Sustainable Storytelling: How Publishing is Addressing the Climate Crisis

Woman laying down inside a tent reading with the door open, wearing a knitted hat

Publishing has come a long way since the invention of the movable type, and today mass production makes it easier than ever to manufacture and distribute books. With books being so highly accessible now, book publishing has grown into a $1.6 billion dollar industry in Canada (Ontario Creates 2018 Book Industry Profile). Like any major industry right now, publishing has an impact on the environment and a responsibility to tackle the current global climate change crisis. In fact, there was a huge effort in the mid-2000s for publishers to "explore and implement practices to lower their carbon footprint" which led to the formation of the Book Industry Environmental Council in 2005.

It's a new decade and according to a 2019 U.N. report, "global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year beginning meet the most ambitious aims of the Paris climate accord". So we wondered, what is the publishing industry doing to play a part in achieving environmental sustainability? Here’s what we found…

Stack of white paper


It's no surprise that the biggest part of any sustainability plan from publishers would be paper. With print book readers making up 90% of all readers in Canada (Book Net 2019), it’s crucial for publishers to prioritize the sourcing of their paper from certified paper mills.

What does it mean to be certified? There are forest management organizations whose mission is to promote responsible logging that avoids harmful impacts on the environment. They do this through certification, making it possible for those who use these products (i.e. publishers) to consciously and proactively identify and work with paper mills who are certified. Some of the major international certification systems are:

There's also a Chain of Custody (COC) standard that sets out a process for tracking the origins of materials and enforcing quality control by identifying and separating non-certified materials. This is good news for readers and booksellers who want transparency, by making it simple to spot certified products by logo placements on book covers. Many large publishing companies have voiced their dedication to responsibly sourcing paper from certified mills. Through our research, we found many large, international publishing houses to be sourcing a minimum of 80% of their paper from certified mills, and others as much as 100%.

Wind farm on a hill with snow on the ground

Carbon Emissions/Clean Energy

First things first: What are carbon emissions? Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide exists naturally through the process of burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil), trees, solid waste, certain chemical reactions and other biological materials. The Earth then removes carbon dioxide from its atmosphere via plants, which absorb it and release oxygen.

Unfortunately, human beings have drastically added to the amount of carbon dioxide that exists in the atmosphere through their daily actions. That excessive trapped heat is adding to global warming, which is one aspect of climate change (a phenomenon that also includes everything from shifts in flower/plant blooming times to rising sea levels).

Carbon emissions are produced in every aspect of industry, including publishing, and can be defined in several scopes:

  • Scope 1: Heat produced by the facilities during the process of manufacturing books;
  • Scope 2: The utilities powering the manufacturing buildings and facilities;
  • Scope 3: Spin-off systems, such as the waste management process, employee commuting and the transportation of books from manufacturing centres to warehouses and sales centres.

These are just examples of the ways in which carbon emissions are created through the book publishing ecosystem. The reduction and removal of waste plays another important role in carbon emissions and keeping the world around us clean. Through our research, we learned that many large publishing companies are actively trying to reduce their carbon footprints, reduce waste and implement clean energy solutions.

Stacks of books in an outdoor library with tree trunks and leaves

Most large, international publishing houses have created comprehensive sustainability plans, which are widely available on their websites. There, you’ll find more detail as to what publishers are doing to combat the climate crisis. As readers, it’s also our responsibility to consider sustainability in our daily practices, including the books we read, and to be aware of what larger institutions and governments are doing to represent our interests.

If you’d like to continue the conversation on climate change, consider attending Book Summit 2020, which will tackle the topic: People, Planet, Profit: Sustainable Publishing for a New Decade. If you're in Toronto on June 18, check out this full day conference on "how we can balance financial realities and human well-being and foster a thriving, sustainable industry worthy of celebration in the years to come.”