Penguin Books

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Jana Vítková
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In 1934, a young publisher, Allen Lane, stopped at the station bookstall on his way to London and saw that all the books on sale were of poor quality and overpriced. What was needed, he thought, were good books at a price everyone could afford. Penguin Books (later referred to as Penguin), a British publishing house, was established with this thought in mind. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its inexpensive paperbacks, bringing fiction and non-fiction to the mass market. Its success showed that there are many people interested in reading and its accessibility impacted public debate in the United Kingdom through its books on culture, politics, the arts, and science. In 2013, Penguin and Random House (an American book publisher) came together to form the world’s first global book publishing company: Penguin Random House (PRH); however, Penguin still operates as an independent publisher as well. Today, PRH is the world's leading trade book publisher, comprised of nearly 250 imprints and brands on five continents, with more than 15,000 new titles and 800 million print, audio and e-books sold annually. When looking at these numbers, I can't help but wonder about the sustainable approach Penguin applies to limit its negative impact on the environment.

So, let's talk sustainability. The questions I have when looking at their official website are related to the sustainability of the production of books and audiobooks. Penguin offers an 'Our Sustainability Policy' report, published recently in Spring 2021, in which I was able to find some answers to my questions as well as further information about their overall sustainable approach. Penguin's key areas of focus are becoming zero climate neutral by 2030, ensuring 100% of their paper and other core materials are ethically and sustainably sourced, and using the power of their brand, books, and authors to amplify the climate emergency while encouraging positive behaviour change. On top of these three key areas of focus, Penguin aims to recycle everything, certify their work with external experts, and share their progress. Penguin gives some examples of their sustainable approach in the form of using 46% less plastic in their warehouses, furnishing their new offices with chairs made out of recycled fishing nets, and choosing sustainably sourced paper. When it comes to the Penguin's offsetting policy, they are honest about the nature of their operations that can never be reduced to zero. Namely, they talk about paper production causing biodiversity impacts from forestry, energy and water use, carbon emissions, and waste from paper mills. What's more, printing alone uses a lot of energy and generates carbon emissions. They also admit to be using cardboard and plastic for packaging purposes. Lastly, Penguin collaborates with manufacturers who make toys, branded merchandise, and electronic books, which increases their overall carbon emissions. Penguin's operations have a direct impact on the planet too: they use energy for lighting, heating, and running equipment and IT systems. The employees at Penguin have to travel to support authors, meet retailers and suppliers, and get to work, which has got a direct impact on the environment. All in all, Penguin seems to be preaching the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' mantra to show its commitment to sustainability. However, I found it difficult to check their claims as they do not provide any quantitative or qualitative data to prove their stance.

What it's made of:


Penguin's main source of income comes from books and audiobooks. Firstly, a book is a medium for recording information in the form of writing or images, typically composed of many pages (made of papyrus, parchment, vellum, or paper) bound together and protected by a cover. Penguin has used sustainably sourced paper to produce their books for over ten years now, which is a natural and renewable material based on wood. The paper industry has a number of respected certification schemes ensuring the paper you use has come from a sustainable forest source. The two most recognisable certifications are the Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC™) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC™). Penguin claims to have always been an advocate for FSC™ as it’s the most credible and effective out of all the certification systems for forest products. They say that even though there’s room for improvement in all certification bodies, Penguin believes that FSC™ provides stronger forest and rights protections than other schemes and is favoured by non-governmental organisations such as WWF and The Woodland Trust. According to the FSC™ official website, FSC™ focuses on sustainable forest management in a broad sense, including environmental, social and economic sustainability. In other words, FSC™ forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers while ensuring it sustains economic viability. Other than paper, a book contains ink. Inks with a petroleum or plastic base contain harmful compounds and chemicals that harm the environment. Eco-friendly printing has found a nonpolluting alternative in eco-inks. These inks use organic ingredients like soy or vegetable in their production. However, Penguin does not provide further information about the ink they use, which is why it is difficult to assess the company's sustainability on the basis of their ink choice.

Secondly, an audiobook is a recording of a book or other work being read out loud. Audiobooks are distributed on any audio format available, but primarily are records, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3 CDs and downloadable digital formats (e.g., MP3 (.mp3), Windows Media Audio (.wma), Advanced Audio Coding (.aac), and others). The downloadable digital formats are, in theory, great news for the environment. Instead of all those CDs - thin discs of polycarbonate plastic, aluminium, gold, lacquer, and dye - being produced and shipped around the world, we are purchasing "virtual" tracks, each taking up just a few megabytes of disc space. But, downloading tracks isn't quite as environmentally friendly as it might seem at first. It all depends on how we use our MP3 players and phones. Based on a research group called Digital Europe and its findings that researched the environmental impact of digital music, buying a CD at a shop produce a person's ecological footprint of 1.6kg whereas buying it online reduced the impact to 1.3kg. By downloading the music, the person's ecological footprint fell to 0.7kg. In other words, a clear advantage - although hardly a "zero-impact" approach as Penguin admits.

How it's made:


Today, modern publishers take advantage of incredible advances in technology to produce books in many sizes and shapes very quickly. In the first step of book production, the copy editor reviews the final manuscript for grammar, spelling, and consistency. In the second step, while the pages are being copyedited and reviewed, an overall design direction is determined for the book by the creative team and editor. In the last step, printing, binding and shipping take place. Shipping is especially tricky to analyse for its sustainability as it depends on whether a book was purchased online (and if that purchase required transport by air or overland) or whether a book was purchased at a bookstore (and if that purchase required driving to the store). Suffice to say, transportation by plane, train, car, ship, or automobile requires the burning of fossil fuels, so few literary purchases are without their climate-change impacts. Meanwhile, 25 to 36 per cent of all books in bookstores are returned to the publisher, wasting tremendous amounts of energy in transportation and disposal. When it comes to the printing part of the process, it is important to mention that the print industry is one of the main contributors to the negative state of the environment as we know it today. There are many key environmental issues caused by the print industry, such as air pollution, handling and disposing of hazardous materials, waste management, and energy use. Printing is not complete without taking into account ink. Producing ink for printing releases volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere which can aggravate smog and asthma. Overall, producing one book consumes two kilowatt-hours of fossil fuels and approximately 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide. What's more, paper production often poses risks to virgin, old-growth forests (although these risks are limited with the FSC™): the newspaper and book publishing industries consume 153 billion gallons of water each year. 

