Ethical Publishing for Dummies

“A book is a window on to the world.”

So said a poster I had on my bedroom wall as a kid. However, as all quantum physicists know, observing the world perforce changes the world. And not always for the better, according to this report by the Rainforest Action Network on paper sources used by publishers of children’s books, which alleges pulp from illegal clearance of tropical forest in Indonesia is being used in many children’s books. The publishers’ side is put by this article forwarded on to me my someone I know who works in publishing.

Not being an expert on paper usage by publishers I am not in a position to say exactly to what extent publisher’s efforts to improve their paper sources thus far represent a serious and significant initiative or little more than green-washing. The lowest hanging fruit are always plucked first. Publishers claim that there is not enough FSC certified paper to go around, but have they put enough pressure on their suppliers? If the demand is sufficiently strong and persistent then the supply will surely materialise, and possibly quite quickly. On the other hand we should not demonise firms who are doing everything reasonable to improve things but are constrained by real world limitations.

In the past people just didn’t think through issues like the environmental impact of paper supply, and we shouldn’t hold the publishing industry responsible for the sins and business models of their fathers. However, now that they do know about it, the onus is on them to turn things around, which might require some imaginative thinking, e.g. on reducing the regular over-printing of books which are later pulped, a clearly wasteful strategy that might make a lot less sense if all environmental externalities were properly accounted for. This is undoubtedly a time of upheaval in publishing with the arrival of electronic books and the print-on-demand paradigm, so maybe the stage is set for a radically improved business model?

Thus I raise one cheer for all those publishers who are making genuine efforts to control their paper sources, and another cheer in RAN’s direction for keeping up the pressure. All in all this is another good example of focusing on the end products used in the West rather than chasing shadows in developing countries who have little real interest in policing their own environmental laws.

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