Update, March 2023: as a result of our work on Damian's book, we were shortlisted for the HP Sustainability Award at the IPG Independent Publishing Awards. The judges said: 'It’s impressive to see the level of detail in this sustainability work – they’re really scrutinising everything. It’s a great example of an independent publisher using its agility and freedom to improve.'
In 2021 we published the first Vertebrate Publishing book which we accounted for as carbon negative. For us, this was a step in the right direction, and was all driven by the brilliant author Damian Hall (the book was his autobiography, In It for the Long Run). It felt like we were starting to get to grips with our responsibility to the environment.
The only frustration with this exercise was that the maths behind the carbon accounting simply comprised basic estimations based on some industry standards. It was all a bit unsatisfactory. Wouldn’t it be great if we could really dive into the numbers of one of our books and really examine its carbon cost?
So, that’s what we’ve done with Damian’s new book, We Can’t Run Away From This – which is an enlightening and funny/depressing examination of the running industry’s environmental impact.
Over the last few months, we’ve worked with carbon accounting specialists Our Carbon to look at the many and various steps in the production and sales lifecycle of a book like Damian’s – in fact, almost exactly like Damian’s: because We Can’t Run Away From This is so similar in length, format and so on to In It for the Long Run, we’ve been able to base our numbers very closely on the latter. We pulled together lots of data from In It for the Long Run, including sales and shipping data up to the end of 2021 (the book published in May 2021, and we were taking pre-orders from March), to help us better predict the carbon cost for We Can’t Run Away From This.
Because we feel it is important that we are transparent about our carbon accounting with this book, we’re publishing the various numbers here – and you can also see the Our Carbon summary here – and we can confidently say we have completed the carbon accounting process with Our Carbon under ISO 14064-1, which is the internationally recognised standard for carbon accounting.
Calculated carbon emissions for the We Can’t Run Away From This project: 7.27 tonnes CO2e*
Calculated carbon emissions per book (based on 2,500 books): 1.82 kilograms CO2e
Carbon hotspots: electricity associated with book printing (4.24 tonnes CO2e), and paper and ink (1.2 tonnes CO2e)
These numbers include Our Carbon’s certainty factoring, in which we scored 3.67 out of 5 (which is above average).
By way of comparison:
A return flight from London to Hong Kong is about 4.5 tonnes CO2e.
A UK steak is about 5.8 kilograms CO2e.
A pint of dairy milk is about 1 kilogram CO2e.
*CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent. This is a metric measure that is used to account for all the main greenhouse gases together in one unit by factoring in each greenhouse gas with each global warming potential (GWP). This means that CO2e accounts for CO2 and all the other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide.
So, those are the headline numbers regarding emissions for the project, but what do we do with them?
Well, we’re going to offset the carbon cost of the book. Before the specifics, here’s what Damian writes about offsetting in the book:
'When I first heard of carbon offsetting it sounded like a brill idea. Paying someone to take my guilt away. Now, though, it’s seen as buying our way out of trouble rather than addressing the actual problem. A fig leaf to cover business as usual, our continuing reliance on fossil fuels – when that’s the thing that needs to change.'
More about that in the book itself (page 124 onwards).
We’re offsetting because it’s all we can do now. Before this project, we didn’t really have a clue about the scale of the actual problem (if it is even is a problem, big or small, with books – discuss) and whether or how it needed addressing.
So, three things will happen:
For every pre-ordered copy of We Can’t Run Away From This – ordered on our website ahead of publication on 6 October – we’ll pay £1 to our chosen rewilding project, Trees Not Tees; and for every five copies sold, they will plant one tree.
We will offset the carbon cost of the project by purchasing credits with Our Carbon which will contribute to reforestation in Costa Rica. This BaumInvest project combines premium-quality standards of a recognised forest carbon offset project with multiple ecological and socio-economic benefits for local communities and the environment. This project is one of the first afforestation/reforestation projects in the world which gained Gold Standard Certification after the launch of the new Gold Standard Land Use and Forests in November 2013.
We’re also going to take a proper look at our responsibility to the environment (scroll to the bottom for more).
