How to Go Green: Books (for Publishers)

how to green your book publishing image

[by The Green Guide Girls™, Cindy Katz & Jennifer S. Wilkov, and Green Press Initiative]

The last time you walked into a bookstore it probably didn't feel much like a forest--but for all the trees used in those pages, it could be. According to, there are more than 6,000 companies in the US that publish books, and when you include "self-publishers," there are literally tens of thousands. The global impact of this is rather mind-boggling. For instance, if a publisher sells a million copies of an average 250-page book, it takes 12,000 trees to produce books for this one title. Alternatively, if the publisher chooses to print the books on 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, no trees are cut. Reflect on the zillions of books you saw in the bookstore.

Publishers can lead the way to help reduce the impact on endangered forests, fight the climate crisis, conserve resources, and protect public health. Each time publishers of all sizes choose to use environmentally friendly methods and technologies, they decrease the impact of the publishing business on the planet and help transform the industry as a whole. In the long run, better publishing practices might even mean we need fewer books about deforestation, chemical toxicity, and climate change, and wouldn't that be nice?

The information in this Green Guide was provided by The Green Guide Girls™ from our book, The Green Guide Girls: Guide to Book Publishing.

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Top Green Book Publishing Tips

  1. Recycled paper--small change, big difference
    Paper is a major component of every book and tends to be the focus of most environmental discussions in the book publishing industry. The top choice for environmentally friendly paper is 100% post consumer waste recycled paper (100% PCW), meaning that no virgin fibers were used. But the advantages don't end there: since recycled paper creates a market for what would otherwise be thrown away, using post-consumer recycled fiber effectively pulls paper out of the landfill. It also takes less energy to convert old paper into new paper than it does to cut down trees and turn them into virgin pulp, which means we can publish fewer books about global warming.

  2. FSC: One small step for publishers...
    The best alternative to 100% post-consumer recycled, is paper that is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit forest certification organization with members from over 70 countries whose interests reflect a unique combination of biodiversity conservation, environmental protection, civil society, indigenous rights, and wood and paper production. The FSC program is widely accepted as setting the highest standards for protecting people and the environment while allowing for the deliberate and careful logging of forests to support the continued use of the planet's most renewable resource--forests. For more on the FSC and sustainable lumber, see How to Green Your Furniture.

  3. Cast a wide net
    The customer is always right! Whether you buy paper directly from a mill or purchase it through a printer, you are the customer. If current suppliers are unwilling to carry recycled and FSC-certified papers, or if they are unwilling to sell them at or near the same price as conventional paper, take your business elsewhere. An updated list of environmental grade papers and printers who supply them are available via the Green Press Initiative.

  4. Myth busted: no need to break the bank
    Papers containing recycled fiber used to cost 15-20% more than their conventional counterparts, but that is no longer the case. Many publishers are able to meet environmental goals while achieving cost parity, or paying only a few pennies more per book. So get quotes from multiple suppliers and use them along with a formal policy to negotiate the best price possible.

  5. "Chlorine bleaches out life"
    Using paper that is labeled "Totally Chlorine-Free" (for paper sourced from virgin fiber), or "Processed Chlorine Free" (for paper containing recycled fiber) protects our environment. It reduces the toxins released into our waterways and the amount of water required to bleach the paper. According to the Chlorine Free Products Association web site, "Chlorine bleaches out life". The amount of water saved through this process is incredible. Consider this: "To make one single 8" by 11" sheet of paper using chlorine chemistry requires more than 13 ounces of water for every single 8" by 11" sheet. So that means more than a good sized can of Coke is needed for every sheet that you use for copying. If it was produced with chlorine free technology, it would require less than two ounces of water. So there is a tremendous difference in just the raw water usage," says Archie J. Beaton, Executive Director, CEO, Chlorine Free Products Association and member of the Green Guide Girls'™ Collective Wisdom Team™, from The Green Guide Girls: Guide to Book Publishing.

  6. Judge a book by its cover
    While ensuring that the pages under the covers are sourced, processed and printed in a green way will do the most to reduce environmental impacts, it is important not to forget about the cover. For hardcover books, make sure that the binder-board (the main component of the cover) is made from 100% post-consumer waste. Cover materials can also be made using environmentally friendly processes. For example, Ecological Fibers produces environmentally sound cover solutions using 100% solvent free practices. For paperback books, make sure that the coated papers for the cover maximize the use of post-consumer waste. For example, companies like New Leaf Paper provide 100% PCW coated papers that can be used for paperback covers.

  7. Read your vegetables
    Using vegetable-based inks can greatly reduce toxic emissions. Discuss the possibility of printing with vegetable or soy-based inks on all or a portion of the books you publish. This will be dependent on the type of equipment your printer has and the time allotted for printing in your overall production schedule. We will all breathe easier as a result, and your lungs and your children's will be grateful. For more information about inks and resources to assist you, please refer to the Ink section The Green Guide Girls: Guide to Book Publishing.

  8. Don't be afraid of commitment
    Set a goal and commit to it. Developing a formal policy ensures that environmental goals will continue to be met at each publisher, even if the people currently working in production move to another job or retire. A formal policy also stresses the importance of the environmental goals for everyone working there. Perhaps the biggest advantage of developing a formal policy is that it can be used as a tool to negotiate a better price on environmental grade papers because it allows suppliers to plan for the future and buy in bulk. Consider establishing a formal policy that commits to use at least 30% post-consumer fiber and maximizes the use of FSC certified fiber. If you feel it is difficult, commit to at least 30% post-consumer recycled fiber immediately and set graduated benchmarks to reach that goal over a 3--5 year period. A sample paper policy is available online here. You as the publisher have the opportunity to lead the way to produce books that are ecologically sound while being productive, profitable and responsible in your business.

