How can you tell if your book is sustainably made?

Hello! I’m Jen, the sustainability officer at ECW Press, and this Earth Day I wanted to take a moment to talk about how to tell if your book is green.

Now, in the context of the full-on climate crisis we’re in, books aren’t major villains, but they do have one little problem . . . they’re made from trees.

And we know we need trees, which remove carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air, support biodiversity, play a vital role in the water cycle, and generally have great vibes.

So how can publishers make books with fewer tree corpses? And how can YOU as a reader tell if publishers have done that? 

Right now you usually have to turn to the copyright page and try to decode the logos and fine print. One thing you’ll often see a label that indicates a book is certified by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. That means trees were harvested in a socially and environmentally responsible way. So that’s good, but we can do better.

The best paper for the environment involves no new trees going under the saw, aka recycled paper. It still takes a lot of water, energy, and chemical inputs to recycle old paper products, but we know that using 100% recycled paper reduces a book’s carbon footprint by up to 25%, and the forests get to stay standing.

Here at ECW, in the last year, 93% of the copies we printed were on 100% recycled paper. That’s actually a tiny bit lower than usual. The reason? Denison Avenue, our Canada Reads smash hit, is printed on a coated stock, which is usually the first choice for photo-heavy or illustrated books so they can have sharper, brighter images. We wanted people to appreciate Daniel Inness delicate line drawings in their full glory. Problem is, recycled content options for coated stocks are dismal. This one has 10% recycled content, which is the best we could get. 

However, we’ve been committed to the recycled paper cause for at least a decade. So if you’ve bought one of our books in the last while, first, THANKS, and second, chances are it was very tree-friendly.

So recycled paper is best, but how can you know what paper a book uses? Unfortunately, you often can’t.

Lets dive deeper into the FSC labels, starting with the one that says FSC 100%.

You might think this means 100% recycled, but youd be wrong. It actually means the opposite: that this product contains 100% virgin fibres, though ones from FSC- certified forests. 

If the FSC label says RECYCLED, congratulations to us all, that is 100% recycled. However, its pretty hard to get that RECYCLED designation, because most cover stocks contain at least some virgin fibres. 

So then we get into the third FSC category, MIX. If there’s any new material, the product gets the label MIX. So MIX could be 1% recycled content or 99%, and there’s no way to tell. The MIX label also allows for a certain threshold of materials from FSC-controlled but not certified forests; this should eliminate the worst abuses no children illegally harvesting old-growth forest  but it also can’t be held to the highest certification standards. 

Some printers will add some bonus sustainability stats into a book if the publisher requests them and there's space in the book. But these aren’t in most books.

We need to do a better job at helping you see what a book is made of, so ECW is revamping the way we share that info. Starting this fall, our books will have their environmental credentials spelled out for you, so you know the difference between a book with 10% recycled content and 99% recycled content.

As a last note: the greenest book out there is the one that already exists. We love libraries of all kinds, and we love book sharing. But if you do want to support your indie authors and publishers by buying books new, we really appreciate that, and we promise to make you the greenest book we can. 

Happy Earth Day and happy reading.

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