Green metadata in the book supply chain

Image designed by Freepik In 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, produced a report that highlighted the urgency of the climate crisis. It expressed that more than a century of burning fossil fuels has led to an increase in global temperatures of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. Among devastating outcomes such as an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, the rise in temperature has impacted biodiversity, and has meant that around half the global population now contend with severe water scarcity for at least one month in the year, jeopardizing lives, energy, and food security.

2023 marked the warmest year on record, further emphasising the global emergency that we face. Halting or reversing this pattern involves the curtailing of greenhouse gas emissions (also known as GHGs), requiring governmental and corporate cooperation on a global scale. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which was established in 1990, is a globally recognised standard for organizations measuring and managing GHG emissions and provides a framework for reducing GHG emissions. It is divided into three Scopes: Scope 1 consists of direct emissions from a corporation such as fuel combustion; Scope 2 covers indirect emissions such as those from purchased electricity, heat and cooling; and Scope 3, the largest emissions category, composites what is known as indirect ‘value chain’ emissions, which refers to the full range of activities that that businesses go through to bring a product from its conception to its end-of use, encompassing design, production and distribution. It is this category, in the context of the book industry, that the present article will address.

The decarbonization of supply chains is key to corporate climate action. A typical supply chain can be roughly broken down into five main areas: raw material extraction and processing, manufacturing, transportation, retail and use, and disposal. Across every sector of the book industry supply chain, there have been initiatives to identify areas for improvement and to adopt more sustainable practises, with every intermediary from publishers to printers to suppliers to booksellers, evaluating their impact on the environment and making targeted interventions. Some examples include: the Publishers Association have issued a declaration, ‘Publishing Declares’ on behalf of key actors in the book industry supply chain, which expresses the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The Booksellers Association (BA) launched the Sustainable Action Bookselling Group, a manifesto that presents advice in order to minimize supply chain waste, with a particular focus on packaging and disposal, and CPI Books, the UK’s leading printing service provider, comply with FSC Certification chain of custody requirements. The Independent Publishers Guild (IPG), alongside sustainability consultants Carnstone produced an award-winning piece of research called Book Journeys whose findings highlighted how much carbon emissions could be curtailed by the optimisation of distribution practises, with the IPA Publisher Accelerator 2030 Manifesto also highlighting this problem, outlining plans to minimize transportation distance by building an international network of digital print-on-demand facilities whereby print files could be shared globally so that books can be produced locally to their point of sale.

Meanwhile, leading trade associations for publishing and bookselling have agreed plans to reduce their environmental impact collectively via a new Sustainability Industry Forum (SIF), bringing together the Association of Authors’ Agents, the Booksellers Association, Book Industry Communications, the Independent Publishers Guild, the Publishers Association, and the Society of Authors, marking the first cross-industry initiative designed to tackle the negative environmental impact of the book industry, identifying the supply chain, paper and printing, book finishes and raw materials, and end-of-life treatment of books as key areas to be addressed. Alongside the SIF, within the book industry supply chain, in which Nielsen BookData have a long and established role, the Book Industry Communications (BIC) Green Supply Chain Committee works to offset carbon emissions emitted by the UK Book Industry.

Across digital supply chains, metadata is the language with which information about sourcing, production and distribution is tracked, analysed, and managed, between computer systems without human intervention, allowing for the seamless and unambiguous communication between different intermediaries within industries. Metadata that denotes energy efficient practises within supply chains is referred to as ‘Green Metadata’. Working alongside BIC and Editeur, we are encouraging our data providers who use the ONIX standard to use green statements in their product records, which serves the dual purpose of allowing consumers and suppliers to make informed sustainable choices; as well as encouraging other data suppliers to do the same.

Within ONIX, the xml-based book industry standard developed by EDiTEUR, most of the existing descriptive metadata codes relating to sustainability relate to the physical attributes of a book, defining its materials and functionality, and therefore uses the “Product Form Feature ” () data element, and these codes can be found on ONIX codelist 79. Aside from transportation, paper is the biggest contributor to GHG emissions from the book industry and therefore, many of the codes refer to the paper. Examples include ‘FSC Certification’, ‘Claimed Pre- and Post consumer waste’. Other materials used in book production that contribute to the climate crisis, though to a lesser extent than paper, include inks, binding, finishing and adhesives codes that denote ‘Green Inks’, ‘Green Adhesives’, ‘Paper Produced by Green Technology’, ‘Carbon Emission Certification Scheme’. So far, whilst there has been plenty of initiative towards sustainable practises within the industry, these codes have not yet been widely utilised by our data suppliers.

Smaller independent publishers and authors without BIC membership and don’t use the ONIX format to provide their bibliographic information, composite a significant part of the book industry and similarly have a responsibility towards minimizing their GHG emissions. Less control over materials and distribution practises of their various suppliers and distributors means that this isn’t as easy. There are a number of resources that help smaller publishers & writers/self-published authors identify such practises and make more sustainable choices. Society of Authors’ Tree to Me is a campaign to help authors talk to their publishers about the sustainability of their books, and adds authors’ voices to the fight to a more sustainable future. There is also the Accreditation and Standards Map from Book Industry Communications (BIC), which identifies sustainable practises. Meanwhile, the Independent Publishers Association have released the aforementioned Publishing 2030 Accelerator Manifesto as well as a carbon calculator. The Independent Publishers Guild’s Sustainability Action Group and Zero Carbon Toolkit can be used to calculate the total emissions for the total print run of a book. The Green Book Alliance have produced an applicable green checklist of questions publishers can ask their printers to assess whether or not they are printing in a sustainable manner.

There are strong indications that there will be a bigger push towards sustainability in the next 5-10 years, in every industry. This year, the European Union introduced regulation on goods that contribute to deforestation (European Union Regulation on Deforestation-Free Products), that will take effect on December 30th of 2024, ensuring that the book industry, as well as other industries, complies with the standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council (i.e.: FSC-certification), which points to an increase in sustainability reporting.

Consumer attitudes also reflect the necessity for a corporate responsibility on the issue of climate change. According to research from NIQ, when asked who was more responsible for making progress on sustainability, brands (46%) and local governments (40%) were ranked ahead of consumers (37%). 79% of consumers indicated that they would be likely to choose a particular retailer if there were sustainable options available, and some retailers, such as Amazon, eBay, and World of Books, have introduced sustainability-focused schemes such as tick boxes and Sustainability Pledges, enabling consumers to make sustainable choices. The message is clear: all industries have a role to play as we collectively aim towards a net-zero future . This is made possible by the data that is available to the consumer, as well as other actors in the industry. The more green metadata we are supplied with by publishers and data providers, the better positioned we are to facilitate these much-needed changes to the supply chain, so if you have any questions, please get in touch with us, we’ll be happy to help.


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