Case Studies, Sustainability, Trends in Publishing

A holistic approach to sustainability – Oekom Verlag

Oekom is the German “publishing house for Ecological Communication”;  it was founded in 1989 and has made the topics of ecology and sustainability its focus ever since. Originally it published the journal “politische ökologie” (“political ecology”) and has built on this to become a publisher of 12 journals and approx. 70 other publications annually. The company defines itself as a “Social Entrepreneur” and employee participation, flexible working and staff wellbeing have been at the centre of its philosophy from the outset. Ecology has always been an important factor in the day-to-day running of the company; recycled paper has always been used for office communication; and for many years only food from sustainable sources has been served to staff and visitors. Oekom exclusively uses sustainable products from specialised suppliers. Anke Oxenfarth, Head of Sustainability and editor in chief for “politische ökologie” says: “If you work for Oekom, sustainability is surrounding you all the time: from the ink in pens and toilet paper to the electricity used in offices and for servers; everything is sourced sustainably. When we travel for business, we only travel by rail, even for distances over 500 km. All new members of staff have a sustainability induction when they start working for us, so the approach is completely integral to all company policies.”

Despite this philosophy, Oekom soon recognised that a more strategic approach to sustainability was needed to make improvements to products and the industry as a whole. Therefore in 2007 a mission statement was created to encapsulate the sustainability approach. Since 2008, there has been a particular focus reducing CO2 emissions by the new established Sustainability Officer. Oekom publications have always been printed on recycled paper (Blue Angel/FSC) where possible and today the vast majority of paper used has sustainability certification; and in 2016 the company started to abandon all shrink wrap from its product range. “We had anticipated a big pushback from distributors, but it was actually found to be very workable and now, customers complain if they receive a shrink-wrapped book (that was produced before 2016 or if a bookseller shrink wraps one of our books at their own account),” says Anke Oxenfarth. In 2011, Oekom made another big push towards its sustainability goals with the creation of a dedicated Executive Department of Sustainability (which has been led by Anke Oxenfarth ever since) and by launching the Green Publishing Initiative.

The idea for a more systematic initiative to encourage sustainability within the publishing industry grew in 2009 and 2010, when it started to become a topic with other industry stakeholders as well. However, funding for this was needed, so Oekom Verlag took the lead in 2011 and stared a “green publishing” project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, in cooperation with research bodies in Berlin (IÖW) and Heidelberg (ifeu) – they provided the scientific background – and the Frankfurt Book Fair, with Oekom being responsible for communication on the subject within the industry.

The first part of the project ran from 2011-2013 and focused on the development of industry-wide standards. Under the title “Sustainable Publishing – New Environmental Standards for the Publishing Industry”, the team held workshops for stakeholders from across the industry and developed a set of criteria backed by environmental research. Not all of the suggested criteria were initially accepted, and work still needs to be done around some of them, for example a commitment to ensure products are free from biogenetics.

After the criteria had been agreed, the second step was to develop a certification and approval process. This project had the title “Development of an eco-label Blue Angel for eco-friendly printed products” and its outcome was the “Blue Angel RAL-UZ 195” (Blue Angel) for printed matters certificate, which was approved and developed as an industry standard in 2015. This certificate encompasses the entire production cycle and ensures not only that paper and packaging are sustainable, but also the printing process, including the sourcing of inks and energy suppliers.

Currently, the certification does not include Sales and Distribution channels. Anke Oxenfarth says this is “a real shame, but it would have been too big a project to establish. You would open a can of worms if you were to try and formalise this. We at Oekom support sustainable distribution channels as far as we can, and a lot of work has to happen within the industry as a whole to improve a global, sustainable distribution chain.
“Sustainability has become a ‘buzz word’ in this industry and many publishers have started looking at it, but many are only engaging with individual projects that are not embedded in an overall strategy. If more publishers adopted a holistic approach to sustainability, such as we do ourselves and as some – but only a few – others do, it would make the discussion around this topic a whole lot more meaningful.”

More information about the Initiative can be found (in German) under www.greenpublishing.de; some documentation is available in English from here: Green Publishing – Downloads

[written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

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