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Sustainability in Print: Book Publishers Buy Recycled

Publishing has heralded cultural and political revolution for centuries. Now book houses are embarking on a cause of their own. In the U.S., an enterprising assortment of university and boutique imprints have joined forces to make publishing a player in the green business movement. By Avery Yale Kamila

Publishing has heralded cultural and political revolution for centuries. Now book houses are embarking on a cause of their own. In the U.S., an enterprising assortment of university and boutique imprints have joined forces to make publishing a player in the green business movement. By Avery Yale Kamila

Harry Potter is more than just an awkward teenage wizard, he’s a legend in the publishing industry. The wild popularity of the series has given the book's 55 international publishers a taste of Gringotts gold. For Raincoast Books -- one of the lucky 55 -- profit alone was not enough. So the Canadian publisher cooked up a potion to turn their newest gold, green.

Raincoast is the only Potter publisher to issue the latest book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, on 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

"For us it's about responsibility," says Tessa Vanderkop, publicity manager for Raincoast, which is headquartered in Vancouver and produces 40 to 45 titles per year and serves as a distributor for other imprints. "We’re a heavy paper buying consumer. We have to be a responsible user."

Printing Harry Potter -- all 1.15 million copies -- on green paper has also been good for the company’s image. The move showered Raincoast with positive publicity -- much of it from the U.S. Vanderkop reports being inundated with phone calls and more than 100 e-mails a day after the news first broke.

United for Greener Print

Raincoast is one of 35 Canadian publishers who committed to greener papers under the auspice of Markets Initiative, a nonprofit organization that champions the cause of environmentally superior publishing.

In the U.S., a sister organization, the Green Press Initiative, has secured similar commitments from 45 publishers and nine prominent authors -- including Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Hawken, and Andrew Weil.

Committed publishers pledge to eliminate paper that contains fiber from old growth forests and to increase their recycled paper usage over the next three to five years. Green Press Initiative has been successful with university and specialty presses, but has yet to score a commitment from a major publishing house.

"Our goal is to shift the industry," says Tyson Miller, founder of the Green Press Initiative, "and not have it isolated among progressive publishers. We try to reach out to the visionaries in the company."

This strategy has worked well with publishers like Island Press. The niche firm, based in Washington, D.C., is devoted to environmental subjects and will issue 42 titles this year.

According to publisher Dan Sayre, the company has "had a commitment to buying and using recycled paper from the beginning. As soon as the Green Press Initiative contacted us, we were on board."

Sayre is working on other ways to increase demand for recycled paper. He has joined forces with environmental groups and other nonprofits in the nation’s capitol to boost their recycled paper buying clout with the printers who produce their brochures and marketing materials. Securing commitments from multiple users helps reassure printers that they won’t order a particular recycled paper for one job and then never use it again, Sayre explains.

University presses, which serve the publishing needs of their professor/authors, have also been receptive to the green publishing message.

"People at university presses tend to be socially and environmentally minded," says Deborah Bruner, production and design manager for Cornell University Press, which produces about 150 titles per year. "The Green Press Initiative has accelerated the pace of getting publishers to buy recycled."

Bruner has a long history of cheerleading earth-friendly printing initiatives, and her efforts have touched many parts of the industry. Recently, she persuaded one of her printers, Thomson-Shore, to carry recycled paper.

"We were challenged by Cornell University Press," says Dave Raymond, national account representative for Thomson-Shore. "They hooked us up with New Leaf and we received our first shipment in July."

The New Leaf he refers to is a San Francisco-based paper supplier, which was founded in 1998 and advertises itself as "environmentally superior, economically sound." The privately-owned business sells paper for a broad array of uses and anticipates sales of $17 million this year. All New Leaf products are made from recycled and sustainably sourced materials. New Leaf also eschews chlorine bleach and fiber from old growth forests.