Carbon accounting: more detail
Here’s what we looked at in more detail (in descending order of carbon cost). The summary per scope can also be found here, along with the certainty score per item.*
*What is a scope?
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are commonly reported in three scopes (1, 2, 3) under the GHG Protocol. Scope 1 corresponds to ‘direct emissions’. These are emissions directly owned or controlled by an organisation. Scope 2 corresponds to ‘indirect emissions’. These are emissions from electricity, heat and steam purchased by an organisation. Scope 3 corresponds to ‘other indirect emissions’. These are associated with all other emissions sources from an organisation that they do not have direct ownership or control, but are indirectly responsible for. There are 15 categories under Scope 3, such as waste, water, employee commuting, and the transport associated with an organisation’s value chain.
If you have any questions about any of this, please do contact us and we’ll do our best to answer, clarify or fill in any blanks.
(Scope 3.1, scope 3.3, scope 3.4)
When we embarked on the exercise, we guessed that printing and transportation would be the big carbon costs for the book. Printing is the obvious big one, as it’s the actual production of the physical book, and that has turned out to be the case. Electricity, paper and ink constituted 5.67 tonnes (78 per cent) of the project’s CO2e.
Damian’s book is printed by Clays in Suffolk. Clays are one of the UK’s leading book printers and we’ve worked with them for many years. They have their own sustainability policy, and we are proud to partner with them on this book.
The book is 224 pages long, with an additional eight-page colour section and a paperback cover. Our first print run is 2,500 copies, and we estimate this requires 1.1 tonnes of paper (including all three types of paper required) and 5.4 kilograms of ink. The paper comes from two mills in Sweden, and is transported to Clays by road – a journey on average of around 1,100 miles. The paper is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), so it is from sources which have achieved certain standards in environmental, social and economic responsibility. The inks are transported from multiple suppliers, with Clays’ major ink suppliers sourcing inks from Japan, Germany, India and the UK. While we’re unable to specifically state the energy (electricity) consumption for the printing and binding of the books, the total manufacturing time at the printer was approximately 4.1 hours and the emissions for the printing process electricity consumption are estimated by Our Carbon to be 4.24 tonnes CO2e.
Each finished book weighs about 300 grams and is packaged at the printer in plastic wraps weighing approximately fifty grams, with forty books to a wrap. The wraps are a mixture of LLDPE, LDPE and MDPE classed under the recycling code LDPE4, and are recyclable with other soft plastics.
That’s the printing: the printed and wrapped books are then ready to be transported on our behalf.
As expected, when it comes to the carbon costs, transportation follows after printing: a book goes on a long journey before it finds its way to your hands – from printer to distributor, from distributor to wholesaler and/or Amazon, from wholesaler to retailer (or from Amazon to you), from retailer to you, and so on. Downstream transportation, as Our Carbon call this (scope 3.9), actually only ended up being 1.2 tonnes (16.5 per cent) of the project’s CO2e. But, combined with printing, that’s 94.5 per cent of the project’s CO2e taken care of.
Where do the books go?
Once Clays have printed the books, they transport them to wherever we’d like them to go. This is usually all to the warehouse of our distributor (Central Books) in east London, but in the case of Damian’s book, it’s a split delivery: 2,200 to Central Books, and 300 to us up here in Sheffield. This is standard pallet delivery on an HGV to Central Books, a journey of about 100 miles to London. Our Sheffield stock was sent by courier, approximately 190 miles from Clays to Sheffield.
Once they’ve arrived at Central, the books will be shipped onwards to any of Central’s customers who place an order or request stock to hold on consignment. This might include wholesalers (such as Gardners, Cordee or Hills), Amazon (for its various national fulfilment centres) or retailers big and small – including Waterstones. It also includes stock transfers from Central to our Sheffield office. We provided Our Carbon with details of quantities, dates and post codes for these orders for In It for the Long Run so they could base their numbers for We Can’t Run Away From This on something real.
