Environmental Issues in the Publishing Sector

Excerpted from The Green Design and Print Production Handbook (HOW)

By Adrian Bullock

What follows is a look at the most pressing environmental issues for the publishing sector, its response to them, and how we can start to use these tools to create a strategy for our own organizations to understand and reduce our environmental impacts. Crucially, we will also look at the business benefits of a strategic response to environmental concerns.

Environmental Concerns in the Publishing Sector

The priority of the publishing sector is a need to source well-managed papers, and the aim of a paper purchasing policy will be to use certified papers that are third-party assessed, ensuring both legality of the pulp fiber origins and that those pulps come from well-managed sources. The most pressing concern for the publishing sector has become finding paper supplies that are not contributing to harmful forestry practices where certified papers are not available. Certified papers have been a great thing for the publishing industry as the work of guaranteeing a level of responsibly managed paper has been done for us, but only a small percentage (around 13%, and mostly in the global north) of the world’s production forests are certified, and there is not enough certified-produced paper available to meet the needs of the publishing industry.

How then do you go about finding papers that won’t be placing too great a burden on the environment?

The supply chains of the publishing sector are long, which is similar to many industries, but the make-up of paper creates a unique problem, as the formation of the necessary paper characteristics—flexibility, strength, thickness, and so on—requires different varieties of pulp; that is, pulps made from different species of trees, which will be grown in different geographical locations. A softwood fiber may come from Finland and a hardwood fiber may come from Chile. There are enough different paper varieties in the world to require a huge number of paper recipes, and these recipes may require anything from three to thirty pulp sources, each from a different forest. An extensive supply chain.

Many papers require both hardwood and softwood, and pulp is delivered globally to meet demand.

Sourcing Low-risk Uncertified Papers


A large quantity of work would be required to ensure, as individual businesses, that the pulps in the papers you use are from low-risk sources, so a group of publishers in the UK has sought a collective response to this problem. They have created PREPS, the Publishers’ database for Responsible Environmental Paper Sourcing. The idea behind it is quite a simple one: all the papers used by the publishers are submitted to a secretariat that runs the database. The mills producing those papers are then requested by the secretariat to submit their pulp sources, including the tree species and the forest country of origin. These sources are then risk assessed and graded as high-risk, low-risk, or responsibly managed. Recording and risk assessing each pulp source can accurately determine whether or not the paper has come from high-risk or well-managed sources, allowing those who access the database to make informed choices about the papers they will use in their publications, even where they are not certified.

In sourcing responsibly managed and low-risk papers, the PREPS database is a highly useful tool. It can also contribute to a due diligence process through its risk assessment of the individual pulp sources. With the increasing requirement of the forest products industry for due diligence from the U.S. Lacey Act and from the EU Timber Regulation, a due-diligence process is becoming vital for all tree-derived materials, and it is of particular importance for those papers that do not have certification and therefore are not bought with a third-party assurance of the legality of the pulps within that paper.

The main focus of the PREPS database is to gather information on the forest sources of pulp, as this is where the chief impact of paper lies, as well as being the least transparent area due to its complexity. But, acknowledging the multiple impacts of any manufacturing process, the database is now starting to incorporate information on the carbon impacts and water use of the mills that it gathers information from.

To ensure that the information PREPS provides here is both relevant and in line with data gathering from other industry carbon footprints, the carbon indicators in the CEPI 10 Toes, Paper Profiles, and International Council of Forest and Paper Association frameworks have all been referenced. Using these already established frameworks should also mean that no work on the supplying mills’ part need be duplicated or re-worked.

These are not full lifecycle footprints, but they do allow for a greater understanding of the mills’ environmental impacts and can be used by publishers to inform their purchasing decisions.

The water information gathered will also be based on existing tools and footprint methodologies from Paper Profile, WWF Paper Score Card (now Check Your Paper), EPAT (Environmental Paper Assessment Tool), the Water Footprinting Network, and the WBCSD Global Water Tool, and again it will provide information for comparison rather than the full footprint.

Using pre-existing methodologies reduces duplication of work in the burgeoning green reporting movement. It is important that all these methodologies are transparent and communicated, so that it can be understood what the final figures represent, creating clarity for the end users.

The flow of information through PREPS.

