Children’s books are usually regarded with affection and the assumption is made that they are likely to do more good to the world than harm. There is a fondness for books that other children’s products, such as toys and clothing, will never quite emulate. But does their production contribute to harming the environment? And how ethical are children’s publishers? Caroline Horn investigates.
Questions around how children’s books are made are beginning to cast a less than rosy light on the industry. The high environmental cost of book production, including paper production and the printing and shipping of vast quantities of books to the UK, is under the spotlight. There are also concerns about the social costs of manufacturing books in countries where labour is cheap and plentiful. Publishers’ internal housekeeping has come under scrutiny like never before.
The main environmental focus in book production has been on the paper used and this comes down to the supply chain – not just where paper is sourced, but the provenance of the fibre and pulp used to make the paper. Many people believed that books were environmentally ‘safe’ because they thought that the virgin pulp used in book production always came from sustainably-managed forests. In reality, argue campaigning groups Friends of the Earth, WWF and Greenpeace, illegal logging from ancient forests in Canada, Russia, Finland and South East Asia, has also been making its way into the paper supply chain.
The supply chain has never been a deeply sexy subject and, until recently, has inspired little interest from publishers outside their production departments. The relative distance of publishers’ international suppliers has contributed to the mystery surrounding the paper supply chain and the difficulties in monitoring where papers are sourced. ‘Willing ignorance’ is no excuse says Greenpeace, and children’s publishers, who print many of their colour titles in South East Asia, have come in for particular criticism for not checking where their local papers are sourced in a region renowned for its illegal logging.
In the past four or five years, a growing awareness of the issues at stake and the commercial sensitivity of the subject have contributed to a sea-change in how publishers approach their production processes. Greenpeace helped kick-start this with its Greenpeace Book Campaign, encouraging publishers to maximise recycled content in their books and to ensure that any virgin fibre comes from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sources.
The FSC organisation sets and monitors standards in forests to ensure they are managed to particular environmental and social standards. Five years ago, some 30m hectares of forest were protected by FSC; that has now risen to 90m hectares, although only a small part of that is in South East Asia. FSC now plans to focus its future activity on communities in forested regions.
Publishers themselves have also been active. In 2003, ten of the largest publishing houses in the UK got together to create a database of technical specifications for papers to help them monitor the environmental credentials of book-production papers. Called PREPS (the Publishers Database for Responsible Environmental Paper Sourcing), the database includes a scoring system for papers – an environmental tally – for example, whether the papers include recycled materials and if they are from certified sources.
As a result of these and other initiatives, children’s publishers today are far better placed to get their environmental houses in order. Egmont Press, for example, created the environmental grading system for papers now adopted by PREPS and back in 2005 published its first title, Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, entirely from FSC sources. Bloomsbury also produced the final Harry Potter title on FSC and recycled paper. HarperCollins now prints its children’s fiction on FSC paper and is looking at expanding its FSC range next year. Colour titles are also moving in this direction and Templar Publishing, for example, uses FSC paper for all its picture books although FSC board and covers are not yet available.
While it is harder to track the papers used by production houses in regions like South East Asia, publishers are at least committed to trying. Macmillan Children’s Books’ production director Tracy Florance says, ‘The general awareness of the sourcing of paper is much higher. Publishers will put their policies in place and ask suppliers to comply with them.’ Ensuring this happens is not guaranteed, however, and some children’s publishers will consequently source papers from Europe rather than South East Asia or China to have the best hope of meeting their own environmental standards.
Commercial pressure to be green
Apart from the environmental impact, there are solid commercial considerations for attending to environmental housekeeping. This was highlighted in research commissioned by HarperCollins into consumers’ views on ‘green’ books. The research, which involved 1,500 people, found that 75% of UK book buyers thought books should be printed on environmentally-friendly paper. Another 84% said they’d choose a book on recycled paper over one on normal paper and one third said they were prepared to pay more for an environmentally friendly book – 42% of those said that they would be prepared to pay an extra £1 for each book.
