Eco-challenge: Produce the Greenest Book Possible

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

Lava Lake Ranch, Idaho from Design for a Living World, courtesy of Ami VitaeNEW YORK, USA & KARLSRUHE, GERMANY: Chul Kim’s brief was to produce “the greenest book possible,” one to serve as the catalog to accompany a new exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City entitled “Design for a Living World.” As director of publications for the museum, it would fall on him to find the right suppliers who could produce a book that would complement the exhibit’s principal themes of “sustainable design and materials, and responsible conservation of our environment.”

The exhibit was born out of a project conceived by the environmental lobbying group The Nature Conservancy, which sought to raise awareness of a “depleted world” by sending ten top designers – including Yves Behar, Kate Spade and Hella Jongerius — to remote destinations to produce eco-friendly objects out of indigenous materials. The results were extraordinary. For example, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi was sent to Alaska, where he fashioned a dress out of salmon skin (typically a waste product of the salmon industry). Jewelry designer Ted Muehling transformed Micronesian vegetable ivory and ocean-harvested black and keishi pearls into a series of bracelets.

Kim’s materials for his book were far more prosaic: paper, ink, and glue.

Mandate in hand, Kim sought out the most eco-conscious printer he could find and settled on Engelhardt und Bauer in Karlsruhe, near Baden-Baden, Germany.

“Typically, a book of this length – nearly 200 pages, with 326 illustrations – would be printed in China,” said Kim, “but it is difficult to find an FSC-certified printer there, one that can trace the origin of its paper so that we know it wasn’t sourced illegally in Russia or elsewhere.” [The FSC – Forest Stewardship Council – guarantees wood products are harvested from sustainable forests.]

In addition to being FSC-certified, “E&B’s printing plant is powered entirely by solar and wind energy. We used soy ink, which while not as bright and lasting, is much more environmentally friendly. And to make the project carbon-neutral, we purchased carbon credits equivalent to a total of 16.6 tons of CO2 emissions”, said Kim.

The toughest obstacle was sourcing eco-friendly 100% recyclable shrink-wrap.

“It took E&B four months to find a supplier and the wait was worth it,” says Kim.  “The shrink-wrap is holding up as well as the regular stuff, and it feels more organic somehow.” [We promise the name of the supplier as soon as we get it. – Ed]

The final product sells for $40, and while Kim won’t reveal unit cost, he said it was only 10% higher than a conventionally produced volume.

“SureCradle to Cradle [the manifesto by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and printed on fully recyclable synthetic “paper”]  is more eco-friendly, but that’s a different kind of book. This is an illustrated book, and thus a different creature altogether,” said Kim “You could do it greener than we did, provided you wanted to charge $200 for it. But we don’t have that luxury – we don’t even have the luxury of charging $120 or even $75.”

As an educational institution – the Cooper-Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian Institution – the book has to be priced so that “visiting high school students and grandmothers from Kansas can afford it, not just design consumers from the Upper East Side,” said Kim.

Asked if he’ll work with E&B again, Kim was effusive. “Yes. There’s a 10% premium, but it’s worth it, don’t you think?”

Ten-percent more to help save the planet and produce an eco-friendly, illustrated book for everybody? Absolutely.

CONTACT: Engelhardt und Bauer printers

EXPLORE: The Design for a Living World exhibit.

LISTEN: To Yves Behar discuss the exhibit on PRI’s The World

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.