climate change

Renewable Traditions in Publishing

For the last 2000 years humans have used paper in its many forms (Harford, 2017) but it was not until the advent of industrialization in the 19th century that people began to pulp trees for that sole purpose. Although trees today are synonymous with paper I believe that we should revert to more traditional sources of fibre to create more sustainable forms of printing and bookmaking. In this paper I argue that the publishing industry in Canada needs to include hemp-derived paper in order to transition into a more environmentally sustainable future. I will first show how the current practice of using wood derived paper products is unsustainable and environmentally damaging. I will then illustrate the benefits of using hemp fibre as an alternative to wood fibre. Lastly, I will examine how the new 2018 cannabis legislation in Canada will help aid in the growth of this hemp industry.

Publishing, like most industries, depends on the use of finite raw resources, with methods of extraction and production that fall somewhere on a scale from fully renewable to completely unsustainable. While wood is typically thought of as a sustainable resource, I argue that the use of wood-based paper falls closer to the unsustainable side of this spectrum. From the use of toxic ink, to the fossil fuels used in shipping freight, to the age old act of falling trees, publishing is an energy hungry industry. Not surprisingly, the consumption of paper is the single largest environmental issue facing book publishers today (Macmilian, 2018). According to Kaplan (2017), the US publishing industry uses on average 32 million trees annually in the production of paper. Numbers like this are astronomical in a world where there is a global deficiency in raw wood materials (Plazonić et al., 2016) and massive deforestation contributing to climate change (National Geographic, 2018). To combat this unsustainable model of relying on raw wood for paper production, there has been a shift in the publishing industry since the new millennium to adopt greener methods and increase the usage of recycled material in paper (Norrick-Rühl and Vogel, 2013). This shift to “green” is not just an issue of ethics, but a necessary move in a world with ever increasing energy costs (Milliot, 2016). Between 2004 and 2010 American publishers switched from using on average 5% recycled paper to 24% (Miliot, 2016). Over the years this number has fluctuated and in some cases drastically fallen due to the fact that recycled paper is harder and more expensive for publishers to source (Milliot, 2016). The switch from virgin paper (paper that is not recycled) to a product made entirely of recycled paper would have its benefits: it would use one third the amount of energy; produce half the amount of waste-water; and create less solid waste (Green America, 2018). However, despite the benefits, switching to recycled paper is far from a perfectly sustainable model. Like the processing of virgin paper, recycling paper uses an excess amount of energy and an intensive process involving coal, natural gas, fossil fuels and and chemical bleaches (TCK Publishing, 2018). Furthermore, recycled wood-pulp paper has a limited lifespan and degrades beyond use after being recycled three times (Malachowska, et al., 2015), meaning that within a production model based on recycled paper, virgin paper will always be needed. Instead of replacing the old production model of printing on virgin paper with that of adopting more recycled paper, we need to move beyond thinking of paper as a tree-based product, and explore alternative forms. An economically efficient and more environmentally friendly alternative can be found in hemp.

Up until the 19th century nearly all paper that was produced came from hemp or linen (Malachowska et al., 2015). From the Gutenberg Bible to the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, the American Declaration of Independence (later transcribed to parchment), or to bank notes, hemp fibre paper has historically been the material of choice (Malachowska et al., 2015). But the increasing demands for paper in the industrial revolution saw the change from hemp-based paper to tree-based paper (Malachowska et al., 2015), which as Gibson (2008) says, has ended up being an environmental disaster. Unlike paper from trees, paper derived from hemp is both superior in quality and more environmentally sustainable. Simply put, it’s the greener option that recycled paper is advertised to be. With a yield four times greater per hectare than trees, hemp fibre is more economical and quicker to produce, with a turnaround time of four months compared to trees which take in excess of 20-80 years to mature (Malachowska et al., 2015). Furthermore, hemp fibre makes not only stronger and more durable products than wood based paper (as it contains more cellulose than wood), it also lasts longer. As Malachowska (2015) states, 97% of the books produced between the years 1900-1937 will be unusable in 50 years time due to degradation, while ancient texts printed on hemp have been shown to last hundreds of years longer and remain in better quality than their wood based alternatives, with less decomposition and no yellowing.

Hemp paper is not just superior in quality but it is also environmentally more sustainable. The production process for making hemp paper does not require the same types or amounts of acids and toxins that wood fibre paper requires during the bleaching process. This means that fewer chemicals, which can poison ecosystems, are leached into our waterways. The durability of hemp also makes it superior as a paper to recycle. As previously stated, wood fibre paper can only be recycled up to three times before it is no longer viable. Hemp, on the other hand, can be recycled up to 7 or 8 times before it is spent. This further adds to the efficiency and sustainability of hemp fibre over wood fibre making it a more energy efficient choice.

