Sustainability, Digitalisation back

Anke Oxenfarth: "The elephant in the room is the paper"

Anke Oxenfarth: "The elephant in the room is the paper"
Photo: © privat / Mario González Toimil

The publishing industry is in moral dilemma: more sustainable production or continuing as before? How do yellow pages become green products? Anke Oxenfarth is a literary and social scientist. Since 1999 she has been working for oekom Verlag, the only sustainable publishing house in Germany. At Future Publish this year she will give a lecture on sustainable publishing. Ms. Oxenfarth: How does future publishing look like?

Interview Boris Messing


CCB Magazine: Hello Ms. Oxenfarth, in 2011 you launched the project "New Environmental Standards for the Publishing Industry" for oekom Verlag together with the Frankfurt Book Fair, a nationwide model project. One of the results was the "Small 1x1 of sustainable publishing". Shouldn't we do without rustling newspapers and artfully bound books altogether?   

Anke Oxenfarth: Why should we give it up?   

CCB Magazine: Because it would be logically consistent. In Germany, 250 kilograms of paper are consumed per capita per year. Although 75 percent of this is waste paper, if other countries were to consume that much, there would be no more forests. 

To abandon books and newspapers would be totally insane

Anke Oxenfarth:No, to abandon books and newspapers would be completely insane. Digital reading or e-book readers are not the solution. In fact, the Internet is one of the biggest power guzzlers of all. If the Internet were a country - the Greenpeace study "Clicking Greener" came to this conclusion as early as 2017 - it would be one of the sixth largest electricity consumers in the world. How high the share of e-book readers is in this is not quite clear. What can be said, however: The raw materials needed to make the switch to digital products are finite and would mainly come from countries where human rights are trampled underfoot and where the extraction of raw materials has long led to considerable social and ecological disruptions.

CCB Magazine:But the trend is moving from analogue to digital.  

Anke Oxenfarth: I don't think books will ever disappear completely. The invention of modern letterpress printing by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 was a decisive step towards cultural civilization, and we do not want to part with it. Around 82,000 new books are still being published in Germany every year. E-books also have a meagre share of the book market of only five percent - although their share is growing. Media history has shown: When a new medium is added, the old ones do not disappear completely. Change takes decades. Apart from that, I share the arguments of the 130 reading researchers who published them at the end of 2018 in the Stavanger Declaration on the "Advantage of the printed book over the e-book for a deeper understanding of texts and the retention of content". The Stavanger Declaration plausibly proves that our brain processes information differently when we read it on the Internet, on our mobile phone or in a book. No, we do not have to do without books and newspapers. We need other solutions.

CCB Magazine:Such as?   

Anke Oxenfarth: With sustainable publishing, the first question that arises is what impact the product I create has: Where are the Achilles' heels and what can I change? In concrete terms, for printed books this means that I should look at what paper I print on. If I use recycled paper, I use significantly fewer resources. I also invest in recycling management - I use less water, less electricity. Then I have to look at what printing inks I use: Do they contain mineral oil or not? In the meantime it has become standard practice to print with mineral oil-free inks. I also have to think about how I plan my print run: do I rather assume a realistic sales volume or do I say we print 5000 more. If we sell those, good, if not, we have to stamp them and that would be less ecological. It's also very important where I print: In China, to save two cents a copy? Just because the transport costs are not important? Or do I print regionally and thus strengthen the domestic printing industry? This also saves emissions. These are the things that publishers ought to take into account.

CCB Magazine:There are about 3,000 book publishers in Germany, in Berlin there are about 400 - three quarters of them are so-called micro publishers. Are the publishing houses currently more concerned with their survival rather than with thinking about sustainable publishing? And do the publishers even know about their own ecological footprint?

