Book Business and Environmental Economics: Change is Needed
Busy as we all are it is very difficult to pay attention to the many serious issues facing our world. The problems created by our industrialized economy are of such magnitude as to make it seem almost impossible to make significant changes quickly enough to make a difference. And what the Bush administration has done to block, undo or undermine longstanding laws and regulations to protect our natural environment is simply criminal.
Things have gotten bad enough that it’s just impossible for us to continue to go about our daily business without taking some meaningful action to make positive change.
Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the environmental impact of the book business. I read somewhere once that taken as a whole, the printing industry is one of the largest causes of industrial pollution in the United States, even with all the changes in monitoring and controlling environmental effects of industry. And of course books are made of paper, and paper is made from trees. We like to think that the trees used for manufacturing paper are all environmentally stewarded tree farms and managed forests, but that is, of course, not the case.
I would like to commend and recommend The Green Press Initiative (http://www.greenpressinitiative.org/) for their work in addressing issues relating to production and paper use in the book industry. What they are doing is hugely important and can and should have a truly significant impact on downstream environmental effects of the book industry. From their website:
The mission of the Green Press Initiative is to work with publishers, industry stakeholders and authors to create paper-use transformations that will conserve natural resources and preserve endangered forests.
Additionally, North American Publishing Company (NAPCO) has created a website devoted to environmental issues in the printing and book industries called Environmental Sustainability in Print and Publishing (http://www.sustainprint.com/), which is described as “a central source for information and resources for publishers and printers across all segments of the industry.”
What I have been thinking most about is the waste that is built into the publishing and distribution system. More books are printed annually than can possibly be absorbed by the retail stores that account for the bulk of trade book sales. And of the books that are “placed” in stores by publishers and distributors, at least 30% of them or more are returned unsold by retailers. What happens to them after they are returned? Some of the largest publishers do not bother sorting or putting any returned books back into new inventory; it’s less expensive for them to sell them as remainders into the secondary market, where they are redistributed at lower prices. For most smaller and medium sized publishers, and their distributors, systems have been developed to sort through returns. Some are discarded or sold as “hurts” because they have become too damaged or shopworn to be sold at retail as new. The rest are returned to new inventory to be re-sold and shipped to buyers unless or until demand subsides, at which point they will be sold off as remainders or recycled or dumped into landfills if, as often is the case, the secondary channel is too full and these books are deemed as completely unsalable.
For years, many in the book business have questioned whether this system is efficient or effective, and there have been endless discussions about how to limit returns, or eliminate them altogether. This is not something that publishers can initiate by themselves. Since retailers ultimately control the distribution channel, it will be up to them to determine whether the traditional returns system can and should be changed.
I would argue that reducing or even eliminating waste in the book business is not simply a matter of measuring the direct costs to the enterprise, although direct costs must be a primary element in any business decision, but that all of our actions and decisions must include a measurement of environmental and social costs. This is not a form of soft economics, but rather a correction in the way traditional economic analysis has been applied to business decision making. Environmental costs are not directly on the balance sheet, but they are always there indirectly and they are a real cost to any enterprise.
My next post will explore both direct and indirect costs and environmental impacts of book business practices, focusing on returns, and will explore simple systematic changes that can make a positive difference to publishers, distributors, retailers and the natural world we all inhabit.
In the meantime, I would welcome input, especially by those who have been actively trying to make environmental and ecological analysis a part of everyday business thinking, planning and decision making.