  9. Shout it!--or maybe just whisper
    Whether subtly or overtly, let people know you have an environmental policy in your publishing company. Say it loud, say it clear, and say it everywhere--on your website, brochure and business card. It can be as simple as including "an environmentally friendly company" on your stationery when you have this policy in place. It is essential that suppliers and customers become aware of your eco-policy so they can assist you and support your practices. Suppliers will possibly negotiate a better price for environmental paper when they know that you will be purchasing specific papers in bulk. This allows printers and mills to better understand how the market is shifting and prepare for it so they will have the environmental grade papers you need in the future. Programs like Envirowise and organizations like Green Press Initiative on page 7 of their Toolkit for Responsible Paper Use-Publishers provide guidance for writing your environmental policy.

  10. Let 'em know what color you are
    Your books are your eco-advertisements! Your customers can make an informed decision to purchase your books when they know the resulting environmental benefits of the choices you made for cover materials and paper. Books should include an Eco-Audit which reveals information about the paper and materials that were used and the number of trees, gallons of wastewater, and greenhouse gas emissions conserved as a result of these choices. Eco-statements can be calculated using Environmental Defense's Paper Calculator or the Eco-Audit process through Green Press Initiative.

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Green Book Publishing: By the Numbers

  • 4.9 million: Trees that would be saved by shifting the book industry's collective average to 30 percent post-consumer waste.

  • 154: Publishers, printers, and mills have developed strong environmental policies, and/or signed the Book Industry Treatise on Responsible paper use.

  • 2,108: Pounds of greenhouse gas emissions prevented by replacing one ton of virgin fiber with one ton of post-consumer recycled fiber.

  • 3rd: Rank of the pulp and paper industry in the list of largest industrial greenhouse emitters.

  • 24: Number of new book papers with environmental attributes that have been developed in the past four years.

  • 208 million: Acres of forestland that have been FSC certified.

  • 42 percent: Wood harvest committed for industrial use -- that's everything except fuelwood -- used for paper production.

  • 40 percent: Amount of landfilled solid waste that is paper.

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Green Book Publishing: Getting Techie

The global warming connection
There are concrete connections between the "global warming" and recycled paper use. As publishers, your choice in recycled paper has a direct impact on global warming. Trees store carbon. Cutting down trees reduces the places for carbon to be stored. When we cut down trees to make paper, we essentially destroy our natural carbon storage sites and eliminate this natural buffer against climate change. Also, the carbon that was once stored in trees gets released in the atmosphere. Scientific studies on the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide conclude that about 25% of the human-caused increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is a result of deforestation.

Using less energy=less global warming
It takes less energy to produce paper from existing paper than it does to cut down, transport, and process new tress. Producing recycled paper saves energy, thereby reducing the pollution and emissions associated with energy production.

Landfills: a hot bed for methane
Waste in landfills breaks down and in turn naturally creates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Using post-consumer recycled paper keeps paper out of the landfill, both saving trees and reducing methane gas production.

Before and after: pre-consumer vs. post-consumer recycled fiber
Pre-consumer recycled fiber, while much better than virgin fiber, often includes scraps and trimmings leftover from the manufacturing process. Some post-industrial recycled waste, such as cuttings from envelope converting, over-printed books and magazines, and coffee cups are also labeled as pre-consumer recycled fiber and do represent some real environmental savings. Only paper that has been purchased by and collected from an end user can be labeled as post-consumer recycled fiber. The purpose of using recycled fiber is to save trees and prevent paper from being landfilled. Because recycling pre-consumer waste is very easy and cheap, it was recycled for economic reasons long before most people talked about recycling. Using post-consumer recycled fiber has the advantage of reusing paper that would otherwise be landfilled.

Think ink
Vegetable inks reduce the use of toxic chemicals because they do not require harsh solvents to clean the printing equipment. "Inks have different components, including pigments, as well as petroleum or vegetable oil. When you replace petroleum with a vegetable oil, whether it's soybean oil, tung oil, or another kind of plant-based oil, what you do in the printing process is reduce the amount or percentage of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released from the printing plant into the air. VOCs contribute to smog. Petroleum-based inks have much higher VOCs than vegetable-based inks. The EPA monitors what printing plants (and other industries) emit into the air, so by using low VOC inks a company reduces its air pollution," says Deborah Bruner, Director, Book Publishing Papers from New Leaf Paper. Deborah is on the Green Guide Girls™ Collective Wisdom Team™ and has an extensive background in inks.

Going Digitial
What's the fastest way to go green? That's right--go digital. Whether it's an e-book or an mp3 audio book, digital books require no paper or cover materials. Since they can be downloaded, these books require no fuel for transportation. Even better: the cost of producing an e-book or mp3 is virtually zero! Though e-books and downloadable audio books currently make up a tiny fraction of book sales, revenues for this segment have been increasing rapidly in years. As prices of e-book readers and other portable electronics that can display e-books drop, these will continue to grow in popularity. Young adults who grew up in the digital age will also enter the marketplace through e-books and mp3 files for their iPods. Though digital books may never totally replace paper and ink, producing and publicizing them can increase profit margins and greatly reduce environmental impacts.

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Where to Get Green Book Publishing Materials

Cover Materials and Endpapers



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