Anke Oxenfarth:Yes and no. Publishers are just starting to think about ecological standards. In other countries they are not much further along. In the UK, for example, there is a manifesto for more sustainability, the Green Bookselling Manifesto. However, this is aimed at the book trade and not directly at the publishers and the production. And yes, not everyone can afford to make calculations on how they could make their own footprint more ecological. When we launched our project on sustainable publishing in 2011, most publishers hadn't even thought about it. At least now we have moved on. But there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially with the big publishing houses. Up to now, large publishing houses have usually only acted selectively according to sustainability criteria.

CCB Magazine:Can you give examples?

Anke Oxenfarth: Take the Oetinger Verlag, which has produced two children's books according to Cradle to Cradle criteria. This means that the book is compostable again at the end. Otherwise there are only a few small publishing houses that use recycled paper for some books. Or Ullstein Verlag, which ran a major campaign at the end of 2018 to market a book without a plastic cover. Although this was not very far-reaching in terms of the eco-balance, it did cause a slight quake in the industry, and Ullstein has to be credited for that. We are grateful for campaigns like this. But the elephant in the room is and remains the paper.

CCB Magazine:Germany's publishers are already in great financial difficulties. The industry has lost around 6.4 million book buyers between 2013 and 2017, a drop of 17.8 percent. Without middlemen, most books are usually no longer available in the shops at all. This has financial consequences, especially for small publishing houses. Doesn't sustainable publishing ultimately cost publishers more money?

Anke Oxenfarth: There is another yes and no. My publishing house, oekom Verlag, is also under great financial pressure to succeed. But it was a conscious decision to say that we now publish sustainably. The question a publishing house has to ask itself is: Do I want to be part of the solution? Or simply carry on as before? If you print on recycled paper, it costs more money. But you can also design your books so that the difference is not so big.

The question a publisher must ask himself is: Do I want to be part of the solution? Or just carry on as before?

CCB Magazine:Ms Oxenfarth, you have been working for oekom Verlag since 1999. Your publishing house is an eco-exemplary publishing house. What role does oekom Verlag play in networking other publishers in the context of sustainable publishing?

Anke Oxenfarth:We have made a name for ourselves over the years. Founded in 1989, our aim from the outset was to move the issue of ecological sustainability out of its niche and into the mainstream of society. In the course of the project "New Environmental Standards for the Publishing Industry", which ran from 2011 to 2015, we held various workshops for different stakeholders such as publishers and printers. We also attended the Frankfurt Book Fair three times, where we put the topic of sustainability on the agenda. We tried to mediate between science and the individual players in the book industry. In the course of this development, the idea of the "Blauer Engel Print Products" eco-label, which has been in existence since 2015, also emerged.

CCB Magazine:Most people know eco-labels like “Der gelbe Sack” or “Der grüne Punkt”. Few have heard of the "Blaue Engel". What is it all about?

Anke Oxenfarth:The product-related "Blaue Engel" has been in existence since 1978 and is awarded to products manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner. The "Blaue Engel Print Products" has been in existence since 2015. And we have played a major role in developing it in the project "New Environmental Standards for the Publishing Industry", which is officially called RAL-UZ 195. Books, journals or magazines that work with environmentally certified printing companies that meet certain criteria may use "Blaue Engel" eco-label on their products.

CCB Magazine:I read a lot and have never seen the "Blaue Engel" on any book.

Anke Oxenfarth:You can find it mainly on magazines and in advertising brochures, for example at REWE. Very few books have it, it's true. This is mainly due to the difficulty in finding suitable recycled paper for the covers of the books.

CCB Magazine:Last year the EU states passed a directive banning disposable plastic starting 2021. Is voluntary commitment sufficient or does the book industry also need an ecological regulation law?

Anke Oxenfarth:If the state were to consistently reduce subsidies for fossil energy sources and promptly end them completely, the economy would change course very quickly of its own accord. Moreover, it would certainly be good if the legislator were to ensure, by means of clear policies and perhaps also financial incentives, that environmentally friendly production became the standard in all sectors. Until that happens, we need pioneers in all sectors of the economy who recognize the signs of the times and simply move forward. And fortunately there are already quite a lot of them in the most diverse industries.

Category: Innovation & Vision


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