Why a book’s journey to your nightstand is getting longer

By Jelle Floris Kooij

Social media has made books popular again. It is hard to walk around a bookshop today and not find one or two books with a Tiktok sticker on the front or even a whole section dedicated to books popular on Bookgram or Booktok. To an older generation finding comfort in a good book is no surprise. Before you could binge shows on Netflix, a good book could keep anyone occupied for hours if not days. Yet, as Gen Z has come of age during the rise of social media and streaming services, it was never guaranteed that the book industry would survive. It is surprising then for the book industry that books have become more popular not despite social media but because of it. 

There is one question, however, on the minds of young readers that their parents’ and grandparents’ generation might not have thought about. How sustainable are books? In the era of the increasing need to evaluate how our purchases are affecting the environment, books have a surprising environmental story. 

Just how many trees are on your nightstand?

In the United States, the biggest market for English books, over 800 million books were sold in 2021. That is more than 200 million more books sold than 10 years ago and the vast majority of books sold are print copies. With the number of copies sold worldwide expected to increase over the next decade, book publishers have run into supply problems they have not had to face before. 

For any print book to end up on your nightstand a tree must first be cut down. The Covid-pandemic caused supply issues in all sectors of the economy, books were no exception, but all print books rely on the same central ingredient – paper. As paper shortages took hold around the world book publishers and booksellers alike began to warn customers of potential book shortages. It is estimated that for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 110,000 trees were used in the making of the print edition. It is true that the Harry Potter books are larger than what could be considered an average of 300 or so pages, yet it to publish just one  Harry Potter book in the series required a landmass larger than the Vatican City. In other words, books require a lot of trees, so sourcing paper is an important part of the book industry. 

This, however, is not the complete picture. Today books are printed largely using recycled paper. And the rise of e-books means that the environmental impact of paper is minimized. While the impact of books is not completely solved by using recycled paper and alternatives to printed books, it is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, globalisation still plays a large role in the environmental impact of books. 

No power, No problem…. Wait, that’s not quite true

Printing is only one part of the large wheel that makes up the book industry. Shipping is another, unlike technological products, books are largely printed in the United States. Most of the big 5 publishing houses are located in the US, so it makes sense for them to print locally. The only problem is paper does not always arrive by truck. Since 2019 North American paper production has decreased by one-fifth, but the demand for books has only gone up since then. The resulting shortage of paper means it has to come from other countries. The interconnectedness of the global market means that prices for raw materials generally stay as low as possible. Yet new environmental policies in China have had an impact on the supply of raw materials needed to make books. 

As a result, the supply chain necessary to produce a book has not only become more complex it has also become longer. It now takes more, time, money, and most importantly energy for a book to end up in your hands. The more energy required in the printing and shipping of a book, the larger the environmental impact each book will have. In its most basic form, the process by which a book is published releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the tree, from which that book was made, can capture. 

This is not to say that we should stop buying books. There have been several studies conducted on the health benefits of long-term reading. Print books especially take people away from the screens which we are constantly surrounded by. Yet, it is necessary to consider the ways in which books are produced.

Local trees, Local fees

The book industry is marked by two big effects of globalisation. The first is the consolidation of the publishing houses, the second is the rise of the Amazon supply chain. The consolidation of the publishing houses has given them increasing power in the industry. It is the publishing houses which determine the standards of the printing process. Meaning that how and where books are printed is decided by a collection of a few companies, which can keep prices below a level where independent publishers cannot compete. 

The Amazon supply chain should also not be ruled out as a key factor in the environmental impact of books. Keeping prices low gives an incentive for book publishers to seek out the lowest cost for raw materials. The effect is an ever larger and longer supply chain in the pursuit of profit margin. 

It is difficult to pinpoint any one solution to mitigate the environmental impact of books. But asking people to stop buying print books is not a solution for the long term. Individuals should be encouraged to buy books from local bookshops, limiting the Amazon supply chain effect, but this even on a large scale is not a sustainable solution. Stronger government regulation around publishing rights and practices to encourage local printing can mitigate the environmental impact of a single book. Governments should not punish individual people for the benefit of globalised business. 

Image by: Ron Lach on Pexels