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Is your business sustainable?

This is a question businesses need to answer, and to do so, they need to look at their own internal processes and at their whole supply chain. Audits and corrective action need to be taken, both to protect the planet and to ensure business continuity in the future. Jo Beattie summarises the choices facing publishers.

By Jo Beattie

Is your business sustainable?

“Business as usual is dead”, says sustainability expert Philippe Joubert – a pithy comment with enormous implications. Scientists have been warning of potential climate-related disruption to supply chains for some time. But one of the many unexpected effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a brutal introduction to the realities of such disruption. In publishing, we are now miserably familiar with reworking plans and changing or reducing supply of products in line with availability and price of goods and materials.

There are many uncertainties about the results of climate change, but one thing which seems sure is that its disruptive impacts will ultimately dwarf those of events like Brexit and the pandemic. We also know that environmental considerations are increasingly important to consumers. So, what does a sustainable publishing supply chain look like, and how can we build one?

The classic definition of sustainability is around the conservation of environmental and social capital for the long term good of the planet. For an organisation, being sustainable also means planning for business continuity; requiring supply and distribution chains to be resilient in the face of climate change. Reporting formats such as the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations demonstrate the alignment of self-interest and sustainability by linking environmental risk with financial risk. And the creation of long-term resilience will also bear fruit in the more immediate future with cost savings, emission reductions, and preparedness for new regulatory and reporting requirements.

The disruptive impacts of climate change will ultimately dwarf those of events like Brexit and the pandemic.

Net zero

Supply chain discussions often centre around the pros and cons of larger and smaller supplier bases. Whatever your choice here, it is essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of your supply chain, and an excellent relationship with key suppliers. A current major focus of sustainability is the drive towards net zero, reducing then removing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a recent survey found that most UK firms don’t yet have a plan to reach this goal. For print publishers, many of our emissions are located within the supply chain where materials and products are manufactured, so this is an important area to investigate. Information should be sought using all the tools at our disposal, from supplier self-assessment, through to third party audits and site visits. With data in hand, you can set targets and monitor progress. At Immediate Media, we are about to conduct our second greenhouse gases audit. We have an ambition to reach net zero by 2030.

Of course, you may wish to begin by looking at your own premises and ensuring that they, like Immediate Media’s, are carbon neutral, using renewable energy and minimising waste to landfill.

It is essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of your supply chain, and an excellent relationship with key suppliers.

Check out your suppliers

Next, conversations will tend to be with key manufacturing suppliers, and these must be two-way. Suppliers should gain a clear understanding of what is important to you as a buyer. At Immediate Media, we are already considering suppliers’ sustainability credentials in all our procurement decisions. Equally, however, you may be able to help them swerve potential bumps in the road.

It may not be top of the list for many UK companies, but we may be doing our suppliers a favour by encouraging them to consider their resilience to storms and floods. This year, the UK government’s recent report on the risks of climate change found a great likelihood of risks to infrastructure from flooding and other extreme weather events, which will ultimately outstrip the costs of mitigating such effects. The benefits of any actions taken by suppliers in this area will spread in both directions along the supply chain, making them better partners for their customers, and more able to advise their own suppliers.

Improving your knowledge of your suppliers’ sustainability policies and actions will put you in a good position with regards to new environmental regulation. For example, it should help avoid the risk of unwittingly making inaccurate or misleading claims, soon to be made unlawful by the new Green Claims Code. It should also mean you are prepared for the due diligence dictated by the new Plastic Packaging Tax, which requires buyers to ensure that their importers or manufacturers of plastic packaging are following the regulations correctly. Further, as the requirements of the Extended Producer Responsibility regulations look set to become increasingly complex, benefits will be seen here too from better knowledge of all elements of your supply chain.

At Immediate Media, we are already considering suppliers’ sustainability credentials in all our procurement decisions.

Collective action

Many sectors are working together as industry groups to increase the impetus for their supply chain partners to improve on sustainability performance, and there are similar groups available to publishing companies – Immediate Media sits on the Professional Publishers Association Sustainability Action Group. Moving at scale seems an appropriate way to meet the existential challenge of climate change; and requests from a critical mass of customers may be more effective in convincing suppliers to make changes which are otherwise unattractive due to lengthy pay-back periods.

