Book publishers start tracing paper sources

Ten book publishers have joined forces to grade the papers they use according to its green credentials. But few have set policies to use more ‘ethical’ paper.

The move follows campaigns by environmental groups that highlighted how destructive and illegal forestry practices could be linked to the pulp used in books. Pressure is also coming from buyers and the public.

About 40% of UK book publishers have policies to print on more recycled or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, says Greenpeace, but these apply to only a fraction of the 788 million books published each year and do not prevent them from buying paper containing fibre from questionable sources.

In most cases publishers are still unable to say where most of their paper is sourced. A single sheet of paper can contain several different pulps, each of which might be sourced from several forests from around the world. Pulp ‘recipes’ can also change frequently, making it even more difficult to track supply chains.

Moreover, information provided by paper mills to publishers has often been "incomplete or contradictory", says Greenpeace.

To improve their knowledge of which papers contain pulp from unknown and illegal sources, book publishers have developed a "publishers’ database for responsible environmental paper sourcing" (PREPS).1The database will record every paper the publishers use, each graded according to an environmental ranking system developed by children’s book publisher Egmont UK. This will allow production teams to find papers meeting their specific requirements and procurement policy.

The grading scheme uses a star rating system, customised from a similar system developed by WWF for timber buyers. The highest five-star rating is awarded if only FSC or recycled pulp, or a combination of both, is used. The one-star rating is given to paper that contains or is suspected of containing illegally harvested pulp or material sourced from high-conservation value forests.

One star is also given to paper from mills that cannot provide legal assurances for pulp sourced from countries known to have illegal practices. Two stars are awarded if suppliers fail to provide complete data and there is "some risk" associated with it.

Paper is given a three-star rating if it is from a "known and legal source". But the system accepts membership of a large number of certification schemes as evidence that material used is legal. Many of these schemes have not been accepted by the government’s own contentious timber procurement policy (ENDS Report 384, pp 21-22 ). But publishers say that with just 6.7% of paper in Europe currently FSC certified, "something is better than nothing."

Papers with a four-star rating must include at least 10% of fibre that is FSC certified, recycled or from a source "on its way to FSC certification." All other papers are categorised as three-star.

Each grading is based on suppliers’ responses to detailed questionnaires, with publishers seeking an auditable paper trail of relevant licences, bills and certificates "where appropriate".

"It was quite tricky to get people to respond at first," said Egmont production director Alison Kennedy, who has used the system for more than three years. "They didn’t take us seriously at the beginning. But we were clear with them - if they didn’t provide it, they wouldn’t get the order. It quickly focused minds."

But a major flaw of the scheme is a lack of third-party verification of information, something that is essential to establish credibility. In addition, publishers signed up to the scheme are allowed to use it "at their own discretion".

Few publishers have set targets to eliminate papers containing fibre from unknown or illegal sources. A handful of publishers are even unsure of the amount of paper they use (see table).

"PREPS is certainly a positive first step," said Greenpeace forests campaigner Belinda Fletcher. "But ultimately we hope its members will also commit to only using recycled and FSC certified papers."

Little market research has been undertaken to assess the level of public support for recycled or sustainably sourced papers in books, even though some publishers claim the level of interest is low. However, HarperCollins recently began a study to assess consumers’ response to recycled and FSC papers.

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