However, Penguin does not only produce physical books. Audiobooks require a narrator sitting in a recording booth reading the text while a studio engineer and a director record and direct the performance. In order to record something, one needs to potentially use a recording device and find a space to store the recording data. Assuming one chooses to store the data online (in their e-mail, on their social media pages, in the cloud or anywhere else), there is the need for machines consuming electricity. Running these servers creates heat, so they need to be cooled, also consuming electricity. As far as I understand, one should make sure to purchase an ethically made and sustainably produced sound recorder. When it comes to the process of sound recording, it is achieved by a microphone diaphragm that senses changes in atmospheric pressure caused by acoustic sound waves and records them as a mechanical representation of the sound waves on a medium, such as a sound recorder. However, it is not clear to me whether this process is harmful to the environment.

Who makes it:


Penguin describes its jobs as made for talented people in traditional publishing roles, as well as jobs that you may not expect to find in this industry. They are always on the lookout for people for a wide variety of roles in editorial, marketing, finance, sales, social media, IT, digital design and much more. Penguin states to be offering 'normal' benefits as well as other benefits to suit one's specific needs in the form of a flexible benefits package. An employee can buy and sell holiday allowance and opt in to a range of voluntary benefits - technology purchasing schemes, gym memberships, or a cycle-to-work scheme, to name a few. They also have an award-winning approach to family-friendly policies and benefits for those with caring responsibilities. When looking at personalised reviews from past and present Penguin employees, it seems as though the average employee is, indeed, happy with the conditions Penguin establishes.

On top of their 'Our Sustainability Policy' report mentioned above, they published a 'Creative Responsibility' manifesto, in which they outline their commitment to the pillars of Reading, Inclusion, Community and Sustainability. Overall, the manifesto emphasises three statements. Firstly, Penguin gives everyone equal access to books. How? Penguin works with foodbanks, prisons, and homeless shelters across the UK to put books into the hands of people and communities who may not otherwise be able to afford or access them. Secondly, Penguin creates the readers of the future. How? Books can change minds and transform futures, and by connecting young people to the power of books and authors, Penguin helps them to see the world from many different viewpoints. Thirdly, Penguin makes books for everyone. How? Every reader should find books and authors that speak to them and reflect their life experiences. Penguin wants to ensure the creators of their books truly represent the society we live in. Moreover, Penguin defends their editorial independence, publishing responsibly with its editorial principles in mind, protecting freedom of speech, and thinking and acting for the planet on a daily basis. Lastly, to make Penguin's business and publishing more inclusive and representative of the UK society, they remove the need for a University degree from all their jobs, introduce paid work experience, and ban personal referrals.

FSC™ is transparent throughout the production period, specifically about the conditions workers have, about the realities Indigenous People face, about the local communities perspectives, and about how FSC™ aims to develop a strong sense of diversity and gender equality. Firstly, FSC™ has a strong focus on securing workers’ rights by incorporating core labour requirements into its system. These requirements include effective abolition of child labour, elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour, the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, respect of freedom of association, and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. Secondly, many Indigenous People live and work in forests, or on the surrounding land. FSC™ claims to be actively supportive of the rights of Indigenous People and prioritise these rights in relevant policies. In fact, according to FSC™ official website, the rights of Indigenous Peoples are prioritised in Principle 3 of the FSC™ Principles and Criteria, which requires all FSC™-certified forest owners and managers to identify and uphold Indigenous Peoples’ rights of land ownership, use of land, and access to resources the land may provide. In other words, the FSC™ certification makes Penguin accountable for what happens to the people and the land when acquiring the sustainably sourced paper. Thirdly, diversity reflects the visible and invisible differences that exist among people, including but not limited to gender identity, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or identity, age, economic class, language, religion, location, nationality, education, and family/marital status. These visible and invisible differences among people can also lead to differences in experiences, values and attitudes. For example, it can include how community or Indigenous Peoples rights are treated by different stakeholders. For FSC™, Diversity is the key to ensure equality in their certification scheme and in their organisation; this includes workers’ rights, Indigenous People, and local communities engagement as well as gender equality.

Personally, Penguin's sustainable approach seems to be surprisingly well thought through, though I still question its performative nature; I feel as though Penguin tries and implements a lot of sustainable practices (such as paying attention to energy-efficient sustainably sourced material, creating sustainability toolkit and associated training for all employees, and impacting the world with provocative and informative books about the environment). However, there are many practices, such as the printing and mass publishing of books that lies within the company's core mission, that make me sceptical about whether I would fully recommend this brand. I would encourage the readers to first try and find the book they are looking for in a library. If one wishes to have a physical copy of the book, I would suggest that they go check out flea markets and other spaces with second-hand items. If they cannot find a used copy, I would say that buying a Penguin audiobook should be your first choice. If you are someone who enjoys having a fresh physical copy of a book though, I would say that purchasing a Penguin copy every now and then does not do much harm. Overall, Penguin has been changing the world since the 1930s and I am hopeful it will continue to publicly and tangibly do so from the 2020s on.