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18/10/07

Fair Trade Books?

Being green is high on the publishing agenda these days, thankfully, although which agenda is up for some debate.

The mainstream UK publishing industry has dipped a toe in the water with the no-returns initiative, and shouting about printing on recycled (or at least sustainable) paper. Both have had mixed successes and are far from being universally adopted, and from a cynical perspective are more about headlines than results. (And the rumours of some execs taking the train rather than the plane to Frankfurt sounds like fun rather than a carbon crackdown.) But, to the best of my knowledge, there’s currently only one carbon neutral publisher in the UK and its Alasdair Sawday, not a corporate. HarperCollins however is “on track” to become carbon neutral by the end of 2007, along with other ongoing News Corporation endeavours. [See also: Discussion forum on Greenpeace about US publishers and books being in the top 4 polluters]

James this week blogged about books and landfill. After visiting a major warehouse a couple of years ago, I was shocked that any return – even mint, unopened copies – is thrown away rather than resold or recycled.

James cited a [pay-walled] Times Higher Education Supplement piece which calculated the cost of each book:

What with production and transport, the average paperback has eaten its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader.

and extrapolated this to an annual output equivalent to “an extra 100,000 cars on our roads”. And just this week another book-loving blogger, Alex, decided to go a full year without buying a book:

This is partly down to disgust at the waste in the book industry, partly as a step towards a ‘buy nothing‘ lifestyle and partly to put alternative media to the test. [But] Will I be able to find a buy the books I want from online retailers? Will they be competitive? Will publishers even allow me to read their latest titles ebook form?

However, rather than buying from second hand bookshops, Alex is going to try and do it digitally, reading them on his Sony Reader.

Perhaps this indicates that books may have a tough time ahead of them, irrespective of the corporate / social responsibilities of publishers. It’s perhaps more of a “perception” problem, although the impact of books and publishing as it currently stands is undeniable. It is, after all, a much shorter mental hop for people to associate books with paper – and therefore dead trees – than it is to associate mobile phones / other screen-based devices with toxic chemicals and other emissions. But is that right? What is the overall environmental impact of reading on print, as opposed to other media? Will it be possible to read new books guilt-free?

Alex’s is an interesting model, but without having a dig at him I’d like to measure the end-to-end environmental cost of a Sony Reader against a year’s supply of books. How environmentally damaging are books as opposed to the whole process of reading on screen? And will this take us to the point where we can work out how environmentally damaging reading is?

(Of course, once up and running, the Sony Reader (and other e-ink devices) are very cheap – i.e. low-energy consuming – to read on. They will go thousands of page turns without a charge, or battery. But what is the cost involved in making them, and what of the inbuilt obsolescence the consumer electronics industry is accused of? A much stronger claim is for a single unified and “must-have” device which removes the need to have multiple electronic devices for different purposes. When you already have a device – for communication, browsing, entertainment – and it’s good enough to keep for a number of years without becoming unusable, the the environmental case is much stronger.)

At the moment, buying a book implicitly supports the unsustainable returns & overproduction model that James criticises. I’m not saying that reading will become as stigmatised as flying, smoking, or driving a Hummer. But it’s not impossible to foresee a time when reading
second hand books [NYT free login req's, sorry] makes a louder, hipper statement than reading the new Philip Roth.

Certainly the returns initiative is a good one, if it discourages over-production and waste. And I love James’ point that,

the booksellers, [...] use the returns system to facilitate their pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap attitude to literature. Returns are bad for the environment, and they’re poisonous to literature. They also run down publishers’ profits and take out money that could be used for good initiatives, like real, achievable commitments to sustainable/recycled paper stocks.

Perhaps we are entering a time – when producers (authors) are so badly paid, and books so environmentally damaging, with all the money going to the minority few – when we need to consider the idea of Fair Trade Books? Where authors are paid a fair price, publishers print on organic, sustainable, and ethically produced stock, printed locally, and where retailers promote local authors and a no-returns policy? I’m not joking.

All this talk of returns prompts a final thought – where are the book freegans, scavenging outside distribution hubs?

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future of the book, Publishing.

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