The seriousness with which publishers now treat environmental issues was recently highlighted in a media story involving Hachette Book Group. The group was fiercely criticised by Greenpeace for ‘fuelling the destruction’ of Canada’s Boreal Forest because Hachette USA uses paper manufactured by Abitibi-Consolidated. Greenpeace accuses the papermaker of contributing to the degradation or fragmentation of the Boreal Forest. Hachette Livre UK was also accused of sourcing ancient forest fibre, although it is one of the founding members of PREPS.
Stung by the criticism, Hachette Livre UK, whose children’s imprints include Hodder Children’s Books, Orchard Books, Wayland and Watts, has responded with sweeping changes in how it sources materials and in its approach to its book production. The group pledges to move all its trade publishing onto FSC-certified papers by 2010. Its children’s publishing, including educational and illustrated publishing, would also move in this direction ‘on the assumption that many more FSC-certified papers will be commercially available in that timescale’.
Sale or return and transport issues
Where Hachette Livre UK has gone further than most publishers to date is in its stance on the number of books being printed in the first place. The book trade is fairly unique in the UK in operating on a ‘sale or return’ basis. In other words, if retailers find a particular title does not sell, they can return the copies they have in stock to the publisher. This means that a publisher may print and distribute thousands of copies of books ordered by retailers that never sell. These copies simply end up back in the publishers’ warehouse.
Hachette Livre UK announced it will be phasing out this practice on its backlist titles (those titles in print for more than a year) with a move to a firm sale basis by the end of 2008. A company statement says, ‘The printing and multiple transportation of books that may eventually be pulped is both costly and environmentally damaging and we are committed to reducing this practice.’ In fact it estimates the cumulative initial saving will be the printing, paper, processing and transport of over one million books a year. It is early days for this initiative but Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins may also follow suit.
Finally, the UK publishing industry is drawing up its own ‘Kyoto’, to phase out 10% of its carbon emissions by 2015 – so not just taking paper production into account but also how books are transported. The industry may also investigate a quality mark for books to indicate their green credentials.
Social and ethical concerns
Another area that children’s publishers have had to scrutinise is the social and ethical impact of their production requirements. In part, book manufacturers’ hands were forced by the policies of customers such as Disney and Mattel, who insist that their suppliers meet certain social and health and safety requirements. Debbie Knight at print broker Imago said, ‘We found that our suppliers [including printers] were having to comply with ten or 20 different ethical standards as dictated by individual customers. We needed a common accountability and a standard that would satisfy retailers and publishers.’
This led to the creation of Prelims (Publishers resolution for ethical international manufacturing standards) by the industry to develop an ethical trading standard for the publishing sector. The group has adopted the International Council of Toy Industries’ (ICTI) CARE Process which considers issues like social accountability and the conditions of workers across a number of areas such as health and safety, remuneration, working hours, access to water, etc.
Unlike the clothing or toy manufacturing industries, Knight believes that workers in printing and book production plants are less likely to face extreme employment practices such as child labour and pay exploitation. This could be due to the greater technical demands on the workforce, certainly in print production. ‘The main issue that we have come across is excessive overtime being demanded of workers,’ says Knight.
However, there is more concern about working practices in China, which is a growing presence in book production. Issues like child labour, workers being forced to live away from home, long hours and limited contracts are more problematic here, says Ruth Huddlestone of publisher Templar. ‘We do work with companies in China and make a point of visiting the plants and reinforcing the standards that we expect from our suppliers,’ she says.
Rather than exploiting the workforce, she believes that Templar’s experience elsewhere in the region has shown that the impact of foreign trade is mostly positive. More trade and employment has helped to improve local conditions because funding is reinvested in the infrastructure. ‘In Thailand we saw a school and hospital that had been built by local businesses that we had supported.’ With more production being attracted to China, there is greater competition for workers’ skills so pay and conditions have to improve.
To date around 1,300 factories around the world have signed up to the ICTI process and around half of those have already achieved the standard. Several million workers are now covered by Prelims, helping to improve working conditions locally.
The publishing industry has been working hard to bring its house into order and the measures they have been taking – and still plan to implement – should help to reassure their customers that the next book they buy will not be at the expense of the environment or of any regional workforce.
Caroline Horn compiles children’s books news for the Bookseller.
Photographs of deforestation in Russia © Greenpeace.