Environmental Impact Mapping

The inclusion of carbon and water information by PREPS incorporates the second key concern for the publishing sector, which is to map the impacts of publishing by using lessons learned from the global initiatives and tools aimed at understanding and reducing the effects of human activity on the environment. Publishers are mapping their impacts and producing—using widely accepted methodologies—tools that will enable ongoing reporting and build as full a picture as possible of those impacts for individual products and for a business. By using widely recognized standards to base reporting on, the publishing sector is preparing itself for the possibility of increased mandatory environmental reporting in the future. We will now look at the tools and framework standards the publishing industry uses to understand, communicate, and reduce its impacts.


There are several globally recognized standards that are designed to show organizations how to account for their GHG emissions, including carbon. The UK Environmental Action Group (EAG) of the Publishers Association and Booksellers Association has produced two carbon accounting tools. The first is an online tool that allows all its members to translate their direct impacts as set out in the GHG protocol and convert these to GHG emissions. This tool will aid small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) in reporting on, accounting for, and offsetting their carbon emissions. It is worth mentioning here that the goal is to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible, and that offsetting is useful for emissions that cannot be lowered further and, in the short term, as a financial driver to lower emissions. Offsetting cannot be relied on long term as it does not involve an overall lowering of global emissions.

The second tool to come out of the EAG is the Bookcarbon Calculator. This calculator looks at the carbon emissions for the lifecycle of a book from manufacture of the pulp and paper to delivery of the book to the customergate. This carbon calculator accounts for publishers’ indirect emissions through the books they have made. The calculator allows users to vary materials, the format, the printer, the print method, and the print-run length; the results can be used for reporting purposes in preparation for expanding regulation in this area. This also allows users to see the carbon effects of particular print decisions, making visible opportunities for carbon reductions.

The tools outlined above have been created by the UK publishing sector for the UK publishing sector, but they are a good example of what can be done collectively by pooling resources (time and funds) and harnessing the knowledge held across a group. Using a shared calculator creates comparable reporting, which increases the transparency of the industry.

If you are involved in print production but not directly for the publishing industry, your own industry representative body may have similar tools, and it is worth making enquiries.


WWF has created the Check Your Paper website, a database in which you choose your paper type and can then review the information held on specific paper products. The tool assesses the key environmental impacts and each paper is rated in six areas:

  • Fiber source
  • Fossil CO2 emissions from manufacturing
  • Waste to landfill
  • Water pollution from bleaching
  • Organic water pollution
  • Environmental Management System

The aim of this system is to promote responsible paper procurement by making the choices available clear, with an emphasis, via the rating system, on certified and recycled fiber sourcing, because it is in the fiber sources and the potential deforestation risks where the most substantial impact of paper production lies. The fibers must come from one of five sources:

  • Recycled post-consumer waste
  • Recycled pre-consumer waste
  • Virgin fiber of legal origin
  • Virgin fiber from controlled sources
  • Virgin fiber from credibly certified sources

Each paper in the database is third-party audited, and the verification of the legality of the fiber sources will come from a credible certification system (FSC and PEFC) and national and international legality schemes, with wood covered by a FLEGT VPA). The database encourages transparency in the supply chain and demonstrates the work that paper manufacturers are putting in to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the paper manufacturing process.


Two significant initiatives in the U.S. take a lifecycle approach and look at the impacts of paper production and disposal, and book manufacture and disposal, respectively.

The Paper Calculator was created in 2005 by the Environmental Defense Fund alongside the Paper Task Force (a voluntary private-sector initiative): it uses a database of information collected by the industry. The calculator was third-party reviewed by scientists and environmental NGOs in 2008; from this consultation additional information was added in 2009. Given information about the type and quantity of paper used, the calculator can show you how much wood was used, how many trees this equates to, how much water and energy was used, the weight of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that were used, and other factors as well. These figures are based on the national production averages in the U.S. The tool is web-based and can be used by anyone to show the impact of the paper they have used. It can also be used to “design-for-the-environment” as the impacts become visible.

The Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) is a representative network of the book publishing industry equally representing publishers, book manufacturers, paper manufacturers and suppliers, booksellers, and environmental NGOs to establish best practice and communicate it to the industry. BIEC’s goal is to benchmark, track, and improve the environmental footprint of the book industry, and it is doing this through three main areas of focus: tracking the impacts of the industry; setting goals for the reduction of carbon emissions; and reducing returns. BIEC has surveyed its members and uses this to benchmark and track the publishing sector’s environmental impact and is in the process of developing a strategy for reducing returns and increasing book recovering and recycling. For the reduction in carbon emissions, BIEC has produced a strategy on how to achieve this goal, as well as guidance for publishers, printers, and paper makers on how to put that strategy into practice. These guides are available on the BIEC website.

