Richard Charkin: A Climate-Crisis Response Checklist for Publishers

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Having signed the new ‘Publishing 2030 Accelerator’ for climate action, Richard Charkin offers ‘a checklist, incomplete, possibly incoherent.’

Londoners during the summer’s heat wave, July 18, on the Canalside Steps at Granary Square in King’s Cross. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Victor Huang

Editor’s note: As you may have read Tuesday (October 4), Richard Charkin is one of 17 charter signatories to the ‘Publishing 2030 Accelerator’ initiative, steered by the International Publishers Association and the Federation of European Publishers. The program’s intent is “to drive systematic change within the publishing sector to support and test early-stage ideas that will positively contribute to the wider sector’s sustainability.”

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

See also: IPA, FEP Announce a Climate-Crisis ‘Publishing 2030 Accelerator’

‘What We Really Need Is Action’
In 1974, one of my last contributions in my first publishing job at George G. Harrap & Company was to commission and publish This Finite Earth: A Guide to the Current Controversies Relating to Man and His Environment by the distinguished biologist and educator, Peter Treherne Marshall. The book was a textbook for British secondary school students. The purpose was to help teachers enlighten students about the finitude of the earth’s resources in the hope that the next generation would be  more careful in how we harvest and protect our environment. Some hope.

Richard Charkin

In those days, there was considerable interest in environmental matters, but as in the recent past very little action. There were projections that we’d run out of oil by 2000. There was the 1970s television series, Doomwatch, prescient and scary, but not apparently scary enough. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and so many more.

We now are facing up to the consequences of decades of inaction. It isn’t my job to depress you by reciting the incontrovertible evidence from scientists around the world—the melting ice caps, sea-level rises, extreme weather conditions, urban pollution, and the rest. We can sit on our hands, shrug our shoulders and kvetch. We can also issue brave green statements about our corporate commitment to sustainability. Why not? It’s easy enough to put stuff on a site.

What we really need is action.

My first step, as usual, was to consult the ultimate reference work, The Oxford English Dictionary in what was 20 large-format hardback volumes published in its second edition in 1988. It’s now updated constantly and freely—but not necessarily at no cost. It’s available online around the world without the need to chop down trees or emit petrol fumes.

The words we in publishing and of course the whole green industry now have embraced to describe the challenge are sustainable and sustainability.

There are three subtly distinct meanings in the Oxford dictionary which I share here, with permission. I think it’s worth considering each meaning in addition to the United Nations’ interpretation of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.”

Three Definitions of ‘Sustainable’
  • The quality of being sustainable by argument; the capacity to be upheld as valid, correct, or true. Every day I come across proposals purporting to be true. They may or not be true but are often impossible to defend on any logical grounds. For instance, it’s taken for granted that a publishing company employing a workforce which is more representative of the market it serves will be relatively more successful. Is that proposal sustainable? Will it pass the Karl Popper “falsifiability” test?
  • The quality of being sustainable at a certain rate or level. Do we think that constant growth in the book market is feasible? If it not what actions should we be taking to ensure that at least the industry itself is sustainable? Do we really think that the ever-growing number of new titles and the ever-reducing disposable income to buy those titles is sustainable using current or any future likely technology? Is the seemingly inexorable rise in unearned advances to authors a matter for literary agency self-congratulation or a slow throttling of available capital for new and experimental authors and publishing initiatives and investments?
  • The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of resources. This meaning was first identified as recently—in my terms anyway—as 1980, and this has become the most used definition. It’s been used to such an extent, in fact, that the full impact of its meaning may have been diminished. It’s the single most important agenda item for all of us: more important than space travel, more important than growing consumerism, more important than political boundaries.

I’m not an idealist and I have no grandiose delusions about the importance of publishing, but I believe we all have to do our bit. And publishing needs to do its bit, and fast. So what can we do?

Charkin’s Checklist of Actionable Options

Here’s a checklist, incomplete, possibly incoherent, probably controversial, but it’s mine. 

  • Publishers need to stay in business to be sustainable. That means not spending money on unnecessary activities including on greenwashing, on vanity projects, on philanthropic gestures, on absurdly expensive external strategy reviews—but always in a planning look-ahead 10 or more years into the future, not just the next three. Of course we all care about employees, authors, and readers, but the best way to serve them is to remain in business.
  • Add sustainability criteria to all meetings which might lead to decisions that could be more or less sustainable. This is even more important as we face up to the numerous challenges of latter COVID-era economies, hugely increased energy costs, and social and industrial unrest.
  • Seek out and use only those paper mills, printers, and distributors which have proved their sustainability credentials. And be brave in dropping those who do not. Many mills and printers have already taken significant steps and they should be congratulated and encouraged to do more.
  • Review all aspects of print production including length of print runs, efficacy of cover finishes, usage or otherwise of jackets, design templates which eliminate dispensable signatures, distributed manufacture to reduce emissions from transportation.
  • Review all sales, marketing, and distribution processes to reduce the environmental and financial costs of returned books, unnecessary packaging, multiple freight costs; and use electronic publication wherever feasible.
  • And within publishing houses themselves, aim to reduce business travel by, say, 50 percent, cease purchasing company cars in order to encourage the use of public transport, ensure office accommodation is as small and well-insulated as possible, enhance environmental awareness through internal newsletters, reduce the number of staffers whose main function is to liaise with other members of staff rather than with authors or customers, accelerate all processes.

Take a close look at the Publishing 2030 Accelerator manifesto.

There may be many other opportunities to add to this checklist but if we can follow at least some of the suggestions, we’ll not only help the third meaning of sustainability but also the second. And perhaps the proposals would be covered by the first.

Jesús Badenes del Río

You’ll also note that Barcelona’s Jesús Badenes del Rio, the CEO of Spain’s powerhouse Planeta Group’s books division, is, like Richard Charkin, one of the signatories to the new Publishing 2030 Accelerator. Badenes will be Publishing Perspectives’ guest in a special Executive Talk with Porter Anderson on Frankfurt’s opening day in the Frankfurt Studio at 12 p.m. CEST. This year’s Frankfurt Studio in Hall 4.0 (turn left as you enter from the Agora) will have seating for a live audience. Do join us. Here’s more information about that event

More from Publishing Perspectives on the climate crisis is here, more on sustainability is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, more on the Federation of European Publishers is here, and more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is herePublishing Perspectives is the global media partner of the International Publishers Association.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column and find more of his work from Publishing Perspectives here.

More from us on the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’