Hello again. How have you been? Have you followed my advice yet? (to only buy books printed on FSC-approved paper?)
How have you gone? It’s hard, isn’t it? Many great narratives are not published on sustainable paper, and it feels awful to deny yourself these tiny joys. And so, in the face of magic, you abandon forward thinking and consider only the present: the current book-buying spree. But, luckily for you – for us – there's a way around this. Hence my second letter.
In the publishing industry, the biggest source of carbon emissions, next to printing, is distribution. Whether houses are shipping from overseas or prioritising local printing, the fact remains that not all trucks in Australia are electric. Most are still powered by petrol, burning fossil fuels and so emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If only Australia had an electric vehicle policy. Unfortunately, we don’t.
Due to this difficulty, compensation is the next best thing. Publishing houses, and delivering companies, engage in carbon offsetting – they match any carbon-emitting activities with carbon-reducing ones. Often, this means planting trees or, in the case of Penguin, counterbalancing 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions per new employee. However, while carbon offsetting is somewhat beneficial, it should not be the primary solution. Efforts to completely reduce carbon emissions should come first.
This is overwhelming. It’s beyond you - I understand. You cannot control what companies do, particularly when the policy, that’s so desperately needed, isn’t there. And yet, you want to do something. You care about our world, you care about its future, you care about bestowing yourself with tiny, bookish joys. While policy creation begins with activism, I want to suggest a ‘something’ that is smaller than picket signs. More manageable.
It’s this: acquire second-hand copies. Whether that’s buying books from op-shops, or borrowing from the library or a friend, make it your aim to limit the amount of first-hand books you buy. Second-hand clothes shopping reduces the waste of the fast-fashion industry – following this logic, second-hand book buying reduces the energy taken to print, market and transport books. Let me explain.
As I’m writing, it’s May 2023 and, according to the Wollongong City Library catalogue, they currently have 49 copies of Pip Williams’ The Bookbinder of Jericho being prepared for loans. Attached to these copies are 117 reserves. If all 117 people bought Bookbinder firsthand, that’s 117 books that would have to be printed, bound and distributed to Wollongong booksellers. However, with these reserves, that’s 68 copies that won’t be bought. While this is reasoning for an ideal world (and we clearly don’t live in one), the principle is obvious: the smaller number of readers buying firsthand books, the lower the demand to print, the fewer resources used and the lesser amount of CO2 emitted.
Admittedly, individuals borrowing and op-shopping is not going to reduced carbon emissions. Publishing houses and distribution services need to be electrifying their vehicles. Heck, the Australian government needs to create an electric vehicle policy. But as industrial and political powers fail to move with time, these are small measures you can do to do something.
Because we shouldn’t be denying ourselves these little joys. Goodness knows we need them. Yet, with the current state of Earth, we need to acknowledge that, one day, we may not be able to gift ourselves these little joys at all.
- May 2023
For further reading, here are some sources I looked at. If you are interested in current decarbonisation efforts, and the progress humanity has made, I’d highly recommend Simon Holmes a Court’s presentation. It is phenomenal.
Decarbonisation & Carbon Emissions in Australia
'What is carbon offsetting and is it worthwhile?' - Climate Council
‘A new energy environment!’ - Simon Holmes a Court’s presentation at INNOVATE 2023
Individual Decarbonisation Practices
‘Do you shop for second-hand clothes? You’re likely to be more stylish’ - The Conversation
‘How to be a more environmentally friendly reader’ – Penguin Books