Simple ways to make your supply chain more sustainable

Maverick continues its series on Sustainability in scholarly publishing and how the concept should be factored into all aspects of the organization and at all levels of operations. In this latest installment, Maverick Senior Associate, Simon Crump, draws from his 25+ years in production and supply chain management roles to reveal some simple steps publishers can take to ensure a more sustainable process for book production.

Making your supply chain more sustainable may appear to be a very daunting prospect. Fortunately, there is a lot of available information to understand and put into practice. Here are some simple ideas as to how you can do that.

One unexpected consequence of the pandemic was an increase in the popularity of printed books as people opted for activities that that got them away from their computer screens. There is a lot of talk about reducing your carbon footprint, which is now expressed as CO2e — that is CO2 for the carbon dioxide and e for all the other harmful gases, such as methane. In this context the printed book is actually very sustainable. You might keep it for a lifetime, in which case all of the CO2e is locked away on your shelf. It might be shared and read on a number of occasions, but the CO2e remains contained within the book and not released into the environment. It also has the advantage that the battery is never going to fail!

Nonetheless, there are still some simple steps publishers can take to make their books more sustainable by planning and collaborating with supply chain partners throughout the process.

It starts with design

When you begin the design of a book, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Have you spoken to your printer about the most sustainable options?
  • Do you know the most economic trim sizes for them to print?
  • Do you know how the length of the book and the print run can affect the method and cost of printing?
  • Do you require a vast range of paper types, or could your books be printed on fewer types of paper, including ones that work best with the presses being used?

If you work with your printer to answer these questions, then you will have from the design outset a book that optimizes the printing process, making it more sustainable.

The importance of paper selection 

The decisions you make around the paper type also impact sustainability. Of course, the paper needs to be appropriate to the printed content, but there is a wide variety of selections. Do you limit the number of paper grades and, if not, why? Do you choose an expensive grade of paper because you like it, even though something else might be just as appropriate? Will the reader actually care so long as they can read the book? This is a question you may want to consider when thinking about how the book is being used.

There is also the debate over whether to use recycled vs virgin paper. Virgin paper is made from trees that have been harvested specifically for making paper. These trees are in a managed cycle of coppicing a wood for paper manufacture; meaning trees are being planted to replace the ones being cut down. Another thing to look for are forest management certifications from organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Both of these schemes tell you that your paper is being manufactured in a responsible sustainable manner. They also have logos that can be printed on your books so that customers know the paper is responsibly sourced. At the end of the day, it is up to you as the publisher to decide what you want to do when it comes to paper selection.

Save paper by planning the number of pages and signatures

The number of pages that comprise the printed book, or the extent, must be an even number. The pages are then split into signatures, again of an even number of pages. These signatures are then bound together to make the book. Your printer can tell you how they are printing your books so you can understand how many pages make up a signature. If the printer says that they are printing with 32 pages in a signature, then you want your book to be a multiples of 32. This is called an even working. You can then think about how you can change your page extent to make an even working. Even workings are cheaper to print and bind and will save paper in the end.

Simple techniques, like setting the index in a smaller font size and removing the half-title page, can all bring your extent back to an even working number. Be sure to find out the even working signatures for the presses your printer is using.

Lithographic printing used to be the normal way books were printed until Inkjet printing came on the market. Inkjet printing is a digital process in which ink is dropped directly onto the paper based on the source PDF files, eliminating the need for traditional printing plates.

The removal of plates for the printing process, saves money and is more sustainable since you won’t have to recycle the plates at a later date, thus saving resources. So, if your book is being printed on an Inkjet press you need to check what the even workings are for that press. With a few simple steps you can reduce the number of pages, save paper, and make the process more sustainable.

Cover design with sustainability in mind

There are times when elaborate cover designs that incorporate foil and spot UVs are necessary. Spot UV refers to the application of a clear polymer coating to a specific area (or areas) of a printed piece to highlight it, rather than coating the entire surface of a printed item. Unfortunately, these elements make it more difficult to recycle the book. There are many green alternative materials that can be used in book production instead of plastics, glues, and foils. The more publishers that challenge, rather than accept, the norm, the more it will help with the creation of sustainable products.

Minimize distribution

Once the books are printed, you need to consider how you are going to get them from the printer to the warehouse, distributors, or directly to the customer. If you currently print in one location and then ship product around the world, explore the option of printing in the local markets to reduce the global shipping process. The lower manufacturing prices from Inkjet printing (see comments above) allow one to do this. Also, printers have set-up global partnerships to conduct local printing for their customers. This does depend on your print runs and is better suited to academic publishers and those with maximum print runs of 1,500 – 2,000 copies.

Print On Demand

Despite its name, Print On Demand (POD) is actually a distribution strategy instead of a printing method. It is based on the premise that a title is only printed when an order is received for it. Originally developed to keep books in print, and in small quantities towards the end of their life, POD is now also used as a tool for inventory management. POD is being used to help publishers reduce their inventory costs at warehouses, print closer to market, and get customers their books more quickly.

Assess whether you can use POD for a portion of your print run as in the following international sales scenario:

Territory Print run total of 600
USA 380
UK 200
Asia 20

In this case, you could use a distributed print and POD model instead of printing and shipping 600 copies — that is print 380 copies in the US and store them in your local warehouse and do a similar thing for the 200 copies required for the UK. Then, for 20 copies for Asia, work with a POD supplier in that region to manage those sales.

Smart warehousing and inventory

Do you know the full costs of a book? In addition to the UMC (Unit Manufacturing Cost), there are the costs associated with the book being transported to your warehouse, moved in and around it, and stored before it is packed for delivery to a customer. These costs will mount up, especially if the book sits in the warehouse for a long time before being sold or pulped.

Initial print runs, returns, and stock reductions all go hand-in-hand, and make up your inventory. If you get the first run right, then you will be more sustainable by reducing returns and stock reductions. We know that too many books are returned on a yearly basis that could have been returned to stock or pulped. How many books are you pulping due to a stock reduction that have just sat in the warehouse since being printed or been returned?

To be more sustainable, look at your initial print runs and calculate how many books you can actually sell. Factors that go into the print run include determining the most economical cost based on the page count and trim size, the sales projection based on comparable and previous editions, the marketing plan, and the ability to penetrate the market. While this might mean making some hard decisions around reducing your initial print run, it is better than producing books that just end up being pulped, having never been sold – let alone read!

These are some ideas and thoughts for consideration in how you can make the book supply chain more sustainable. It is always better to produce fewer books that are actually read than sending them out to pulping. Books are still very popular and show no signs of going away. Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do to produce them in a more sustainable way.

To learn more, download Maverick’s Sustainability Program service sheet.

By Simon Crump, Maverick Senior Associate

Simon Crump has worked for over 25 years for various publishers, mainly in production related roles. His most recent role was as Head of Supply Chain Operations at Cambridge University Press. He is passionate about producing beautiful books in all formats and technologies to the appropriate quality. His expertise covers product management; operations management, supply chain management; strategic planning; budgeting and forecasting; project management; change management; and process redesign. Simon is regarded as a strong and supportive leader who actively promotes a coaching environment of continual improvement and best practice.