The Green Pages: Publishers Strive to Reduce Their Environmental Impact

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Digital Alternatives

It would seem logical that the way out of the paper problem, assuming you don’t have to produce a print copy as well, is to deliver products digitally. Then you completely eliminate paper from the equation. However, as Gough points out, it’s not quite as simple as that. Digital is not necessarily resource-neutral, although it does offer an alternative to paper and provides functionality that’s just not possible in a hard copy. Alex Gruntsev, VP of business development at, a company that distributes more than 800 international publications via its online tool, says that with circulation dropping, online distribution gives publishers a new venue to sell their wares and maybe even improve the customer experience along the way.

"Circulation is going down while computers and connectivity are getting better. I believe online reading is not only comparable to physical paper, but it also offers a lot more functionality." Gruntsev points out that with most newspapers, you send a letter to the editor and it might get printed, but with a product such as NewspaperConnect, every comment gets published. He points out that there are other social features as well, including the ability to see what friends think, to bookmark, and to repost to a blog with your own comments. 

From a publisher’s perspective, it can see what people have read and sell targeted advertising based on real metrics. When you place an ad in a newspaper, you have no way of knowing who reads it. But you can measure this type of behavior online using clickthroughs, how many people print your coupons, and so on. And from a library’s perspective, instead of having to subscribe to foreign language newspapers shipped from distant locals, it can give patrons access to newspapers from around the world in real time.

Patterson says that Safari Books Online’s service is providing a way to stay on top of content that is constantly changing, while giving its customers search tools that greatly simplify pinpointing the information they need. "We’ve done a fair amount of research not only among tech consumers of information, but also among librarians who are faced with the challenge of acquiring and managing vast collections of content," he says. "Whether it’s the user, librarian, or company HR person looking to manage training, they all grasp what an effective way this is to expose their people to a wide array of content and through search find what they need quickly and get back to work."

Of Reed Elsevier, Gough says, "We were traditionally a paper publisher, and we are moving more and more online. More than 50% of our revenue now comes from online journals and information platforms." The company has a target to reach 70% from online revenue, but Gough says that before you think digital is the answer to our environmental crisis, you have to remember that it takes vast data centers to store this content and huge amounts of computer power to run the software behind the online tools that make the content so useful to consumers. He says that the company is seeing an average increase of 20%–25% in energy usage from its data centers each year as it moves more publications online. But even given that increase, it is still seeing an overall reduction in carbon emissions of 13% over the last 5 years.

He expects that over time as the company consolidates data centers and makes them more energy efficient, that will decrease further, but, to a large extent, today the company’s environmental impact depends on a lot of factors, such as a data center’s location. For instance, the LexisNexis division is located in Dayton, Ohio, and the data centers get electricity from a coal-burning plant. That factor adds to the company’s overall carbon footprint.

Pollak says he is asked about the impact of electronic publishing all the time, but his organization has yet to do hard research to give a definitive answer. What he can say is that he has seen studies that focused on newspapers and mostly concluded that the impact of electronic publishing depends on a wide range of factors, such as the source of energy. There are also other factors, such as whether the devices being used to read the electronic content are made with toxic components.

We all live on the same planet, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to find ways to produce things in a more environmentally friendly fashion, and publishers are no different. They may be doing it because they genuinely care or because they want to avoid the glare of being labeled a polluter. Whatever the motivation, if the result is a softer environmental impact while still producing the books and periodicals that teach, stimulate, and entertain us, we all win. It may seem that going online is the easy way out of this problem, but as we have seen, there are no simple answers, and digital content has its own carbon footprint. Finding ways to make data centers more efficient and the devices on which we read the content more friendly to the environment (made with nontoxic materials, for instance) will go a long way toward shifting the balance in favor of online. For now, we can at least be happy that publishers are working hard on the problem. 

Companies Featured in this Article:

American Association of Publishers

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Green Press Initiative

Greenpeace Report


Reed Elsevier

Safari Books Online

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