“Each book is different and to understand its true impact, you need the data. And in order to get that, you need transparency.”

To minimise the environmental impact of book-reading, a growing proportion of the industry has committed to going carbon neutral. Penguin, for one, has pledged to do so by 2030. To find out how, we caught up with sustainability production manager Courtney Ward-Hunting.

First: understand the impact

Penguin's bright and airy headquarters in London's Vauxhall is a paper lover's paradise. Unsurprisingly, we're greeted by an abundance of books, and the heritage publishing house has made sure that every coy vying for our attention has been made as sustainably as possible. So how do we go about measuring the carbon footprint of a book?

Appearing among the colourful sea of books to answer that question is Courtney Ward-Hunting, who has served as the company’s senior sustainability production manager since January 2020. “Each book is different and to understand its true impact, you need the data. And in order to get that you need transparency,” she says. “To establish the carbon emission, we look at book size, format, paper thickness and generally identify what we consider to be unsustainable materials.”

Reduce the paper weight

Looking at paper weight is an obvious way to boost a book’s green credentials. 100% of the paper Penguin uses is FSC-certified and some of its titles have seen a paper weight reduction, landing at 60-62 gsm. It’ll soon slim down further to 52 gsm. Ward-Hunting admits that trade-offs are sometimes necessary when trying to achieve eco-friendly results. How might paper in lower grammage affect durability, and a book’s chances of a long, healthy life?

“We want to see a book pass though many, many hands before it’s recycled and thin paper might work for some books but not others,” she says, adding that children’s books require sturdier pages. “In this case, we look closely at the materials used for the covers and any touch-and-feel element. We’re trying to phase out glitter and find alternatives to oil-based faux fur.” Foil-blocking often features in children’s books and Penguin is trying to reduce the quotient to 30% – anything higher will render a book unrecyclable.

Work with the global value chain

Penguin’s own operations are now climate neutral, so the 2030 target applies to its global value chain. To aid its progress, the company has developed a “sustainability production toolkit”. Launched in January 2022, it helps teams across production, editorial and design make informed choices by shedding light on the environmental impact of papers, printers, glues, inks and finishes. In recognition of this, Penguin was awarded the prestigious Future Book Awards 2022.

Penguin's sustainability manager discusses how to reduce carbon footprint of a book

What efforts are being made elsewhere in the industry and how do these compare with Penguin’s journey to zero? Bonnier Books UK claimed to have gone climate neutral and beyond at the beginning of 2021. Hachette Book Group, meanwhile, has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050 and intended to reduce their emissions by 2.5% each year from 2017–2020. Partly due to the book boom of 2020, this target was not met, but efforts are ongoing.

Employees and energy

The industry’s sustainability work stretches well beyond the choice of suppliers. Larger corporations, Hachette and Penguin included, have cut down on business travel and many have adopted a hybrid working model to minimise unnecessary commuting. Investment in renewable energy for offices and warehouses is on the increase, and steps are being taken to reduce the environmental impact of shipping. To cut any remaining GHG emissions, publishers often invest in carbon offset projects to compensate for the impact their activities have brought about. Penguin, for instance, has chosen to support land conservation initiatives in Brazil.

Authors and attitudes

Other strands of the industry-wide sustainability drive include the choice of content and even authors, who can help amplify the climate emergency and encourage a positive change in attitudes. Penguin has published several of David Attenborough’s books, including his latest, A Life on Our Planet, which first hit shelves in spring 2022. Greta Thunberg is also part of Penguin’s stable of green-minded authors. Her latest, The Climate Book, was published in October 2022. “These types of works are what books are for – educating and inspiring others to really think about culture, lifestyle and sustainability,” notes Ward-Hunting.

Sustainability is a collective issue and everyone must contribute if we’re going to succeed in making a real difference.

She stresses the importance of sharing any findings to help make the book world more sustainable. Penguin is a founding member of Publishing Declares, committing to industry-wide collaboration on climate action. So far, 96 signatories have come together – all promising to reach a net zero level of emissions by 2050 at the latest and to contribute to no more than 1.5°C global warming levels. “Sustainability is a collective issue and everyone must contribute if we’re going to succeed in making a real difference,” says Ward-Hunting. “We might benefit from an innovation or finding from another publishing house, and vice versa. It’s also important to look at other industries. Thanks to research carried out by supermarket chain Tesco, we’ve learnt that paper can be widely recycled, even if it has been laminated – as long as it doesn’t exceed 15%.” The days of keeping good ideas to yourself are long gone, at least when it comes to planet-saving measures.

Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon in PAPER #5.