Sustainable Publishing: Let’s Start at the Source of the Issue! -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

Sustainable Publishing: Let’s Start at the Source of the Issue!

Taking the traditional publishing sector into the future might be a difficult endeavor. In addition to facing the lingering threat of the “more convenient” ebooks, customers are also demanding more sustainable printing practices to keep the publishing industry on top.

With Inapa Deutschland releasing their third compendium, this time on sustainable publishing, we ourselves wanted to take a closer look on this trend. Sustainability has been a hot topic in packaging for the last few years, but in publishing, it is rarely the subject of discussion. So, what does sustainable publishing even mean? When is print sustainable? Do you simply have to print on recycled paper? Can print and online go together here as well? The compendium answers these questions by combining factors of ecology, economy and social policy – the triad of sustainable communications. But let’s start with the basics.

The Facts

According to TCK Publishing, there are more than 2 billion books printed each year in the US alone. Which requires more than 30 million trees. That is almost 60 square miles, or nearly the size of Washington, DC, just to print books. On top of that, producing books emits over 40 million tons of C02 each year. Paper manufacturing is the third-largest user of fossil fuels worldwide: they require significant amounts of oil and gas at different phases of their process of turning trees into books. And, of course, ideally, you wouldn’t want people to limit the amounts of books they read and especially buy, or for people to simply pass their books on and buy used ones instead of new copies because it’s “the only sustainable option”. So, how do we solve this problem?

The Margin of Error

Instead of leaving sustainable practices to customer choices, let’s start at the beginning – let’s talk about pulping. In traditional publishing, new books are produced in large numbers, to achieve the lowest possible production costs per copy. Publishers estimate a number of copies that might be sold and add a margin of error. But of course, not all those copies might end up being sold. So what happens to the remaining books? Ideally, they get remaindered. Worst case, they get tossed out. Especially when bookstores cannot sell their ordered stock, we are running into a sustainability-nightmare: since they are entitled to request a full refund from the publisher but shipping books back and forth is an expensive endeavor, they resort to simply taking the books off the market then and there. Meaning, they might just rip off the covers and send them back without the rest of the book. Now, this has created a huge amount of severely damaged –  and therefore unsellable and useless –  books. 

Those damaged books then go on to being pulped: ground up, mixed with chemicals and recycled into paper for other uses. And while “recycled” does sound very good and sustainable, the “mixed with chemicals” part surely doesn’t. The paper recycling process needs a lot of power, typically generated from coal, natural gas or other fossil fuel sources. And the chemicals, like bleaches and solvents, meant to break the paper down so it can be cleaned, processed, and made into new products, unfortunately doesn’t just vanish afterwards either. So, this might be better than tossing them in the landfills but it’s still far from ideal. 

And the margin we’re talking about here is not as small as people might imagine or hope: more than 25% of the landfill waste in the United States is made up of paper products. Every year, they alone are destroying more than 16,000 truckloads of books, enough to fill both the British Library and the Library of Congress twice. And those books were never even read. 


This leads us back to our initial question: how do we solve this problem? Sure, we can wait for customers to take the issue out of our hands by going to the library, buying second-hand or switching to digital reading. Ebooks have been a constant factor in publishing since they were introduced into the market commercially in the 2000s. By reading only 60 or more books over the lifetime of a Kindle or iPad, the devices will be more environmentally friendly than reading the same number of print books. But that cannot be the answer. And it doesn’t have to be. Print has become much more flexible. And flexible printing processes have become rather time and cost-efficient. So it’s time for publishing to follow suit with other print sectors and take advantage of those advancements. Print-on-demand (POD) isn’t only an option for smaller publishing houses that can’t afford to reimburse bookstores for unsold copies. Of course, bigger publishers will still need a certain stock of their (anticipatory) bestseller books to keep the supply chain going smoothly but a mixture of the traditional and the print-on-demand approach might be the 21st century answer to calculating with possibly throwing away 30-40% of their stock.

Additionally, with the print-on-demand process being more flexible than traditional publishing practices, manufacturers are usually able to customize the process and make it more environmentally friendly: relatively eco-friendly dry inks, instead of the sometimes used toxic wet inks used in traditional mass-run printing, and less waste, reduced to nearly nothing. Many print-on-demand suppliers are also already committed to recycling as much of their facility’s waste as possible in an effort to “go green”, even though they already produce significantly less waste per book than a traditional printer. Many of them also have key sustainability certifications, like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council

Best Practice

But it’s not only smaller publishers who are making the change to more sustainable publishing practices and print-on-demand is not the only measure publishing houses can take to make their production more sustainable. It’s always important to also keep an eye on print materials, like inks and paper.

Hachette Book Group, one of the biggest publishers in the industry, created a comprehensive environmental policy in 2009 to set out goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and find responsible paper sources. By 2013, the rate of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper used by the company had gone up to 84 percent and its use of recycled fiber rose to 10 percent.

The children’s book publishing house Scholastic faced a different kind of battle: for children’s books, huge quantities of ink are needed. To make their brightly illustrated books, the company, however, targets a minimum use of 60 percent FSC certified paper

Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishing houses, is trying to “to ensure service and support are eco-managed properly and appropriately”, according to spokesman Stuart Applebaum. 

The publishing powerhouse Macmillan has also made consistent strides with its green initiatives. In 2009, CEO John Sargent set a comprehensive environmental plan for the company. Consequently, Macmillan has been able to reduce their CO2 intensity per ton of purchased paper by 44 percent since 2009. By choosing to use energy efficient mills and building a dedicated team to tackle the ongoing efforts, they have become a best practice example for the industry. 

No More Gimmicks

In conclusion, the publishing sector needs to advance their sustainability efforts on all fronts: print materials, practices and procedures need to be updated according to new sustainability standards, to go with the customers’ wishes for a more eco-friendly approach. And print-on-demand should no longer be disregarded as an option for small, independent publishing houses only. Back in 2016, Meganews used it print-on-demand as a gimmick to print their news for the customer on demand at their kiosk as they came in, to explore new concepts to bridge the digital world and the world of tangible print products. They might not have had sustainability in mind but it sure was a side effect of the project. Adaptable printing technologies, like print-on-demand, are no longer just a gimmick or a future technology, too underdeveloped or “niche” to consider. Print-on-demand might actually be one way to tackle one of the big issues of the publishing sector and take it into a more sustainable future. 


The compendium features 46 experts and trailblazers from different companies on 174 pages. Request your copy for free at

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