Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Green Your Library

Eco-Libris and the Fringe Environment Issue go together like recycling and paper.  

Ever feel guilty about all the dead-trees lying around your house?  You can assuage your conscience at Eco-Libris, by planting a tree for every book you read at the bargain-basement price of $5 for 5 trees.  Eco-Libris has also been active in pushing publishers toward environmentally sustainable practices.

I had the opportunity to put a few questions to the CEO of Eco-Libris, Raz Godelnik about environmental writing, the Kindle, and how Eco-Libris actually works:

What prompted the founding of Eco-Libris? And why address your environmental concerns toward books and not, say, dishwashers?

For me it all started when I learned more about the environmental impacts of paper while doing some research for articles I wrote for an Israeli newspaper. I realized that it might take a while to get to the point where eco-friendly alternatives will replace virgin paper. Then, I talked with some friends about the idea of giving people the opportunity to balance out their paper consumption by planting trees and received good feedback about the idea.

The decision to focus on books was made after learning that only less than 10% of the paper used for printing books is made of recycled paper and because most books don’t have yet an online eco-friendly alternative, like magazines and newspapers. 

So, if you want a book, you usually find yourself purchasing the paper-made version. You also can’t tell people to stop reading books, because books are such a wonderful thing and an important part of our culture and education, so it seemed to me only natural to offer book lovers a new alternative to make their reading greener - planting trees for the books they read. I also love books - my mother is a librarian and I grew up in a house full of books - so it made me very happy to get myself occupied with a venture that is focused on books!

Btw - I read that using dishwashers can be in some cases more eco-friendly than hand washing.

Are there a few publishing companies that are doing an exceptional job of being environmentally conscious?

There are some big publishers that are ahead of the rest with greener practices, such as Random House, which set up a goal of increasing the use of recycled paper it uses to at least 30% by 2010 (from under 3% at in 2006), or Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, which announced last year on a new green policy will increase its publication paper purchase of FSC-certified paper to 30% and its use of recycled paper to 25%, of which 75% will be post-consumer waste.

Photo of Raz Godelnik, CEO of Eco-Libris

I would like to mention especially two publishers:

One is another one of the big publishers - Simon & Schuster. On the general level, it will also increase of the use of recycled fiber from its 10% in 2007 to a 25% by 2012 for books printed and bound in the U.S. Also, their Children's Publishing Imprint created last fall a new green series of books for children - "Little Green Books". This is the first eco-friendly line of children’s novelty and storybooks, aimed at parents and children looking to learn more about the environment. 

Each book in this series is devoted to educating children about the benefits of being green, and all the Little Green Books are made out of recycled materials. This is a great educational effort of S&S that is aimed at both kids and their parents and we're actually very proud to collaborate with them in their educational efforts - we co-sponsored an educational contest with them celebrating the new series and you can also find our tips how to save in paper on the Little Green website (PDF).

The second publisher I would like to mention is a smaller one that sets up a unique example of how a green publisher is capable of shining even in days of trouble economy. I'm referring to Chelsea Green Publishing, which is one of my favorite publishers, not only because of their great green books, but also because they walk the talk and exercise many green practices, including "printing 95 percent of our books on recycled paper with a minimum 30 percent post-consumer waste and aiming for 100 percent whenever possible." 

Are small publishers and publishers of literary journals behind the curve on using recycled material, or ahead of it?

It depends. Some like Chelsea Green Publishing and Island Press are at the front. Others are lagging behind. Being small has its own advantages (more flexibility, it's easier to make changes) and disadvantages (more difficult to negotiate better prices because of smaller volumes) for a publisher, and I believe it has a lot to do with the people who lead the publishing and their values. All in all, today when the premium for using recycled paper is much smaller (in some cases there's no premium at all), it's easier for small publishers to do this move and shift into using recycled paper.

Why did you decide to make Eco-Libris a for-profit venture?

We did a lot of thinking before we decided to start operating as a for-profit. We chose the for-profit model because we got to the conclusion that this model is the most effective one to accomplish our goals.