"We don’t own paper machines," says Michael Peek, vice president of northeast sales for New Leaf. "We partner with paper mills that are in a position to make environmentally responsible paper. Book publishing is a major growth area for us."

The Canadian Harry Potter book was printed on New Leaf EcoBook, and the surplus from that print run was purchased by Thomson-Shore.

According to Thomson-Shore’s Raymond, the paper performs well overall. His one concern is the increased amount of dirt and dust that accumulates on his press when they are running the New Leaf paper. This means they have to shut the press down for cleaning after every 1,000 sheets, as opposed to every 7,000 to 8,000 sheets for virgin paper. Raymond speculates this down-time might decline if they switched from sheets to rolls.

When asked about pricing, he says the New Leaf paper is more cost competitive than other recycled papers on the market.

A Changing Business Environment

Industry observers such as Peek and Bruner say mills equipped to produce recycled paper or paper bleached without chlorine will gain a market advantage in today’s world that is increasingly sensitive to environmental and natural resource issues. They both report that European mills are ahead of their American counterparts in this regard. "If a mill is designed to make recycled paper, it is going to be a more cost-competitive," says Peek.

The growing recognition of natural capital in other sectors of the economy has threatened to make the book business look like an outlier.

The timber industry has watched as Forest Stewardship Council certified forests in North America have risen from 1.6 million acres in 1997 to 20.9 million acres in 2003. The Recycled Paper Coalition's members -- who include heavy hitters like Ford Motor Company, Walt Disney Company and Kinkos Inc. -- purchased 150,000 tons of post-consumer recycled paper in 2002 and recycled 370,000 tons of wastepaper.

Last month, Staples, KB Home, and Hayward Lumber, Inc. took corporate environmental activism to a new level when they wrote the Bush administration to express opposition to the planned logging of the southeastern Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

"The printing and publishing industry is behind the curve, particularly when it comes to going beyond compliance," says Don Carli, president of the strategic marketing firm Nima Hunter and the author of numerous articles and reports on the greening of the publishing industry. "The greatest impact will come from shareowners of publicly traded companies who see that a business case can be made for sustainable development and the triple-bottom-line."

He predicts that new disclosure laws affecting public corporations will illuminate areas in which the big trade houses have exposed themselves to risk. None of the big American publishers has committed to greener paper. Carli points out that ignoring environmental impacts can negatively affect a company’s finances and brand. A point sure to be emphasized by activist investors and progressive fund managers during next year’s proxy season.

Carli did an analysis of 1999 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and found publishers spend 35 cents of every dollar (exclusive of labor) on paper and commercial printing. And these costs remain the bottom-line issue for publishers.

"We are acutely sensitive to paper costs. Acutely," says Bruner as she explains the changing economic realities of the university press business. The sector’s profits are being squeezed by the shrinking budgets of libraries -- the primary market for university presses. Bruner attributes these woes to the rising price of scholarly journal subscriptions.

"Cost is always the issue at hand," echoes Becky Carreno, the manufacturing manager for Jossey-Bass, Inc, which publishes 200 to 250 titles a year and is owned by Wiley & Sons. "All publishers are facing the need to get the costs of printing down. The good news is that most paper manufacturers can supply recycled at a similar cost to virgin."

Jossey-Bass is part of the Green Press Initiative and estimates that 50% of their titles are produced on recycled paper.

"The huge publishing houses have such purchasing power they could get price parity quite easily," says Miller. He reports that in 2000 the industry used 1.1 million tons of book paper and less than 5% of that volume contained recycled content.

According to the nonprofit Conservatree, each ton of virgin fiber paper that is replaced by 100% post-consumer recycled paper saves 24 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity and 60 pounds of air pollution.

"Publishing is a progressive thing," says Miller. "Cutting down old growth forests is not."

Avery Yale Kamila is the founding editor of, an online magazine that publishes book reviews and feature stories for sustainable business leaders. This article first appeared in the September 2003 edition of that publication.

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