I found an interesting article on the BBC news website this morning about Dorling Kindersly publishing ‘the most environmentally conscious books in all the world’. They are printed on 100% recycled card using vegetable inks and ‘environmentally friendly glues’, and Forest Stewardship Council paper, which means a tree is planted for everyone cut down to make paper. The carbon footprint of the production and transportation of the books is less as well, as they are printed locally, in Europe, rather than in the far East as is often the case.

It is an excellent initiative, in my opinion, and one we need to see more publishers taking. I had never really thought about ethical and environmental publishing until I went to a publishing careers conference run by the Society of Young Publishers last November, when that was the theme of the day. During the opening and closing plenary sessions, we had several different figures from the publishing industry, including authors, talking about what ethical and environmental publishing meant to them, and it really opened my eyes.

There is the more obvious side of environmental publishing, represented by the type of initiative Dorling Kindersly are taking, which is focused on using sustainable, recyclable resources, using properly managed and farmed wood rather than trees from illegal rainforest logging, and cutting down on the carbon footprint of your company. These might seem relatively straight-forward, logical things to do, but as always, there are complications. Electronic books have been hailed as more environmentally friendly, but unless the electricity or batteries they run on are also environmentally friendly, from hydro-electric power for example (I have no idea how batteries are made!) then they’re not necessarily a better option then sustainably produced books.

Some good steps have been taken within the publishing industry in the UK, such as the establishment of the Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Environment Action Group, which is examining the current situation and setting industry-wide targets for things such as carbon use. There is also the paper grading system established by Alison Kennedy, Production Director of Egmont UK: The Publishers’ Database for Environmental Paper which shows the credentials and sources of around 800 different papers, so you could potentially know where every tree in your supply line was grown. When there can be up to 5 different papers used in one book, for the pages, the cover, the book jacket etc, and each paper can use several different species of tree, you begin to understand what a challenge it must have been to create this Database.

But there are also times when other ethical considerations outweigh the environmental ones. When Oxfam publishes medical guidance pamphlets and books to be distributed in Africa, their most important concern is ensuring that as many people as possible have access to those books, and that they last for as long as possible. So they might laminate a book in plastic to make it more hard-wearing, although this might seem less environmentally friendly. Or when a medical publisher wants to make the latest research and advice to doctors as quickly as possible, so the knowledge can be used to treat patients as soon as possible, it may be quicker and more practical for them to do so using electronic books.

There’s a whole quagmire of other ethical issues that have to be taken into account every day by people working in the publishing industry: has the author of a medical article you’ve published promoting the use of a particular drug actually been funded by a pharmaceutical company? Can you be certain that the factory workers in the factories you use in China to produce children’s pop-up books are being treated properly, with decent wages and living conditions? Do the products they produce comply with UK Toy Safety Laws? Is it ethical to publish a book written by a convicted fraudster about his crimes, so he is effectively profiting from them?

All these issues are fascinating and important, and I think more publishers need to follow Dorling Kindersly’s lead to make the industry more environmentally friendly and ethical.