The publishing industry is a unique combination of art and commerce. It is a creative industry, reliant on artistic and cultural content. But it is still, first and foremost, an industry. Publishing relies on packaging that culture at scale, as a commodity, and for profit. When it comes to sustainability, the industry—publishers, distributors and retailers alike—can take lessons and inspiration from other commercial businesses.
The first is that sustainability is no longer seen as a premium value-add. Customers are no longer willing to pay extra for a sustainable product or service of the same (or lessened) quality; less than a quarter (23%) are now willing to pay more for eco-friendly variants most or all of the time, according to data from [research organisation] Mintel. Decades of “greenwashing” have made environmental impact claims into wallpaper. If anything, they stand out only when absent. According to Mintel, 49% of household products introduced last year come with some sort of environmental claim on them. This rises to a whopping 69% of all new food and drink products. Consumers simply expect a baseline of environmental responsibility: its absence might be noteworthy, but companies shouldn’t expect kudos (or higher prices) for providing it.
Rather than blindly following the latest trend, businesses should think of where they can have the most impact
When it comes to basic environmental claims, it now takes a dramatic innovation, such as Lush’s introduction of cork pots for shampoo bars, to create cut-through or be worth a premium price. Nescafé introduced a blockchain-powered supply chain that enables it to trace the coffee bean from “farm to cup”. This not only tells a sustainability story, ensuring that standards are maintained throughout the process, but it also leads directly into messaging about provenance and quality control.
A second lesson from business is simply to listen to your customers. What do they want to see happen? Ipsos Mori’s Colin Strong points out that “brand purpose” activities can be used as a way of engagement; a means of “working in partnership” with your key audiences to understand their priorities. Some companies make that listening exercise a key part of their strategy. Waitrose empowers its customers through its Community Matters scheme, with shoppers selecting local charities and then choosing which ones receive funding. It is a simple mechanism, but it keeps shoppers involved, gives them a sense of ownership, and puts Waitrose’s sustainability credentials front and centre in every trip to the supermarket.
The third lesson comes from the above: for UK customers, sustainability is intersectional. It means more than simply hiding the plastic straws. Although 58% of consumers say that “sustainability” means environmental protection, that’s closely followed by 57% that believe it means “paying fair wages”. Businesses can be sustainable by paying their employees well and treating them fairly, such as those that commit to a Real Living Wage.
It can mean businesses supporting localism, to reduce carbon emissions and help the local economy. Some 52% of customers believe small businesses are more ethical. American Express’ support of Small Business Saturday is a successful example of driving engagement with local retailers. American Express creates an annual marketing campaign that is a platform for small businesses. The businesses themselves receive toolkits and promotional material to increase local reach, while American Express subsidises discounts for shoppers as an extra incentive. It is a large business building its sustainability credentials by supporting smaller ones, while reinforcing American Express’ quality, “boutique” credentials.
Sustainability can also mean reducing waste. Fashion brands such as Cos and Gucci have worked with partners to launch new resale sites for their products. This eliminates waste, protects the brand, and is also seen positively by consumers, as it ostensibly sacrifices new sales for the sake of sustainable behaviour. Representation and inclusivity are also part of sustainability. For example, the recent growth of British Black-owned beauty boxes not only helps an underserved customer audience, but also supports new entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, sustainable behaviours are a broad church, ranging from promoting animal welfare to fighting for social justice issues. These may work towards different positive outcomes, but customers see them all under the banner of “sustainability”. Rather than blindly following the latest trend, businesses should think of where they can have the most impact.
A fourth lesson from business is that customers are now extremely aware of the scale of the challenge ahead. Whether this is realism or cynicism, the result is the same: consumers no longer feel that individual action will “solve” climate change. According to polling by BEIS [the government department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy], only 26% believe that the public bears the most responsibility for addressing climate change.
A similar survey by charity CAST says people believe that the government (31%) and businesses (29%) are the ones mainly responsible for reducing emissions, with the general public in a distant third (19%).
As a category, sustainability has long been based on encouraging individual action: reduce, reuse, recycle; don’t litter; take shorter showers; eat more leftovers; don’t touch that plastic straw. But well-informed and increasingly furious consumers want to see change at scale, which means the businesses making sacrifices instead. More businesses need to be taking a “the buck stops here” approach. Rather than pushing the choice onto consumers, they need to step up and make a tangible difference. McDonald’s, for example, recently ended the use of plastic toys in Happy Meals. This is the equivalent of an estimated 650,000 people not using plastic for a year. (Needless to say, this same principle holds for employees. Sustainability doesn’t mean asking your team to take the stairs more often while you ship your books from across the world.)
The ultimate challenge with sustainability in publishing is that there is extremely limited opportunity for product innovation. The basic formats of the book are well-established and fairly inflexible. Instead, the publishing industry will need to think more creatively when it comes to making a difference: to see where it can improve along the supply chain to become more environmentally friendly, more local, more inclusive and more supportive of its workers.
This task may feel onerous, but it is necessary—and advantageous. Some 42% of the UK’s 18-24-year-olds say that “environmentally friendly practices are the best way for brands to represent values” (Lightspeed/Mintel data). Even if a company is “only” doing something “behind the scenes”, away from the product, it still adds value to their brand. Companies such as clothing firm Patagonia have thrived due to their much-vaunted sustainable standards, while others, such as IKEA, use sustainability to separate their products from the competition.
Perhaps the best example is Greggs. The home of the humble sausage roll has become the UK’s most popular dining brand, beating out far larger players such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Despite its relatively small marketing budget, the bakery chain has become famous for treating its workers well, supporting local communities and proudly introducing plant-based alternatives. For publishers, where endless imprints fight for differentiation, meaningful, sustainable behaviour by the publisher could be a way of standing out.
Finally, it is important to remember that publishing is not simply “any other business”, and books aren’t just any other product. Where our industry differs from beauty, sausage rolls and flat-packed furniture is that publishing has the power to create culture.
Books shape society: they can start or amplify trends. Books are authoritative: they provide evidence, demonstrate thought leadership, and lend credibility to arguments. (Mostly, but not always, for good.) Books are social: they tell powerful stories, amplify movements and start conversations.
The publishing industry has the power to choose which stories are heard, the ability to amplify important trends, and the scale to reach mass audiences.
As well as thinking how the industry can make itself more sustainable, publishing should consider how it, through collective action, can help create a more sustainable society.
Jared Shurin is head of planning at M&C Saatchi