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Is publishing sustainable?

Is publishing sustainable?

What do you picture when you think of academic research? You might imagine an academic sifting through a pile of hefty books in a university library, looking for the evidence they need to unlock their argument. The shift towards digital content means this picture is changing.

Increasingly, researchers no longer need to leaf through books to find the information they need—it’s easily accessible from anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse. Significantly, this shift towards digital also brings environmental benefits that will help to reduce publishing’s contribution to the climate and nature emergencies.

How does print publishing impact the environment?

Printing books consumes Earth’s natural resources—wood pulp, water, and fossil fuels, to mention a few. Available data indicate that the production of printed publications accounts for around three-quarters of OUP’s carbon footprint, with nearly half coming from the forestry and mill operations needed to produce paper alone.

Wood pulp, for making paper, board for book covers, and packaging, comes from forests in countries ranging from Brazil to Finland. Commercial forestry for timber and pulp contributes to deforestation and forest degradation, a leading driver of biodiversity loss that also accounts for around a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Publishers can reduce their impact by sourcing certified sustainable paper. 

Agricultural products often have a high impact on the natural world. Land use change for soy cultivation, which is used in the production of vegetable-based inks, is a major cause of deforestation. However, it is worth noting that most soy is used for cattle feed and biofuels, and that vegetable-based inks are deemed better for the environmental than petroleum-based inks. 

Water: depending on the mill, it can take up to 13 litres of water to produce a single sheet of paper. Impact on the local environment and communities varies according to the degree of climate and water risk where the mill or printer is located. India, for example, generally has a higher water risk than Scandinavia. 

Metals, including aluminium to produce printing plates and gold and copper for foil stamping, are currently required in print publishing. Mining for metals causes biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and contamination of water and soil.

Fossil fuels, currently essential for most mill and printing operations, as well as for product transport, cause climate change. As we are now all too aware, the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, driving up temperatures and disrupting the balance of ecosystems worldwide.

What is OUP doing to make print publishing more sustainable?

At OUP we have set three initial sustainability targets to be achieved by 2025:

1. Carbon neutrality from our operations

Our initial focus is on reducing energy use at our office and warehouse facilities, as well as business travel, however we are also making plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our upstream paper, printing, and freight supply chain.

One of the most impactful things we can do is to reduce print volumes. Doing this while continuing to deliver world-class academic and educational content will require us to change the way we do business—for example, by using print-on-demand to cut wastage from over-ordering and by switching to digital where appropriate.

2. 100% certified sustainable paper

As well as being the main driver of a publisher’s carbon footprint, paper use is the publishing industry’s biggest impact on biodiversity through deforestation. Anything we can do to source paper more responsibly will be of huge benefit to the natural world. OUP is proud to have set a target to use 100% certified sustainable paper by 2025 and, as members of the Book Chain Project industry collaboration, we will be making use of newly available tools to better understand the biodiversity impact of paper-sourcing decisions. We are also supporting Book Chain Project research into the comparative environmental impacts, including carbon footprints, of different paper types.

3. Zero waste to landfill

We are working to reduce waste from our global operations, and to achieve zero waste to landfill in markets where the necessary infrastructure exists. This includes the responsible disposal of any surplus, unsaleable stock—but of course in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any waste stock needing disposal. We’re taking steps to reduce book waste from our warehouses, and the digital transition will support this: with online books and journals there is zero risk of over-ordering.

How does digital publishing impact the environment?

While we know that digital publishing has a lower footprint than print, it is not impact-free. Developing, hosting, and using digital content requires computing and server power, and most of this worldwide currently comes from burning fossil fuels. Over time, the impact should lessen as access to renewable electricity ramps up globally, for cloud data providers and consumers alike. 

The production of laptops and e-readers has a notable environmental impact of its own, though this is arguably outside the publishing industry’s sphere of influence.

How do the carbon footprints of print and digital publishing compare?

One rough estimate is that carbon emissions associated with the production, hosting, and use of an e-book are around one-tenth that of its printed equivalent. The industry collaboration DIMPACT is working on finding out the answer in precise detail. 

OUP joined the collaboration in April 2022, and we will be using the DIMPACT calculator to estimate emissions from the Oxford Academic platform. From there we can compare the footprints of all our digital products. Once we know the facts, we’ll be looking for ways to reduce the impact of our digital publications, so they tread as lightly as possible on our planet.

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