We just sent out a survey about sustainability and ecological concerns in how we publish, first to our authors and then to our  translators and subscribers. The message coming back again and again was that we and other publishing and arts sector organisations could do much more to communicate our ecological choices and to explain what the environmental impact of our work is. So in this post we’ll kick things off, first with the quick answers you wanted about what we’re doing and planning, and second with further ideas for action that came up in our team’s sustainability meeting last week; third, we’ll give you a survey of the survey itself, as it were.

It’s clear that as well as our individual action at And Other Stories (and as an independent we have the freedom to make changes quickly), we should  be joining up with others in our sector and industry to look into the latest research about the impacts of our sector in everything from print and e-formats options to travel, in order to together ask our partners (eg printers) to help us be ecological. And we also need to communicate all of this clearly.

What does And Other Stories already do, in terms of eco sustainability?

  • We use Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper for our books and recycled paper for our catalogues, and print with UK rather than Far Eastern printers.
  • We minimise our carbon footprint wherever we can, including by reducing travel, e.g. the team doesn’t fly within Europe but uses digital conferencing and train travel.
  • We use paper-only packaging to send books (no plastics) when we send out books ourselves (eg to subscribers, press and booksellers).
  • Our printers use bio-degradable ‘air-pillow’ padding (‘Greenlight Bio’ in the boxes they deliver our books in.
  • We are starting to discuss with authors and partners and to develop pilot projects related to a) changing travel habits in favour of lower carbon alternatives; and b) improving international mobility, accessibility and connections via attractive digital events that are a viable, equitable and attractive alternative to the current default options.
  • The team all walk or cycle to work.
  • We make books to last (using substantially more expensive but acid-free, long-lasting paper), because we don’t want books to be seen as disposable products.
  • We also bank with an ethical bank, the Co-operative Bank, that does not invest in or loan money to businesses in sectors such as oil exploration or other environmentally negative industries.

What else would we like to be doing? (Brainstormed ideas in our first sustainability team meeting, 19 Sept 2019)

  • Look into latest research on the comparative carbon footprints and other sustainability issues around the various formats of book: print, ebook, audio book.
  • Focus more production and marketing efforts on our ebook and audiobook editions, if those are more sustainable options.
  • Promo materials – always reflect on what works and what is wasteful.
  • Check to see if our UK and US distributors and US mailout service use plastic in packaging and if so, let them know we’d like to see them change.
  • Work more to promote our books with and to libraries, where books are used many times.
  • Encourage readers to see books as objects to be treasured long-term, possibly by bringing out a line of special editions that foreground the art of bookmaking.
  • A regular series of eco / sustainability posts on our Ampersand blog to talk about sustainability for ourselves and the wider publishing industry and arts sector issues that are raised.
  • Giving the And Other Stories team to take part in climate protests, as we did in the Climate Strike 20th Sept.
  • Work our way towards feeling surer of what we ask of our artists and team regarding sustainable travel. We want to have a clear framework that we can use to negotiate and arrange mobility with our artists and in our team, and communicate this in a positive way to all interested parties.
  • Regular sustainability meetings for the team to keep focused on the issues.
  • Be part of a new cross-industry action group on sustainability with other Publishers Association members.

This week’s eco survey questions and the feedback from our authors, translators and subscribers

At the time of this post, we’ve had over sixty responses from authors, translators and subscribers. Thank you everyone who sent in your thoughts. We’re reading them all. Trying to be brief, here are the survey questions, and a brief survey of responses:

1. Do you think And Other Stories is doing enough as far as environmental sustainability goes?

Over 80% choose ‘Neither Agree nor Disagree’ and of the remaining people, almost everyone agreed or strongly agreed.

2. What are you most proud of what we do, environmentally speaking?

As the answer to question 1 hinted at already, many people commented they didn’t really feel they knew what we were doing. Some knew about our use of sustainable paper (FSC-certified paper in our books) and our no-plastic packaging.

3. What would you most like us to do (or do more of, or do better), environmentally speaking?

Responses varied enormously. Many people said fly less. A few said stop flying completely. Some said use carbon offsetting. Some said use recycled paper, and some said move more to ebooks, although others pointed out that they wanted to read on print. The following three responses give some indication of the range of ideas, and that we in the publishing industry and readers are not at a point where there’s an understood consensus on what is most ecological among fairly central points like FSC paper v recycled paper; digital v print.

Make your production process carbon neutral! But please, please, do not go digital.

Allow us to subscribe to the books as e-books meaning paper not required, no printing, no posting.

Unsure. Recycled paper? Are some printing methods lower-impact than others? Issuing in e-Book form seems obvious?

Perhaps reduce or end use of digital publishing, to reduce the consumption of electronic-based resources and plastics needed to produce electronic readers.

Not an environmental issue, but your social impact is also important and you can influence that by your choice of printers. I’ve always been impressed with what Slightly Foxed do, using a long established printers based in West Yorkshire (Smith Settle).

Don’t kid yourselves that emails and internet usage have no environmental footprint.

4. Is there someone in the arts whose environmental approach you love and you would like to see us emulate in some regard?

Staggeringly, not a single respondent (of the over 70 people so far to answer the questions) could think of an arts sector / publishing industry person, organisation or company who they admired for their eco approach. Coffee roasters yes, arts organisations no. Our whole sector needs to embed ecological action more firmly in its processes and its communications. Here are two indicative replies we received:

No, I’m sure they’re out there but nothing at the level I’m talking about has crossed my radar.

No one comes to mind.

5. Is there anything of environmental concern that you’d like us to provide more information about in our books, on our website or in other places we communicate?