In October 2018, the Canadian government’s new cannabis legislation came into effect. And while industrial hemp is fundamentally different from marijuana, they belong to the same cannabis family and have been affected by similar regulations. Since 1998 famers have been allowed to harvest seeds and fibre from hemp, but the growing interest and recent legalization of the non-psychoactive medical compound in hemp called cannabidiol (CBD) has brought an massive influx to hemp production (Lesko, 2018). 2017 alone saw the planting of 138,000 acres of new hemp plants in Canada (Lesko, 2018). Plants grown for CBD are a dual revenue harvest as both the fibres and the buds can be harvested (Lesko, 2018). This increase in hemp production will mean that there will be more hemp fibre available to pulp and turn into sustainable paper. This provides a great opportunity for Canadian publishers to demand more hemp derived paper from local producers and help flood the market. With the proper technologies in place hemp could become the new sustainable option in Canadian paper productions. An increase in demand would likely lead to an increase in the supply of hemp paper, and would lead to a drop in price significant enough that it could complete with tree-derived paper.

I have focused this discussion on the use of paper, but one might question the need for any paper materials  and suggest that e-readers and tablets are the more ethical and sustainable trajectory for publishing. E-readers have been touted as greener alternative to paper, but they are still far from being environmentally friendly (Mims, 2018). The production of one e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, including many ‘conflict minerals’ such as those  found in the Congo ( like tin, tantalum and tungsten), as well as fossil fuels and toxic chemicals (Goleman and Norris, 2010). Furthermore, the manufacturing of one unit alone creates 100 times more greenhouse gasses (as well more adverse health effects on the public) than the manufacture of a paper counterpart. While some of  these disadvantages are mitigated by the fact that an almost unlimited number of books can be stored and read on an e-reader, the full-scale switch from paper books to plastic screens would require a great shift in cultural values and consumer behaviour. This shift appears unlikely to occur in the near future, as recent trends have shown that e-reader sales have fallen over the last few years while physical book sales have been on the rise (Preston, 2017). It’s clear that people are still attached to the material aspects of paper books, with pages they can flip through, and as collectables they can display on their shelves.

I have argued that wood-based paper is less sustainable than a hemp-based alternative, and that hemp paper is economically viable, but I would conclude by reiterating the fact that physical books are irreplaceable with modern digital technology. The cold, plastic, unfamiliar, impersonal, and ephemeral feel of digital text on an e-reader screen may never adequately represent the complex relationships and attachments than people can form with books. In the end, a story in a book can be an important interpersonal relationship between author and reader, and we should not underestimate the more visceral aspects of this relationship that are transmitted through the material pages of a book. The industrial revolution brought about the proliferation of books, but it is not the new industrial revolution, characterized by mobile internet and digitization, that will bring about the next phase in sustainable publishing. Instead, we need to look back to traditional (pre-industrialization) practices, and bring them into the industrial era.




Gibson, Kenyon. “Hemp Paper.” Journal of Industrial Hemp 12:2 (2008): 115-121.


Goleman, Daniel; Norris, Gregory. “How Green is my iPad?”. The New York Times. April 4, 2010. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Green America. “Why Recycled Paper”.  Accessed November 11, 2018.

Harford Tim. “How the invention of paper changed the world.” BBC News. March 13, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Kaplan, Desiree. “Book Publishers Go Green To Reduce Their Carbon Footprint.” Green Matters. September 15, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Lesko, Rebekah. “Cannabis Legalization Brings Changes to Hemp Industry”. Global News. October 19, 2018. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Macmilian Sustainability. Paper. 2018. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Malachowsha, Edyta; Przybysz, Piotr; Dubowik, Marcin; Kucner, Marta, Buzala, Kamila. “Comparison of Papermaking Potential of Wood and Hemp Cellulose Pulps.” Forestry and Wood Technology No. 91 (2015): 134-137.

Milliot, Jim. “Publishing and Sustainability”. Publishers Weekly. August 19, 2016. Accessed November 11, 2019.

Mims, Christopher. “Are e-books an Environmental Choice.” Green Living. Accessed November 11, 2018.


National Geographic. “Deforestation”. Accessed November 11, 2018.


Norrick-Rühl, Corinna; Vogel, Anke. “Green Publishing in Germany: A Passing Trend or a True Transition?” Publishing Research Quarterly Vol.29, 3 (2013): 220-237.


Plazonić, Ivana; Barbarić-Mikočević, Željka; Bates, Irena; Malna, Lahorka. “Chemical stability of prints made on hemp fibre based papers.” Acta Graphica Vol 27, No 3 (2016): 25-30.


Preston, Alex. “How Real Books Have Trumped ebooks”. The Guardian. May 14, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2018.


TCK Publishing. “Sustainable Reading and Publishing: How You Can Do Your Part to Help the Environment.” Accessed November 11, 2018.