While we can say that Central shipped just over 3,000 copies of In It for the Long Run to twenty-two Amazon fulfilment centres in 2021, and that Amazon sold about 2,300 copies that year, we unfortunately don’t know where they shipped the books to and how far those books travelled from the fulfilment centre to the customer. (We could estimate that it’s not far, as the Prime model wouldn’t really work if books or other products had to travel millions of miles from a fulfilment centre to your door.)
We also provided Our Carbon with details of the customer shipments we sent direct from Sheffield, including individual customer orders placed on our website or Amazon Marketplace, where we operate a shop. It’s important to state that we didn’t provide any identifiable personal information, simply post codes.
So, that leaves about 0.4 tonnes of CO2e, which can be accounted for by other aspects of the production and publishing process, including our office electricity consumption (0.05), travel for a photoshoot associated with the project (0.1), and some commuting/working-from-home allowance (0.09). Damian also travelled by train to our Sheffield office in September (0.04) to sign copies of the books before we shipped them to our website pre-order customers.
End of life
That sounds weird, doesn’t it? One thing that came up during this exercise was what happens to the book when it reaches its ‘end of life’ – when you’ve finished reading it. It’s a common thing in other areas, specifically in this case running gear such as trainers, which are usually binned when they reach their end of life (i.e. wear out), although there are an increasing number of programmes such as JogOn and ReRun being set up to recycle gear.
Informal research suggests no one actually bins books, or even recycles them; we pop them on the shelf, lend them to friends or family, sell them (on eBay or Facebook groups, for example), give them to a charity shop.
We asked Our Carbon for more information about how they approach this:
‘Before calculating the carbon footprint of any item we decide the scope of the calculation: the two most commonly used scopes are cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave. In Vertebrate’s case, we used a cradle-to-gate approach in which we calculated the carbon impact of a product from the moment it’s produced to the moment it enters the store. This approach is mostly used in cases where the end of life of the product is not clear and very much depends on the person who purchases the item. In contrast, cradle-to-grave covers the entire lifecycle of a product, including its use and disposal. This approach is mainly used for items that have a more defined end of life, like any simple metal and plastic item.’
It was an interesting question to be asked, and we’re confident of the answer, but do let us know if you do something different with your books after you’ve read them.
What does Damian think about all of this?
‘I’m so proud to be working with a publisher who takes our climate and ecological emergency seriously. Within reason, we should continue doing what brings us joy and books do that (less so my new one!). Books, while they have a CO2e footprint, like just about everything, aren’t The Problem. No one expects perfection, but we can all make progress and that’s what Vertebrate are doing. It takes time, money and courage, but they’re leading the way. Thank you.’
What does Vertebrate Publishing think about all of this?
And what are we going to do about it?
The whole process has been fascinating. We’d probably have guessed that printing and transportation would be the big hitters, but we couldn’t have estimated just how the whole project would break down. It’s given us some valuable intel about our business practices, and looking ahead to 2023 it’s helped us to realise that it’s time we properly addressed our responsibility to the environment (you’ll note there’s currently no sustainability policy on our website). For Vertebrate Publishing, Damian’s book is about so much more than selling some books and making a bit of money.
What do we do already? We’ve been printing with only rare exception on FSC-certified paper since 2009 (since the first print run of Tom Hutton’s Wales Mountain Biking, if you were wondering). We recycle as much as we can, and we minimise waste in the office. We’re taking a good look at the finishes on our books (such as laminations and special cover treatments) and deciding what’s actually necessary.
While we’re not going to do a Chouinard, we’d like to think it should be possible to operate the business with the lowest possible carbon footprint, producing our books sustainably with environmentally optimised materials and manufacturing methods, printing only what we need (if we even print at all … ) and distributing books with the best models and working with the right print and distribution partners.
In the short term, we would like to have an outline sustainability policy in place for 1 April 2023 – even if it’s just a few bullet points which we’re working towards – and we will strive to build on this each year.
But, really, we need to do a full carbon audit of the business, and that’s what we intend to do in 2023 – potentially working again with Our Carbon. This audit will help inform what larger actions we will take and to what timescales – short term, medium term and long term.