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Sustainability – an ever changing world

The severity of the climate threat is leading to a rollout of new initiatives. It is also making us question the efficacy of some existing schemes. More regulation is just a matter of time. Jo Beattie tells us what publishers need to be considering.

By Jo Beattie

Sustainability – an ever changing world

The new IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is out, and the message is clear – we’re in the last chance saloon, climate-wise. This is depressing, if not necessarily surprising. But in the green arena, there is a steady flow of new initiatives, with plenty we can all be doing to improve things. So, what is new for magazine publishers?

Employee and consumer interest in the environment continues to grow. This is a great opportunity to harness internal and external drivers to really make some progress with sustainability targets. At Immediate, our new sustainability lead, Michelle Whitehead, is organising bitesize carbon training for the whole company, with deeper dives for individual departments. There are also great sessions coming up on diverse sustainability areas, from beekeeping to the impact of fast fashion. We hope this will be a springboard for new ideas and initiatives across the business. We have recently published our first Carbon Impact Report, and this should be a platform for some meaningful conversations with readers and advertisers as well as with our supply chain.

Industry groups

At the same time, there are new industry groups springing up, with pledges to sign and roadmaps to follow. We find it rewarding to work with our peers, to be part of these conversations and to help shape the evolving sustainability landscape. At Immediate, we are members of the Professional Publishers Association’s Sustainability Action Group; the Association of Online Publishers’ Environmental, Social and Governance Group; the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Sustainability Group; Media Smart; Ad Net Zero; Ad Green; the Association of Events Organisers’ Sustainability Group, and isla, which focuses on sustainability in events. We believe that acting as part of these industry groups gives us the benefit of strength in numbers and the option to engage our supply chains with one voice.

Reporting tools

With the growing industry interest in environmental sustainability, there are a plethora of carbon calculating and reporting tools available. They range from freebies, such as NatWest’s Digital Carbon Planner, through to industry-specific tools, particularly in the advertising and events space, and to a multitude of offers from new and established data and environmental consultancies. There is much to consider here. Cost is obviously an important factor. But you also need to think about what, if any, professional help you require with your calculations. Do you need lots of advice, or are you at a stage where you are happy to enter your figures into a calculator which will generate your final report? Think about how you will want your report split out, how many people you will need to have access to the calculator, if you need it to pull information from other sources via API, and whether you prefer to buy licences or to use something under a SaaS model in which you pay on a subscription basis. Or would you rather gather information and ask a consultant with knowledge of your area to help with the calculations? Whichever route you go down, it’s worth trying to understand what assumptions are being made and what emissions factors are being used, as far as you can. As an example, the UK government’s published conversion factor for paper is 919.4 kg CO2e for 1 tonne of paper. But magazine papers can be bought with footprints starting from around 100 kg CO2e per tonne, and this detail will make a difference to a final company footprint. Of course, the government published figures are very useful for items where you don’t hold your own specific figures.

Calculating emissions is taking up a lot of people’s time right now, but of course the point of having emissions data is to use it to drive reductions. In that area, a current source of confusion is around the terms ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘net zero’. It’s useful to be clear on the difference between these two. Carbon neutrality refers to mitigating your own emissions with an equal amount of carbon offsets from projects which reduce or remove carbon from the atmosphere (generally, offsetting scope 1 and 2 emissions plus business travel, staff commuting and home working). This will need to be done on an ongoing basis. For example, at Immediate, we have offset our 2021 emissions in these areas but would need to repeat the process with our finalised 2022 figures. Carbon neutrality is encouraged but is not mandatory for scope 3 emissions (those in your supply chain). Net Zero, on the other hand, is generally agreed to refer to reducing emissions in all areas to as close to zero as possible – although some minimal remaining emissions will always need to be removed from the atmosphere. An organisation which chooses to sign up to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) for reaching net zero, for example, will be expected to plot a pathway to an overall reduction of 90% of emissions (with some variations for different sectors and organisation sizes).

Print publishing

Paper and forestry have been in the spotlight recently. Those of us who have calculated our carbon footprints know that paper makes up a large part of our total emissions. The paper industry is energy intensive (although on the positive side, this means that many paper mills have made great strides to reduce their emissions already). Deforestation and monoculture plantations are also drivers of the reduction in biodiversity, which is critically intertwined with the climate crisis. So, it is unsurprising to find that Forest, Land and Agriculture requirements are upcoming within the SBTi process for setting net zero plans. There is some debate over whether these will apply to us as publishers, but it’s a valuable area to be aware of. Many publishers have insisted on certified paper for a while now, but it may be time to start asking more questions about how robust this certification is, and what else our paper suppliers are doing to ensure the paper we use is sustainably sourced and manufactured. In an ever-changing world, we may need to consider which countries we source our paper and pulp from more carefully than before. Pulp from Russia and Belarus is now considered a conflict material by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, and the shifting sustainability landscape – including the upcoming EU Deforestation Regulation – may mean that other parts of the world become unacceptable to source from.

Happily, there are resources available to help with paper procurement. Although the World Wide Fund for Nature wound down its Global Forest and Trade Network, in 2021 it launched the Forests Forward programme, which ‘engages with companies and other stakeholders around the globe to deliver effective nature-based strategies for forests that help achieve their business and sustainability goals’. Also, the Products of Change organisation, which looks to increase sustainability within the consumer product supply chain, has recently convened a knowledge-sharing paper workstream. Along more bureaucratic lines, it is worth noting that the required wording for Forest Stewardship Council MIX label text has been updated – see ‘Further reading’ at the end of this article.


Carbon-offsetting in forestry remains one of the more controversial issues in sustainability. A recent investigation by the Guardian newspaper found there to be limited evidence of emissions and deforestation reductions from rainforest carbon offsets, ramping up the debate over the real benefit of forest offsetting projects. However, there is currently no scientific consensus for the methodologies used for this analysis, and Verra, the leading certifier of carbon credits, has strongly disputed the findings. While it’s important to be aware of the potential flaws with the carbon credit system, it’s also desirable not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Tree planting and protection is valuable work, as is putting finance towards carbon saving and reduction projects. As this subject continues to be debated among climate scientists, the wisest approach to offset projects is probably much the same as it has always been: be cautious, and investigate the projects you invest in as much as possible; have a spread of project types, maybe involving renewable energy and clean cooking stoves as well as forestry, and consider the co-benefits – view it in the round rather than purely as a mathematical counterbalance to your own emissions. This is an area in which there are attempts to set up international regulatory standards. The Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market is the latest of these which has recently published its ‘Core Carbon Principles’. It is hoped that these will set ‘a definitive global standard for high-quality carbon credits’, and this would be a welcome development for both companies and consumers.

The regulatory landscape

As this demonstrates, the regulatory and reporting landscape is ever-changing. Increasingly, the discussion is around when, rather than if, more detailed climate reporting becomes mandatory. The Plastic Packaging Tax is now operational in the UK, and the new Extended Producer Responsibility programme for packaging is cranking into gear, with its more frequent and more granular reporting requirements beginning from later this year. Mandatory recycling labelling is also on its way, so it may be worth joining a scheme such as the OPRL (On-Pack Recycling Label) if you are not already a member. In the EU, there are new supply chain regulations under discussion in the proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which would require that companies audit their suppliers on environmental and social grounds along their global supply chain. It is not impossible that these will ultimately impact UK producers as well; something else to keep an eye on.

Hopefully, this roundup inspires you to try something new or get involved in a different industry group. Time is of the essence but if we act now and act together, we can make a real difference.

Further reading:

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