The ISO 14001 Process

ISO 14001 certifies that an organization is addressing all the environmental impacts within a company’s direct control and sphere of influence, over time. This certification is an indication of an organization’s environmental policies, and there is a high level of uptake of this standard within the publishing supply chain: many printers and paper manufacturers have an Environmental Management System (EMS) that has been certified as being ISO 14001 compliant.

The standard does not set levels of performance—if it did a separate standard would be needed for each industry group—but requires that all impacts should be mapped and a rolling plan for improvement put in place. As it does not set performance levels, where a procurement team uses this standard as a factor in their purchasing decisions it should be remembered that performance levels will vary, and that to understand a supplier’s environmental performance and strategy needs, a more involved conversation about their activities in this area will be necessary. The use of this standard also needs to walk the line between merely being burdensome, or an additional record-keeping activity, and being a useful management tool and a genuinely informative way to help reduce environmental impacts.

Key stages in the ISO 14001 process.

Benefits for Business

There are some important benefits to your business in addressing supply chain (indirect) impacts: it gives visibility of additional regulation and changes within the marketplace, it strengthens supply chain relationships, and it informs potential product development. Addressing these issues will give you the information you need to develop a due diligence strategy and comply with current regulation as well as prepare you for future regulation. Reducing your impacts through resource efficiency and responsibly managed sources of material will help you to understand the pressures on natural resources and the effects on the ecosystems they come from, allowing you to prepare for a less stable marketplace through your supplier relationships. To address these environmental issues you will work closely with your suppliers, who will be important sources of information for you to be able to map and calculate your organization’s environmental impacts; they will also be sources of expertise when developing new products for maximum green potential.

Just as an organization wishes to reduce its environmental impacts, its stakeholders will have the same concerns. There is now great interest in the environmental performance of organizations coming from different quarters, from shareholders and financial markets (as expressed by the FTSE4Good index and the green performance indicators used by investment groups) to governments with increasing regulation requiring reporting and due diligence. Also, NGOs, representing the interests of the people and habitats in the areas resources are taken from, wish to know about an organization’s environmental performance and policies and in turn communicate this information to potential customers. Fully addressing the environmental impacts for your organization will allow you to respond to and engage fully with all these stakeholders, benefiting your reputation with potential investors, and creating a relationship with NGOs in which you learn from each other and create due diligence approaches that are effective in practice and reach a high level of governance.

The publishing value chain.

The development of green technology is marked by drivers and benefits. Among the drivers that are impacting upon major industrial processes, such as printing, are:

    1. Tighter regulation on all businesses.
    2. The development of green technologies, which enable companies to meet the regulations and improve their carbon footprints.
    3. The demands by customers and society as a whole for more eco-friendly industry.

    When industry takes on board these drivers, and implements them within their Environmental Management Systems, they create many benefits for themselves, their employees, and society as a whole:

      1. They considerably reduce their waste and day-to-day expenditure through efficiency savings in the use of resources and energy.
      2. They improve working conditions and reduce the impact of their activity upon the environment by replacing harmful ingredients in the raw materials of printing.
      3. They enjoy the cost savings of greater economies of scale as a result of a higher uptake of eco-friendly raw materials, such as paper.
      4. They have a competitive advantage as a green manufacturer over non-green companies.
      5. They reduce and eliminate waste and carbon dioxide from their processes being released into the atmosphere.

      The tools and initiatives discussed above have been created using industry knowledge, informed by widely accepted methodologies and often with input from NGOs, to respond to the concerns of the publishing sector. The approaches they use can become part of a strategy to source papers that use pulp fibers from responsibly managed forests, ensuring that your products are not supporting deforestation, and also satisfying the due diligence requirement for papers made from legal sources for products delivered into the U.S. and in the future, into the EU. In addition, there are initiatives that aim to make the carbon and broader environmental impacts of the print production process visible; the information learned from these can be used to guide where and how these impacts can be reduced.

      Excerpted from The Green Design and Print Production Handbook by Adrian Bullock (HOW)