Writers and illustrators sign letter urging publisher climate action

Writers and illustrators sign letter urging publisher climate action

More than 100 British writers and illustrators, including Cressida Cowell, Dara McAnulty and Piers Torday (pictured), have signed an open letter to UK publishers and literary agents calling on them to commit to reduce their greenhouse emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

The open letter, posted by Torday on Medium, said that last week's IPCC report made it clear that "humanity stands on the threshold of catastrophic, irreversible change" having experienced nine out of the 10 warmest years on record since 2005. However the letter said the signatories were "dismayed" that "so few UK publishers and literary agencies had signed up to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) funded by the WWF and the UN to provide companies with a clearly-defined path to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals".

It added: "We have a responsibility to our readers and our communities to publish sustainably and ethically at this moment of crisis. We cannot simultaneously profit from addressing our greatest crisis whilst perpetuating it". 

Torday told The Bookseller he had been planning the letter alongside authors Hannah Gold and Nicola Penfold for some time, and that while a lot of big media institutions such as the BBC and Channel 4 had signed up to the SBTi, there were not many trade publishers on the list—only Bloomsbury, Bonnier, Bertelsmann (PRH) and News Corp (HarperCollins).

"In a huge industry that is just scraping the surface," he said. "I’ve written a lot of books about climate change and publishing is not that environmentally friendly a business because we chop down trees to print books and we transport them all over the world. That’s why I was very keen that the publishing I’ve just done was as sustainable as you could make publishing a book. There’s no sealant on the cover, there’s no foil, there’s no plastic in the packaging, there was a very limited proof run, the paper is recycled.

"What these letters can achieve I hope is a wake up call [...] I don’t think we can publish books about the environment and make money from it while still perpetuating the problem".

Torday said some publishers have since contacted him privately to say they have plans in motion to be more sustainable. "This letter is not to shame people, it is to hold them to account and say, ‘Fine, great, good intentions are fantastic and much appreciated and we share them, but we do now need to start seeing concrete proposals on how we can publish and distribute and package and store books in the most carbon-neutral way possible’", he said. 

"Publishing does not get a free pass just because it’s not a coal mine [...] there are huge amounts of carbon involved in transport, storage, offices, the printing process." However, Torday does think there is "the will and the technology" to improve the situation. He said his own experience with the production team at Hachette was "brilliant" and that printers were "totally up for finding solutions", but more needs to be done across publishing to institute "structural change". He vowed to "come back with something else" if he doesn't see results.  

Many publishers have made statements and commitments to fight the climate crisis in recent years. In April this year PRH announced it had achieved carbon neutrality across its direct operations, partly by making its offices and warehouses more energy efficient and shifting to 100% renewable energy. Bonnier went “beyond climate neutral” at the beginning of this year, meaning that the organisation takes 20% more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, than it creates through its operations. At academic publisher Springer Nature, which has signed the Climate Pledge, Thea Sherer was this month appointed to the newly created role as director of sustainability to help achieve the company's climate change goals.

Reacting to the letter, a spokesperson for HarperCollins said: "This is one of the most important issues of our time and one in which we must all play our part. At HarperCollins we have been working on reducing our emissions and developing a programme for change, and will be sharing details of our plans and sustainability targets shortly."

Siena Parker, social impact director at PRH, said: “As publishers we have a critical role to play in combating the climate emergency, not just through minimising the impact of our own operations, but also by publishing and amplifying books which educate, change minds and influence behaviour on this topic. In April we published an updated sustainability policy setting out new goals and ways of working across all departments within our company, and for managing environmental issues effectively across our global value chain. At Penguin Random House UK we are already climate neutral within our direct operations, and we have also committed to climate neutrality across our global supply chain by 2030.”

Pan Mac said it is already a carbon neutral company through offsetting and is currently developing its sustainability targets for the next 10 years. Hachette referred to its environmental and ethical policy, which said it is continually developing and revising its sustainable publishing model. 

Stephen Lotinga, c.e.o of the Publishers Association, said the group "welcomed the letter" and "fully acknowledge that climate action is the most vital cause of our time".

He added: "Publishers have been working on a significant programme of sustainability focused work over the last 18 months that will be made public later this year. This has involved working with partners across the supply chain, engaging with businesses of every size to devise a set of tools and resources to help publishers mitigate their emissions and adapt their businesses for a zero-carbon future.

“We expect to be able to make a public announcement in the near future that addresses the issues raised by this letter.”

Isobel Dixon, president of the Association of Authors' Agents (AAA) added: "As a voluntary trade body, the AAA seeks to provide a forum through which to inform and encourage members to commit to best practice. Authors are at the forefront of all that we do – we listen to their concerns and also regularly engage with publishers, the PA, the IPG and the BA on crucial issues like equality, diversity and inclusivity. We recognise the great crisis of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and the ethical and practical challenge to individuals and companies, the vital need for action.

"We know from our questions and discussions with the BA, the PA and its consumer publishers council that publishing companies and booksellers are grappling with publishing’s carbon footprint issues around paper, printing and returns, and some publishers and agents have formed sustainability groups and set company targets. More work is being done, along with our changed working practices, and the AAA will continue to engage and inform our members, as we examine our role in this, as in other aspects of the publishing eco-system."

A statement on behalf of Jonny Geller and The Curtis Brown Group said the agency "fervidly supports" the open letter. It said: "We strongly recognise the urgency of reducing our carbon footprint and, prior to the pandemic, had set up an in-house committee formed of passionate members from across The Curtis Brown Group of companies, whose focus was to identify and address our biggest carbon energy outputs as a business.

"We planned to launch a 2020 Green Manifesto based around reducing our carbon emissions through what was then our ‘normal’ working practice, tackling areas such as travel and green energy. As with so many other businesses, the pandemic has led us towards a completely new style of hybrid working and we are currently recalibrating our plan to ensure that we are making the most effective impact we possibly can.

"We fervidly support this open letter and are deeply committed to playing our part to address the climate emergency, and to creating and sustaining meaningful change, both across our own companies and in the wider industry."

The Bookseller will publish a Climate Issue on 15th October, ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), with aim of interrogating what the trade can do to meet the challenge of environmental change in the wake of global warming.

The open letter in full: 

As last week’s IPCC report makes clear, humanity stands on the threshold of catastrophic, irreversible climate change. 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. Human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017, increasing at 0.2°C per decade.

The effects of this warming are around us every day, from the terrifying fires in the Mediterranean to those blazing across the West Coast of the US, the floods from Germany to China. These are not freak events, they are symptoms of a rapidly warming world.

We cannot reverse climate change, we can only limit it to 1.5°C. To get us on track, countries and companies around the world are setting more ambitious targets. The UK aims to reach net zero by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by the end of the decade.

At the moment of writing this, more than 650 companies have set targets with the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), in line with the 1.5°C trajectory. 110 companies are also participating in The Climate Pledge, aiming to reach the Paris Agreement goals 10 years early.

But as a group of writers and illustrators, passionate about communicating the urgency of the situation, the possibility of a more sustainable world and setting a good example to our readers, we are dismayed that so few UK publishers and literary agencies have signed up to these goals or made public their sustainability targets.

We call upon every publisher and literary agency operating in the UK to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. We have a responsibility to our readers and our communities to publish sustainably and ethically at this moment of crisis. We cannot simultaneously profit from addressing our greatest crisis whilst perpetuating it.

Climate action failure is the #1 global risk to every one of us. Climate change is real, it is impacting us now, and we cannot delay action.

This is our call to action today:

Please commit to, develop and implement programmes that reduce your greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

The window for action is narrowing every day. The time to act is now.