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September 9, 2009

eco-publishing and the business of kids' books

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A huge pile of books telling kids to recycle. Insert easy laugh of choice here. Because no matter the intentions of these books’ content, the sourcing, materials and shipping of these objects has a reasonably large environmental impact of its own.

This isn’t something many of us like to hear. Books are about expanding our horizons. Books delight and excite, they move us. Books spread knowledge and ideas. Books are, to many people, almost holy objects. Still, as Bill Gates describes the book industry:

"we chop down trees, transport them to factories, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory and press it into sheets, then we ship the sheets to another factory to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets, bind them and ship the thing halfway round the world to sell it. Six months later, we collect most of it back again and pulp it" (via Damian Horner writing in the Bookseller).

There is also the infrastructure of the bookshop to consider (lovely air conditioned Waterstone’s anyone?), not to mention all those never-read books picked up on a 3-4-2 deal, or, at the very least, bought new when secondhand or a library copy would have done just as well.

Back in 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was still only a matter of stockpiles of books waiting for their heavily-embargoed released date (the IMAX movie still a twinkle in Warner Bros’ eye), Greenpeace ran a campaign celebrating the work of Canadian and German publishers of Harry Potter for their use of a mix of post-consumer recycled paper and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified virgin fibre. It was not all good news though, Greenpeace also described Scholastic USA as ‘the publisher that should not be named’ and suggested it was better to order your copy from Canada (personally, not sure quite how the this worked out if you also took into account the ‘bookmiles’, and it was a bit odd they didn’t suggest waiting a week to share someone else’s copy, but hey-ho).

In fact, there was a bit of a mini-movement towards ecologically sustainable publishing around that time. As Sarah Crown wrote in the Guardian, Random House publicly committed itself to making its book production ancient forest friendly, and Leo Hickman insisted his ethical living book (via Eden Project Books) was printed on recycled paper, using vegetable inks. Egmont Press not only decided but to source their paper carefully, but encouraged other UK publishers to do similar, sharing knowledge about wood-pulp sources across the industry (check out press on the subject here).

Amongst Greenpeace Potter campaign of 2005, Egmont promoted this move to their customer base with a re-edition of Micheal Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, a story about a boy ship-wrecked on an island, printed entirely on FSC approved paper. The author was quoted across PR materials: ‘next time you're looking for a book or your parents are buying furniture, think of Kensuke and look for the FSC logo’.

Note that Kensuke’s Kingdom, as with the Harry Potter campaign, used children’s books to draw attention to green issues. Appeals to the child aren’t used as much as you might imagine in environmental campaigning (personally, I think Oxfam sticks out in this respect), but the book industry seems happy to use kids books to promote its shifts to ethical production. There is another non-eco but child-orientated dimension to this I should stress. Being ‘ethical’ here doesn’t just mean thinking about the trees, it is also doing your best to ensure child labour isn’t used, and many publishers are keen to tell their customers they check about this too, perhaps more-so than the children’s toys and clothes industries.

Since the 2005 Greenpeace campaign and Egmont’s sharing and promotion of their pulp-sourcing work, the book business has become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their products. Moreover, they seem to be aware that their customers are aware of this too, and self-consciously display the eco-credentials not only of books’ content, but their materiality too. Reflecting concern over green issues amongst the UK-Christian community, Collins have produced a ‘green bible’. They've also recently produced a re-edition of 1970s eco-classic, the Lorax* which proudly declares on its cover that “The Lorax loves trees and so do we. Printed on 100% recycled paper”.

This new edition of the Lorax has the look and feel (also colouring and smell) of Dorling Kindersley Made with Care series. It breathes eco-credentials. Made with Care, like the new Lorax, has a sturdy hardback cover. It is also quite beige, with slightly faded colouring applied to lettering and images (and then largely in greens and browns) and textured look and feel to the pages.

Scroll down to the bottom of DK's main UK homepage and they will tell you they are "trying to be cleaner and greener" by recycling and switching things off, using paper from "responsibly managed forests whenever possible", asking printers to "actively reduce water and energy consumption" and ensuring their suppliers never use child labour... all before sending you to the Made with Care mini-site, which does tickle my greenwash alarm somewhat. Although DK has a history with aspects of the green politics, Made With Care is a very small sub-brand. We could similarly ask why Harper Collins can produce an eco Lorax or Bible, but doesn’t apply its production methods across all products? Equally, Horrible Geography: Planet in Peril! (from Scholastic) might have been printed, as a sticker on its cover assures "without costing the earth", but its matte cover and relatively muted tones (for a Horrible) book contrast with the gloss and glare of the rest of the series. Maybe these books are equally thoughtfully produced (honestly, I don’t know the relative environmental impact of glossy vs matte covers), what is clear is that the other titles do not feel the need to signal their eco-consciousness in quite the same way.

Interestingly, we can also see this Made with Care aesthetic of beige/ faded greens and browns over a textured surface replicated in the Eden project's books website, even though the bulk of Eden Project books themselves do not utalise such a "look". Similarly, the junior edition of The Inconvenient Truth book shows no signs of especially ecological-aware production methods.

Personally, I suspect some of the discontinuities at work here relate to the complex overlapping of the class symbols tied up in literary culture and 21st century green politics. But such class issues are probably another post. What I want to focus on here is the way publishers have reflexively marketed the materiality of children’s books. We could also explain the differences in approach as a matter of each book's age. The trend to overtly ethically produced books is, largely a post-2005 project. If the Inconvenient Truth had been for publication in 2008 or 2009 rather than 2007, its producers might have managed (or managed to think to) secure a publisher as overtly eco-aware as Egmont.

And it has been a while since Greenpeace’s 2005 campaign on Harry Potter. Since then, some sustainable production methods seem to have become normalised within large areas of the publishing industry. Most publishing firms have an environmental statement on their website, somewhere. The Collins' Green Bible and sub-brands such as DK's Earth Matters show that publishing companies are aware that at least some of the their customers, some of the time, care about the environmental impact of their products. But there’s also been time for everyone to change their mind too and, post-credit crunch, there seems to be evidence that publishers are returning to cheaper alternatives. So, the Bookseller reports that Random House are now only publishing B-format on FSC paper and Harper Collins won’t be replacing their Corporate Social Responsibility manager.


* Incidentally, there is a pro-wood industry rebuttal to the Lorax called the Truax. Fittingly enough, it’s now only available as an e-book. (download PDF from The National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association website).