No surprise perhaps after the earlier answers – people want us to communicate more about what we do and about the environmental implications of different book formats, and production and sourcing choices. A few indicative replies:

It would be great if you had audited information on paper, printing, packaging and business travel, including author travel and tours.

Where your paper is sourced from and where the book is printed.

What about the use of paper itself? Given that this is the substance that non- digital print appears on, it could be interesting to bring the issues involved in its use, manufacture, and sourcing into focus.

Yes, what are the environmental impacts of printing and distributing books, and what options are open to reduce them?

The environmental effects of electronic readers (or other screen-based reading), which the publication of digital books feeds.

I think people want to see what you’re doing environmentally as soon as they click on your website or open one of your books. Don’t hide info in a dropdown box. I know you care… let everybody know!

6. Regarding author tours, would you like us to:

  • let authors decide how they want to travel in all cases, without any rule of thumb;
  • continue to develop great video-link and online event opportunities for our authors (starting this autumn, see Events listings) as well as continuing to fly authors to events when the distances can’t be covered by train or bus in a day;
  • make it a rule of thumb that we don’t set up author tours involving flights, but discuss on a case-by-case basis with authors as to what is possible for them given time and other constraints and use flights sparingly;
  • no flights for author tours (possibly with an exception for authors in under-developed countries – see question 9 below)
  • Other (please specify)

Interestingly, and somewhat to our surprise, in the authors’ survey only one person so far suggested we ‘let authors decide how they want to travel in all cases, without any rule of thumb’, and about half choose either option 3 (don’t set up tours involving flights as a rule of thumb) or 4 (no flights). In the translators’ survey, everyone so far was (to simplify) broadly ‘anti-flights’ for author tours (options 3 and 4). In the subscribers’ survey, however, a much lower 30% (of respondents so far) are broadly ‘anti-flights’ for author tours (options 3 and 4), and almost all of those choose option 3. This is a big question for us, a publisher of many translations, with authors around the world.

7. Regarding staff work travel, would you like us to:

  • use flights as much as makes sense from a practical, publishing point of view
  • continue to use trains and public transport where possible (eg travel within Europe and where possible within North America) and to continue to use air travel sparingly and when it makes a difference in promoting our authors (e.g. for our publisher to fly to the US for a yearly round of face-to-face media meetings, sales conference, important events)
  • no flights within a continent for staff travel
  • no flights for staff travel
  • Other (please specify)

Our authors chose all four options, but the most popular was 1 (use flights as makes sense) followed by 2 (use air travel sparingly). Among translators and subscribers option 2 was most popular by far and almost no one chose 3 or 4: ‘no flights within a continent for staff travel’ or ‘no flights for staff travel’. In other words, the response so far from all three groups is that they would expect some staff work travel by air might be necessary, perhaps particularly given the fact that we seem to need North American sales at the moment for our business to work.

8. How much will our business actions and choices regarding sustainability make a difference as to whether or not you want to subscribe in future? [for authors and translators, the question was whether or not it has an impact on whether you’d like us to publish your work in future]

A lot of respondents chose None at all, A little or A moderate amount. Very few chose A lot or A great deal. Authors and translators were more likely than subscribers to say that our eco choices made a difference in this regard.

9. Another question in the mix is about global equity. The developed world has developed on the back of carbon-emitting fuels. Many argue that the developing world deserves a bigger carbon budget going forward. How does that affect our work? Should we as a rule of thumb continue to set up tours involving flights for authors and translators living in (or from?) developing countries even if we stop doing so for authors and translators in developed countries? Yes / No

This question to translator and subscriber surveys after an author brought up the issue of global equity. Overwhelmingly, over 90% said Yes, there should be a different rule of thumb for authors and translators living in developing countries.

10. Anything else you’d like to add?

Some of the varied responses we had included:

I support many causes to the extent that I can, both environmental and purely cultural ones. No one expects the Sierra Club to produce its reports in sonnet form, beneficial as that might be not least for conciseness. Similarly, a small publisher with a highly specific mission, on a tight budget, need not be the forerunner on environmental correctness if that threatens their effectiveness in their mission. I would only expect you to live up to the ideal to the extent that you can truly afford it without threatening your cultural mission and longevity.

The first rule of business is to stay in business. I appreciate the care and attention you are giving to carbon footprint of your business and applaud any cuts you can make that do not impact your ability to stay in business. But, I would not expect you to alter your business so much that it decreases your ability to do what you do: bring great literature to your subscribers and beyond.

I’m delighted that you are sending around the questionnaire and hope it does result in a considerably lowered footprint. I have been thinking about this a lot this past year and it seems to me that I have to weigh the advantages of flying for a tour against the damage it is doing to everyone and everything. I am sure we can all get used to doing much, much less flying. I aim not to fly at all next year.

I’ve traveled by train and freighter and largely avoided air travel for several years — if it’s too late in the year to sail, though, I’ll fly the shortest hop across the Atlantic, like Montreal > London, rather than flying to Europe from San Francisco, where I live. The more I look, the more ways I find to travel in the way I prefer. Time? A man I met on a train said, air travel takes time, train travel gives it back. A retired diplomat I met on a freighter told me that back in the days when diplomats traveled the slow way, they had their papers written and their speeches thoroughly rehearsed by the time they arrived. So, I find it useful to think of the journey as creating a productive space and time. I think there used to be a “writers on the train” sort of residency on the American rails (Amtrak) . . .maybe still . . .

I’m just so passionate about not flying. I think it’s the biggest statement we can make. Personally, I know I’ll never fly again.

I think that opening this up for debate and being open to suggestions and change is a very positive step, which other companies should emulate.

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