Digital Publishing Sustainability

In knk’s last article on the state of sustainability efforts in the publishing industry, we concluded, at least at a high level, that digitalization of the industry was generally good for the environment, although there were still some challenges remaining. Here, we take a little deeper look at the sustainability of the digital publishing sector.

First, some clarification is necessary on what we mean by “digital publishing.” Technology has blurred the definition somewhat. The creation and management of publishers’ content has been digital for decades. And there are many examples where digitalization has made even further inroads into what would hitherto have been called “print” publishing. Think Print-on-Demand for example, where all processes except the final content consumption are digital. So when we talk of the digital publishing industry here, we are speaking of the consumption of content on digital devices. The waste generated by paper mills and print publications is often clearly visible, but the environmental cost of the manufacture, use, and disposal of electronic devices is still largely unseen.

Even the numbers are not clear now. The percentage of content consumed on digital devices depends considerably on which sector of the industry you are focused, but the consensus is that about 10-15% of content is consumed today on digital devices; more for newsfeeds, less for religious content for example.

Environmentally friendly – print or digital?

So is digital more environmentally friendly than print? On the face of it, there is no contest.  Print and pulp remain one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world, where over 60 pounds of water and half a pound of wood are typically consumed in making one single book. With digital products, it has been estimated that slightly more than 50% of the carbon emissions are incurred at the point of consumption (i.e. on the digital reader) and thus completely outside of the domain of the publisher.  We noted in Part 3 of our previous articles on publishing sustainability, that energy consumption at the digital reader and at the data centers that support it, incurred a significant cost to the environment.  Despite the common conception that the internet is a “cloud”, it is, in reality, a huge physical network of (massive) computing equipment, which generates a vast amount of heat. The major players are engaged in the issue.  Amazon is the world’s largest distributor of digital content and also one of the world’s largest cloud service providers (AWS) and has set up admirable internal sustainability goals. These include the Climate Pledge Friendly, Amazon Second Chance, and Think Big initiatives among others. Microsoft’s Azure and other large cloud services providers have all taken it upon themselves to improve their sustainability records with bold plans, self-audits, and targets, but these individual company efforts may not be enough by themselves.


We are beginning to realize that like in many human endeavors, it takes a village to create the best outcomes. ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) factors are increasingly important non-financial factors to businesses and consumers alike.  Consumers are increasingly favoring those businesses that exhibit some degree of ethical and social conscience. Businesses, including publishers, are taking note. As consumers embrace social causes more and more, they support with their spending, those businesses that are aligned with their own values.

One report claims that for an e-reader to be sustainable (i.e. for its environmental impact to be lower than paper), the owner needs to read 322 books of 110 pages each. How often does that happen?  If we are to lessen the environmental effects of the manufacture, use and end-of-life disposal of electronic readers, we need to treat the problem holistically.  Electronic devices like e-readers and cell phones are full of expensive materials that are readily available – currently.  These devices need to be designed and manufactured in a way that makes them and their components, easily recyclable and re-usable.  We still have some way to go.  It is beneficial for Amazon to have its own bold initiatives on sustainability, but if the consumer still expects to have a single book delivered overnight with all its environmentally expensive packaging, then we will continue to fill landfills worldwide at an unsustainable rate. We will eventually trade a little convenience for a cleaner, healthier world.

Microsoft’s Executive Sustainability Playbook

Microsoft has recently commissioned and published a roadmap, authored by EY, that describes an Executive Sustainability Playbook for business. It’s not aimed uniquely at publishers but contains much that applies. Technology deployment is a big part of their solution, including moving business information platforms to the cloud (with quantitative reasons, supporting data, and examples).  The cloud is important because data is the engine of sustainability, and there is a need to share data across the stakeholder ecosystem in which businesses in general, and publishers in particular, operate. Externally, this means that each business cannot fulfill its sustainability obligations without engaging partners, suppliers, customers, and all peripheral entities in their efforts.  Internally, businesses should recognize the value of implanting sustainability in the company culture, with metrics on what the company expects.

Companies need to ensure that sustainability in the supply chain is good for business, The Microsoft report endorses the notion that consumers expect companies to take action and promote sustainability.  Their research shows that 25% of consumers today would pay a premium for more sustainable goods and services.  In terms of the supply chain, they report that 60% of insurance losses in 2020 ($54bn) have been caused by catastrophic results of extreme climatic events, concluding that physical risks are increasingly impacting the supply chain. The solution, they say, demands the attention of partners and all C-level management, plus the creation of a Chief Sustainability Officer position with wide-ranging executive responsibilities. And it demands that companies must be prepared to enhance their support for regulators in the future. It takes a village, remember!


Digital sustainability goals in publishing have direct impacts in editorial, production, distribution, and indirectly in the end-of-life disposal of digital devices. Additionally, consumers need to change their delivery expectations and consumption habits and publishers must recognize that sustainable business is good business and that sustainable practices can be monetized.  Print publishers have already embraced these ideas, and have made improvements in using recycled paper, inks, and consumables. Many publishers are committed to action as in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the Publishers Compact within it, and the Responsible Media Forum among others.  As you can see, digital publishers have many opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint.  We can and must do more.




Photo by Jingda Chen on Unsplash