Penguin Books - publishing house

overall Rating:



Sofia Singh Digpaul
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Penguin Books can be commended in its commitment to reducing its environmental impact. As they say, it is the right thing to do and makes good business sense. What I found to be most interesting is their willingness to use their position and the power of knowledge to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Credit must also be given in their work to measure (publish) and reduce their carbon emissions. However, I find issue with their reliance on FSC certified products. We, as consumers, must work to increase paper recycling and encourage our local authorities to improve their recycling facilities, so that recycled paper becomes more efficient and widely used.

what it's made of:


Penguin Books produces books. The main material component in books is paper. They state that 100% is sustainable sourced because it is all FSC (Forest Stewardship Council - certification organisation created to combat illegal logging and prevent deforestation) certified or a recycled FSC certified mix. The FSC supposedly label guarantees products from sustainably managed forests. They justify their sustainable sourcing claims with the fact that the WWF and The Woodland Trust (a woodland conversation non-profit in the UK) both support FSC and by adhering to the Book Chain Project. The latter helps 28 publishers make so-called “better decisions” about their operations, in terms of forest sourcing, chemical & materials and labour & environment. Their Forest Risk Assessment gives FSC a top score of 5/5 stars. In Penguins Sustainability Policy they state that they commissioned an independent study to analyse the carbon and environmental footprints of their paper and the main recycled options on the market and found theirs to have the lowest impact. I was unable to find the actual report. Penguin makes this information readily available, a clear sign of transparency, but is not a guarantee of anything. 

Indeed, the FSC has been accused of greenwashing and of laundering illegal logging activities. The Environmental Investigation Agency (a non-profit based in Washington DC, USA) found several cases where the FSC label was obtained and used to cover extensive illegal operations. For example, in 2014 a Greenpeace report slammed FSC for supporting “wood mining” in the already-ravaged Dvisnky Forest in Russia. In 2015 a US flooring company pleaded guilty to smuggling illegal timber from a FSC certified Chinese company. The issues with the FSC are so blatant and extensive that Simon Counsill (executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK) launched the website. He says that FSC are extremely lenient when they inspect logging operations and that the certifiers lack expertise. It has also been said that the logging industry has gained influence over the FSC due to competition from other forest certification organisation. These are said to “by industry for industry”. When evaluating the overall impact of FSC on deforestation, it was discovered that it had little effect. Most of its certifications were in Europe and North America, as many loggers in low-income countries don’t have the resources to obtain certification. 

So, are there alternatives? Yes, there are. Many studies have found that recycled paper is not only environmentally friendly, but also can be manufactured easily and produce competitive products of excellent quality. There are problems with collection of wastepaper, easily remedied with improvements in waste management, and with electricity generated from fossil fuels, prevented by switching to renewables. As for the other materials used in books, such as glue, ink etc, Penguin merely states that they try to source them sustainably using their Sustainable Production Toolkit. I was unable to find any specifics.

how it's made:


Penguin books are designed in the UK, paper is milled in Sweden and Finland, transported to third party printers, then transported to warehouses and delivered to retail points. Obviously, books travel a great distance. As part of their Sustainability Policy, Penguin pledged to measure and reduce their CO2 footprint. They discovered that their Scope 1 emissions (those that they control directly), had decreased in 2020 due to a switch to renewables. Their scope 2 and 3 emissions (those from the wider supply chain) were the highest, with paper milling and printing contributing the most. 
Their largest supplier of paper is Swedish company Holmen. The sustainability section of the Holmen website details extensive action to reduce environmental impacts. They seek to integrate circular economy principles in their operations, protect biodiversity by planting trees and produce sustainability reports. This is excellent, but they still use FSC certified paper, and they are only 1 of the 70+ operational suppliers that Penguin works with. I was also unable to find out who their other suppliers are.

There are other positive notes. Penguin has reduced its single-use plastic consumption by 46% by not using shrink wrap and plastic bubbles in packaging, using instead the ‘load hog lid’ method (a pallet of books is formed, a solid lid made of reusable plastic is placed on top and straps coming out of it are attached to the bottom) for local deliveries and recycled cardboard for in-box book protection. They do recognise that they need to keep working on reducing plastic use in international deliveries. 

In their various reports, they do state that they comply with legislation, namely EU Timber Regulations (bans illegal logging and trafficking of wildlife), REACH (EU law for hazardous chemicals) and PROP 65 (California law for chemicals). It also set itself the target of achieving ISO 14001:2015. This is an international standard for environmental management systems, whereby organisations incorporate the ISO requirements in their systems. It can be purchased for about US$ 150 (cheap) and, to obtain the certification, all obligations must be met. The good thing about this is that it encourages companies to reduce their impacts. The bad thing is that the companies need only meet industry standards. Is this enough? Based on the on-going and ever worsening climate crisis, I would say no. There are ways to reduce impacts. For example, Pearson’s has begun to print by demand, reducing waste and resource use. 

Encouragingly, they say that where it is impossible to reduce emission, they invest in offsetting. For Penguin, this means collaborating with Climate Partner to protect 1,000 ha of forest in Campo Grande, Brazil. Climate partner has so far planted 1.7 million trees and works to protect the original savannah land.

who makes it:


Penguin Books is part of Penguin Random House, which, in turn, is part of Bertelsmann (a massive media, services and education conglomerate). As part of their Sustainability Policy, Penguin have pledged to use their position to raise awareness of climate change and encourage positive behaviour change. So far, they have a dedicated environmental publishing imprint with Sir David Attenborough (legendary British naturalist, known for making incredible nature documentaries). This is awesome. Also awesome is their commitment to donating books and raising funds for literacy. As of 2020, they had donated 425,680 books and in 2019 they worked with the National Literacy Trust (UK non-profit working to increase literacy in disadvantaged children). They also encourage their employees to participate in environmental activism. For example, employees in the Australia offices took part in Clean Up Australia day and collected 200kg of garbage. 

They have also made a Modern Slavery & Human Trafficking Statement, where they denounce slavery and outline how they address it. According to this statement, they incorporate ethics and sustainability in their supplier-selection process. For existing suppliers, they contact them to ask about their ethics and code of conducts, then create a scoring matrix to identify high priority supplier risks and create plans to help them improve their practises. On the one hand, one could make the argument that they could just drop the supplier. On the other hand, they do want them to improve, which is good. However, I was unable to find any details about who they helped, how and what the results were. 

Most of their sustainability reporting focuses on carbon emissions. This is good, but there are many other ways to be unsustainable. For example, I was unable to find any information on whether they take steps to ensure all workers in their supply chain are paid a living wage. I was also unable to find out if they plan on moving beyond FSC certifications. They merely state that they are always looking to improve. Their books travel a huge amount of distance, but I did not uncover any plans to reduce the emissions from travel. In Europe alone, books travel thousands of miles because the warehouses are primarily in the UK (which is an island).