Eco-publishing handbook: the container is important too

Publishing books using environmentally-friendly criteria requires rethinking the entire publishing process: from conceptualisation to communication.

Dos homes enquadernant llibres, 1943

Dos homes enquadernant llibres, 1943 | State Library of New South Wales | Domini públic


Eco-publishing is a way of managing publications following sustainability principles. Is it possible to produce a book with criteria that respect the environment? The publishing cooperative Pol·len proposes a series of recommendations based on its experience, marked by the learning of green printer El Tinter. These include the evaluation of the need to publish, the conception of the product in the key of the Zero Waste philosophy, the criteria for choosing format, paper and ink and the communication of the environmental impact.

Publishing a work or making it public, is a decision that emanates from a desire to explain, to communicate, to participate, to be seen  and even to cultivate an ego (individual or collective). However, if the decision is made to take the step of publishing that work on paper (this is where the physical container, the object that contains the content, makes its appearance), it would be necessary to start off with prior research into the use of the final product, into its durability, its target audience and so many other “whys” that have to be put on the table. Let’s leave digital contents for another time, now we are dealing in depth with cellulose.

The first decision

To publish or not to publish, that is the question. Within the context of the eco-publishing workshop that we, the Pol·len team, ran at Bookcamp Kosmopolis 2017, ecologist and activist Jordi Bigues recalled a proposal that on an internal level is being undertaken at Barcelona City Council to control the stock and the production of publications. The decision has been made to do without institutional prologues when they are not relevant, a revolutionary measure if one takes into account the tons of paper that are “thrown away” in prolegomena that every year take the same form and colour.

The expression “eco-publishing” emerged around the promotion undertaken in 2008 by a series of organisations, companies and experts to disseminate a concept that imbues the entire book value chain. Eco-publishing is a form of managing publications that aims to minimise the environmental impacts resulting from the publishing of books and magazines. With the drive of this group, a European project was started up in 2009 that gave form to the research, Greening Books, formed by Centre Tecnològic Leitat, the software company Simple and printers El Tinter.

One of the pillars of all this research was Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), a technique for assessing the environmental impacts associated with all the life phases of a product, in this case the book. For example, during the project it was confirmed that although 49.4% of the carbon footprint went on raw materials (mainly paper) and despite distribution playing a relevant role, design, with 9.6%, was also significant.

A book’s carbon footprint

The concept, how to think about products from their origin, is one of the keys of the so-called circular economy and of the Zero Waste philosophy, through which products have to be designed to have a positive environmental impact when they are reintroduced into the production cycle.

There are other elements, political decisions taken at the time of thinking about contents and their container, that also have an impact. One very important one is the book’s print run. According to data from 2015 on Internal Trade in Books, the rate of returns of stocks of books to publishers was 30.1% (based on figures for invoicing and refunding). Small publishers had a lower rate (22%), with a downward tendency. Often, the fate of these stocks is their destruction. Would it not be more effective to adjust print-runs to be more precise? You may think that it is not possible to predict how many copies of a particular title will be sold, but imaginative solutions can be explored: beginning with a smaller print-run, using offset printing, and then printing on demand for example (using digital printing).

Another relevant decision is the choice of licences: the use of less restrictive Creative Commons licences and other types of open licence will enable the life of a book to be increased, since the content will not die once the thousand copies of a print-run of a supposed first edition have run out.

Publishing a book through crowdfunding is also a form of opening up the participation in the phase of thinking about content and container. The considered print-run, in other words, the study of how many copies will be published of that book at a certain time, is possible thanks tot he first analysis carried out during crowdfunding, besides ensuring dissemination of the book before it is actually published.

If I publish, how do I do it? In-depth consideration of paper and inks

Reducing a publication’s impact involves minimising the carbon footprint, reducing the raw materials, energy, water and waste generated by the whole process of conception, production and end of life. Therefore, a simplistic reading will lead to the conclusion that changing the inks and the paper is sufficient in itself. In contrast, although taking decisions in this area is key, the main measure must be taken at the time of thinking about and designing the product. This does not have to mean forced changes, but changes agreed by consensus and taking a long-term view: at Pol·len we initially designed with margins of 1.5 cm. (instead of 2.5), which allowed us to make a saving of one in six pages. Eventually we have tended to widen the margins, but our decision did not satisfy all readers.

The choice of format and paper is basic, in our handbook. The Practical Manual by Ihobe, the Basque Government’s public environmental management company, establishes seven steps for implementing eco-publishing. For example, it is necessary to favour the use of internationally recognised standard paper formats, of paper with ecological labels, recycled (recycled offset, recycled coated or mixed and quality papers) and, if we end up not opting for recycled, then the paper must be from virgin fibres from responsibly managed forests. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation certifies that papers do not originate from the illegal felling of forests, for example.

In the printing phase, it is a good idea to use machines that are adjusted to the paper format and the book format, which means using a leading printer that can work with the formats that you choose. Finally, inks made with vegetable oils are more highly recommended because they have less of an environmental impact; when thinking about design, it is better to think about designs that are not very dark (75% or 50% rather than 100%).

Why FSC? | FSC Nederland

Less impact and less cost: is it possible?

Is doing things properly more expensive? Eco-efficiency is the degree to which an optimum relationship is achieved between the resources used in the management of a service and the results obtained. Thinking before publishing a book, studying the scope and utility is eco-efficiency and it enables avoidance not only of circumstantial errors but also of environmental and structural ones.

Choosing the format, the type of paper, the composition of inks equals eco-efficiency but let’s not forget, it also equals prestige and image. Although in the beginning certified paper had an added financial cost because the companies added the cost of certifying audits, this no longer happens in virtually any cases. Certification has become a demand for excellence, and if strategically applied, it also allows a reduction in the enterprise’s global spend.

If you are still not convinced, let’s jump to an analogy in the food arena. Is it more expensive to eat eco? Is changing our conventional diet towards more ecological products expensive? Not necessarily. If the consumption of these products involves rethinking how we buy and how we cook, then saving is guaranteed. Author Bea Johnson, international founder of the Zero Waste movement in the household sphere, demonstrates this with figures she has extracted from the radical change in her own family economy. Let’s not forget, either, that changing our diet does not only represent an improvement in health on a micro level, but on a structural level it contributes to greater ecological and social justice.

Dialogue with readers: communicating the environmental impact

A very important element of eco-publishing is the communication of the publication’s environmental impact. In all Pol·len books we include an ecological rucksack, – the result of the Greening Books project – which is a simplified environmental product statement that gives information on the impacts in carbon footprint terms, in raw materials, energy, water and waste of the entire book publishing process. Also included in this rucksack are the savings achieved based on the adoption of best practices. In this same statement it is useful to show the stamps and seals of the paper or other raw materials and make evident whether our providers are enterprises with an environmental management system.

The options for communicating with readers are numerous. For example, one can include a reference inside the book on what to do with it once read: include it in a book-crossing network, take it to a second-hand bookshop… and many other ways of continuing the life of that content and its container.

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Eco-publishing handbook: the container is important too