Is sustainable book publishing possible?

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Purchasing a new book is always exciting. Feeling the weight of something loaded with meaning and smelling the pages when you first crack open the spine is a sacred feeling to almost any reader.

Sadly, this joy doesn’t come without concern. Sustainable book publishing is a worry for many consumers.

Unsustainability of book publishing

When it comes to everyday life, many of us are more eco-conscious with the choices we make and lots of us are trying to do our best for the planet. Unfortunately ,the publishing industry cuts down billions of trees yearly — a single tree will produce around 25 books, which is only a small amount if they are being mass-produced.

Aside from producing massive amounts of paper, the continuous production of physical books uses valuable resources such as water and energy. The industry also has a strong shipping environmental impact from emitting greenhouse gases while transporting materials for producing and shipping final products. The question is whether there are more sustainable solutions to producing and publishing books besides audiobooks or e-readers.

Thankfully, we now have multiple solutions to reduce the impact of book publishing on sustainability. There is now a reduced number of brand-new books manufactured, and e-readers and kindles have grown in popularity over the years, further reducing production of physical books.

However, we haven’t quite abandoned paper books in the way we’ve cast aside vinyls, tapes, and CDs for digitally streamed music. If anything, we’re publishing, printing, and reading more printed books than ever before. With this in mind, the right solution could be to opt for more recycled paper than to aspire to be 100% digital.

Let’s look at some of the ways book publishing is unsustainable before we dive in to some potential sustainable alternatives for readers.


When it comes to book publishing, a concern for many readers is the knowledge that books are contributing to deforestation. We know trees are essential for life as they provide oxygen, stabilize the soil, and absorb carbon dioxide, which helps keep the atmosphere clean. The book publishing industry uses an average of 3.4 billion trees per decade to produce manuscripts — a staggering number with substantial consequences.

Greenhouse emissions

Everyone has a unique carbon footprint that negatively contributes to the environment. Sadly, the printing industries for books have been identified as one major contributor to the global carbon footprint, emitting more than 40 million tons of CO2 annually.

As you can imagine, a lot of this is down to the enormous amounts of paper the industry consumes annually, the trees that are cut down to produce the paper, and the release of toxic greenhouse gases into the environment. Gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides, are all produced during the book publishing process, further contributing to the planet’s rising temperatures and disruption of the balance of nature.

Water usage

As well as chopping down and using trees, manufacturing books requires a tremendous amount of water usage. Newspaper and book publishing collectively uses nearly 153 billion gallons of water annually. This high usage depletes our already limited stores of natural water, and increased tree felling means there aren’t enough trees for the natural water filtration that occurs among plant life.

How sustainable book publishing can be achieved

Clearly, book publishing has a strong impact on our environment, posing some threat to the ecological balance of our world.

Due to the electronic revolution, experts predicted that paper demand would lessen. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the demand for paper is predicted to double before 2030.

While the production of books can be environmentally detrimental, there are, thankfully, alternatives to enjoying your favourite titles without the environmental burden.

Digital reading

Digital reading is a fantastic alternative to reading a physical paper book. You can read your book on a smartphone, tablet, or an e-book like a Kindle, which is a great way to continue reading sustainably. Because no trees are cut down or extensive resources used to print multiple copies, e-books are very environmentally friendly and a good option for consumers with a kindle or iPad device.

Not only is digital reading better for the environment, it also provides an element of convenience, meaning you can purchase the book online and begin reading at home straight away without having to go out and purchase the physical copy.

Recycled paper book printing

Recycled paper is made from pre-consumer materials, post-consumer materials, or a combination of the two. This recycled paper requires fewer virgin materials, which makes it a more eco-friendly alternative, as recycling one tonne of paper saves around 1,400 litres of oil, 26,500 litres of water, and 17 trees.

While most recycled paper will still include virgin materials to maintain the paper’s quality and durability, it has less of an environmental impact than using entirely new materials to manufacture books.

Sustainable printing practices

There are various sustainable printing practices the book publishing industry could follow as a way to reduce its environmental impact.

Eco-friendly ink

Eco-friendly inks tend to be vegetable-based, which has less of an environmental impact than those that are petroleum-based (a fossil fuel). The most common eco-friendly ink option is soy-based and works out cheaper. Plant-based inks are also renewable — we can grow crops to create the ink, and it’s also easier to remove the ink during the recycling process.

Equipment practices

Companies should carefully evaluate their printing equipment to ensure they are up-to-date and suitable to be used. When they are no longer useable, companies should find the best way to recycle equipment (typically through designated recycling centres) to reduce landfill waste. Older printers can also be resold or, when the printer is no longer functional, its parts can be sold and used for repairs and replacements.

Design practices

Designs can be reused with minimal to no changes. This reduces the waste produced in printing, especially if the process involves the use of additional materials like printing plates or inks. Bare packing had become a driving trend, which eliminates the need for ink entirely.

Logistical practices

When it comes to logistical practices, this could be anything from having an efficient delivery system or developing better inventory management solutions. Any changes that can result in fewer carbon emissions are a step in the right direction. Ordering printing supplies in bulk is also a great way of improving sustainability, as it requires fewer orders and reduces emissions used for delivery transport.

Is sustainable book publishing possible?

Sustainability in production is becoming a key focus for many book publishing companies. As an example, Penguin has publicly declared the paper they use is 100% sustainably sourced by using paper that is Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC™) certified. They have also published goals to become climate neutral by 2030, having already reduced their carbon emissions by 65% in the past five years. Other major publishing houses are following a similar suit, and there’s hope for all publishers to put more of a focus on sustainable practices.

It appears that sustainable book publishing is entirely possible once publishing houses change their focus to providing a sustainable product for consumers to enjoy without guilt. After all, nothing quite beats that feeling of a brand-new book — especially if its environmentally friendly.

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