I think that nowadays it’s more understandable that there is no contradiction between doing good and doing well, or as one of our partners once said "profits and the environment are not at odds—only greed and the environment conflict each other." Microfinance is a great example of how you can combine a business approach with social goals and do it very successfully. We aim to follow this model and, as a green business, to be committed to both making reading more sustainable and to the triple bottom line: environmental, social and financial.

What place do you think the environment has or should have inside literature? Any favorite nature writers?

Environment is becoming a more significant issue in our life and our culture, and I think this shift is also translated into literature as well as to other cultural forms such as films and music. Still, this process takes some time so you don't see yet a flow of books on green themes, but there's definitely a growing number of them. Some of my favorite green writers are Bill McKibben ("Deep Economy"), Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food", "The Omnivore's Dilemma") and Kelly McMasters ("Welcome to Shirley").

 Slate's Green Lantern column has suggested that carbon offsets may not be worth it, depending on how efficiently an organization spends money on recapturing carbon. So, in light of your plant-trees-to-offset-books program: Does planting a tree for every book you read really negate the carbon footprint of buying a book? 

I believe much depends on the quality of the operation, whether you plant trees or invest in projects that generate alternative energy for example. If you do things right (like planting the right trees in the right place and manage the planting area later on properly) you can definitely receive the added value you're seeking in terms of carbon reduction.

We don't calculate the carbon offsets as we don't offer carbon offsets - our offer is very simple: to plant one tree for every book you read, sell, write or publish. The difference is not only in wording , but in the approach. 

Our approach is a much more holistic approach - we don't see trees only as carbon sinks, but as a precious natural resource that should treat with much more respect, as they provide many important benefits to the soil, water resources, living species and local communities. It's similar to the approach of UNEP's (United Nations Environmental Programme), which sees the overall benefits and significance of planting trees, on both environmental and social levels. That’s the concept behind the Billion Tree Campaign initiated by Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai (the campaign, by the way, also featured us on their website).

Why did you choose communities in Central America and Africa as places to plant trees -- why not plant trees in the US? How does planting tree help the communities you've chosen?

Eco-Libris partnered with three highly respected US and UK registered non-profit organizations (AIR, SHI and RIPPLE Africa) that work in collaboration with local communities in developing countries to plant these trees. These trees are planted in high ecological and sustainable standards in Latin America (Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Belize, Honduras) and Africa (Malawi), where deforestation is a crucial problem.

We chose to focus on these regions because we wanted to plant the trees where they have the most value. Planting trees in these places not only helps to fight climate change and conserve soil and water, but also benefits many local people, for whom these trees offer many benefits, such as improvement of crops (some trees are interplanted with crops to conserve the soil and organically fertilize the crops), protection of important water resources, assistance in decreasing the chances for natural disasters such as floods, and additional food and income (from fruit trees for example). 

So it's a very good feeling to know that these trees not only help the environment, but also provide these local communities with an opportunity for a better future and we're very proud in that. You can visit our planting partners' website to read more on their work with these communities (links to their websites are available at our partners' page).

Do you think that electronic publishing is going to overtake the dead-tree publishing world through devices like the Kindle? Or is the feel of paper against one's hand so magical that it will endure?

Firstly, I'd like to say that we don't know yet if e-books are better to the environment than paper books. Electronic books indeed don’t need paper and therefore no trees are cut down for their production. They don’t need transportation or physical storage and therefore no extra costs and extra footprint are required to bring the e-book from the publisher to the reader. Yet, there are other factors to be considered, such as their production, materials used, energy required for the reader’s use, and how recyclable they are. We follow articles and research done on this issue on our website.

So what’s the verdict? We still don't know yet as we’re lacking a full life-cycle assessment of reading e-books using Kindle (or Kindle 2 now) or other similar electronic book readers. Until we have that, we can’t really tell if and to what extent e-books are more environmentally-friendly in comparison to paper made books.

In respect with the question if e-books will rule the book business, I agree with Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green Publishing that we'll continue to see significant growth in sales of e-books but their market share will remain relatively slow for the near future. I believe we'll need to see a cultural shift that will take a couple of decades before e-books will take the place of paper made books as the main platform of reading.

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