. Accessed October 29, 2019.

“Publishers.” n.d. Canadian Authors Association. Accessed October 31, 2019.

“Sustainability.” n.d. Accessed October 26, 2019.

One Response to It’s Not Easy Being Green In The Book Publishing Industry

  1. laurend says:

    Hello Ash,

    Great job on your essay! I have always been interested in the “green side” of the publishing industry, but (as I’m sure you found out), it’s been hard to find a lot information. As I was reading your piece, a few things jumped out at me: (1) corporate social responsibility; (2) accountability; and (3) potential future avenues.
    You touch upon social corporate responsibility in your essay, which is a really interesting branding and marketing technique used by many companies today. Due to its potential consequences, I think this is one of the most important elements you mentioned in your essay. If a company, for example Penguin Random House (PRH) or Hachette Book Group (HBG), states that they are going to achieve “x” by a certain time, and they do not hold up their end of the bargain, it is the company’s credibility and reputation that is on the line. One of the reasons I would argue that PGH and HBG didn’t garner as much attention upon nearing their environmental goals is because they were so close to meeting them. If they had failed spectacularly in their efforts, they would have been crucified in the media.
    This neatly brings me to my second point: accountability. Due to their stature in the industry, PGH and HBG would have been held accountable by their consumers for their words and actions. They could not risk losing their consumer base, especially since (as we’ve learned over the past few months) the publishing industry needs every dollar they can get to survive. Accountability is a powerful tool, and I would argue that at least some of their reasoning behind putting the webpages about their green efforts on their website is to assuage any consumer from thinking that they did not follow through with their goal. You also mentioned that being environmentally friendly has become a consumer expectation in recent years. How much do you think social media (and its ability to garner large crowds and wield cancel culture with deadly accuracy) and consumer expectations affect Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group’s stance on the matter?
    Looking to the future, I would love to hear your thoughts about where we can go from here. Are small publishers following in PGH and HBG’s footsteps, or were they already on the path? Which has had more impact: the small independent publishers all using environmentally sustainable practices or the large multinationals with their hundreds of titles? If we know which portion of the industry has had more impact, we can push for reform in that appropriate areas. Based on our knowledge of how grants have influenced publishing patterns, do you think introducing a grant that supports publishers who have achieved the Forest Stewardship Council certification would positively impact the environmental sustainability of the publishing industry?

    All in all, I really enjoyed your essay, and I thank you for drawing attention to something that was seemingly forgotten.



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