It is not just the complexity of supply chains, but also their geographical length that has come under scrutiny in the Covid crisis, and this speaks to the climate crisis too. Goods or materials travelling from far away have more chance of getting caught up in climate-related disruption than those which come from nearer by. However, this area is a striking example of the complexities in sustainability decision making. Shipping is a relatively small contributor to global carbon emissions, and before electric vehicles become mainstream for freight, it may be that shipping from Europe will produce fewer emissions than trucking within the UK, or from a port at one end of the UK to a manufacturing site at another. Where transporting goods over long distances is essential, businesses may choose to consider amending product variables like size or weight to save on transport emissions.

Specification changes may also reduce supply chain pressures on magazines. Reducing grammage or choosing paper with a lower carbon footprint will reduce raw material use and carbon emissions. If this is not desirable, you can still consider specification consolidation, which may help with one of the other big supply chain debates – squaring the circle between ‘just in time’ and ‘just in case’. As the proud owner of a Brexit stockpile, I am aware of the temptation to store up provisions against uncertainty. However, any change in requirements will create unwanted stock – a waste of money and the planet’s resources. Instead, consolidating specifications – around paper grammages or reel sizes, for example – will give increased flexibility in times of fluctuating supply and demand, and reduce waste.

Moving at scale seems an appropriate way to meet the existential challenge of climate change.

Waste reduction

Waste has been mentioned a few times now. While it has never been desirable, in this era of climate catastrophe and plastic pollution, overfilled landfill sites and shipping rubbish abroad, it feels morally indefensible to deliberately produce excess material. Luckily, driving waste out of the supply chain is another area in which financial self-interest and sustainability intersect. Some changes here will be simple but very effective. Manufacturing efficiencies can include straightforward strategies, like reducing quantities of overs to immediately save money, time, and emissions. Then, having reduced your use of input materials, move down the waste hierarchy, and consider reuse and recycling, working towards a circular rather than a linear supply chain. This will appeal to sustainability-minded consumers and offer security of supply. The renewable and recyclable nature of paper is a benefit here – and drove Immediate Media’s decision to replace poly bags and wraps with paper alternatives – but there are also many other steps that can be taken. At Immediate Media, we have reduced the hard-to-recycle materials in the covermounts of our Children’s magazines and aim to give them long lasting play value. Our Youth & Children’s business has worked closely with Wastebusters in the development of ‘Recycle to Read’, an infrastructure for the recycling of covermounts, which is now being adopted across the publishing industry.

Try not to consider elements of your supply chain in isolation. Just as the components of your business are interlinked, so are all areas of sustainability, and considerations from one area may weigh against those from another. Areas of regulation and public interest are changing all the time, so a broad and comprehensive approach to sustainability will prevent the need for sudden reactive policy implementation. While greenhouse gas emissions and net zero rightly have high visibility at the moment, other issues such as plastic pollution, water quality and conservation, and biodiversity are all important as well.

Driving waste out of the supply chain is another area in which financial self-interest and sustainability intersect.

Useful tools

There are a variety of tools that can be used to help weigh up these complex matters. Carbon footprinting is an understandably popular process, and crucial for the drive towards net zero, but it is also worth considering life cycle analysis – which considers all the different environmental impacts of a product or process. The negative environmental effects of our ‘healthy’ appetite for avocados are now well known; similarly, some very low carbon materials can have negative impacts on biodiversity or agricultural land use. Life-cycle analysis can help consider such trade-offs.

There are also standardised reporting frameworks, which can help ensure that all areas have been considered. TCFD, as mentioned above, helps consider the financial risks from climate change. There are other voluntary reporting frameworks, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which aims to represent best practice. Asking suppliers to consider these as well as adhering to widely recognised certifications such as ISO 14001 (environmental management), or sustainable forestry certification, will increase your confidence in your own performance and that of your supply chain.

A well-functioning supply chain is crucial to businesses, as is the race to keep the impact of our activities within the earth’s boundaries; it can only make excellent business sense to bring the two together.

Try not to consider elements of your supply chain in isolation.

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This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.