With climate change touching all corners of society and occupying international agendas, the publishing industry has an obligation to examine and minimise its environmental impact – and likewise, an interest in thinking about future markets and consumer expectations. 

As the industry body for Australian publishers, the APA iscommitted through our constitution to ‘encouraging best practice throughout the publishing supply chain incorporating environmental sustainability frameworks.’ 

Over the past twenty years, climate change policy has become something of a political football in Australia. Successive governments have by turns approved and reversed a variety of measures including a carbon tax and emissions trading schemes. The failure to achieve consensus has led to great stagnation on climate change action. Research has indicated that if all countries were to follow Australia’s approach, global warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C by the year 2100.

The Australian Government, like many other western nations, has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

In order to match national and global net zero goals, the publishing industry must act collectively to develop sustainable models of publishing, and globally has shown increasing levels of collaboration. 

In November 2020, several key players signed onto a compact made between the International Publishers Association (IPA) and the United Nations affirming the sector’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

In September 2021, representatives of the book sector issued a joint statement ahead of COP26 reiterating its commitment to climate action. 

Multilateral agreements such as the Green Book Alliance and the Book Chain Project have also brought publishers (and key partners) together to share knowledge and tactics for sustainable best practices. There is every opportunity for the sector to share knowledge and ideas to become a global leader in sustainability.

The UN definition of sustainable development (also known as the Brundtland definition) states that:

‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

This definition mirrors the challenges faced by the publishing industry in the coming decades. 

Australian publishing will need to be bold and innovative to reimagine current practices. Our task is to supply readers with a wide and engaging variety of new material, and to respond to the continuing appetite for physical books, while ensuring that the industry’s operations do not cause harm to the planet. 

As climate disruptions become more likely to interfere with business and shipping operations, we also face the challenge of building greater resilience and flexibility into the supply chain.

Coordinating our sustainability efforts and establishing shared goals will allow for wider-reaching action across the industry, particularly when it comes to smaller publishers who can struggle to make small changes alone. 

At present, a desire on the part of publishers to push for sustainable practices (such as low-carbon paper or less plastic used in distribution) can often be stalled by economic and logistical difficulties. Collective pressure on key suppliers to operate sustainably will be crucial to changing practices throughout the supply chain. 

Industry-wide knowledge sharing will also allow sustainable practices to spread more quickly and become standard practices. Organisations such as the Green Book Alliance and the UK Book Industry Council are already bringing together stakeholders across the supply chain to create more effective models for sustainable operations. 

Effort must also go towards building awareness of sustainable publishing methods among consumers. For instance, readers might be prepared for slightly elevated costs from a switch to environmentally-friendly materials, or for slightly longer delivery times, if they understand the environmental benefit. Standardised certifications are helpful here in allowing readers to identify at a glance books that have been produced according to rigorous sustainability criteria.

Large online retailers have radically altered consumers’ expectations of price and delivery times over the past two decades. This shift has been particularly pronounced in the book industry, with smaller or independent retailers unable to match such pricing and speed expectations. Building sustainability awareness will require informing consumers of such difficulties.

In order to promote awareness of green publishing methods among readers, we might consider:

  • establishing a credential system that allows customers to see at a glance whether a book was sustainably produced.
  • producing open, accessible sustainability policies which outline the steps publishing houses are taking to minimise their environmental impact
  • engaging readers in dialogues about green books – in the media, on publisher websites, and through events.

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This content was last updated on 6/21/2022, and is updated quarterly. Please contact us if you have any recommended updates.