Shrinking our carbon footprint: Open Access publishing and environmental sustainability

About Us Oct 24, 2022

This Open Access Week’s theme of ‘Open for climate justice’ has given us at Open Book Publishers an opportunity to reflect on our own environmental impact as a press.

At the beginning of 2020, we resolved to begin taking steps to shrink our carbon footprint. We wrote about this in December 2019, declaring our ambition to ‘be an example by experimenting with different methods and showing others what can be achieved’, and we issued our first update in mid-February 2020, explaining that we had begun identifying the categories we needed to focus on – our office, our travel, and the printing and delivery of physical copies of our books – and we detailed the adjustments we had begun to make.

Then… circumstances changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw us, along with much of the rest of the world, begin working remotely, and the project of tracking and reducing our carbon footprint was buried by the more urgent challenges of adapting to the pandemic. We released resources on e-conferencing, including this post based on a forthcoming book on sustainable research (which is now published) and a post about running remote workshops written by OBP staff working on the COPIM project. We also published and regularly updated a post on how to access open access research while locked away from a library, a topic that suddenly became more urgent than ever before.

Now, however, we have begun thinking again about our climate impact. We do so in a landscape that has been dramatically altered by the pandemic: OBP now no longer has an office, and permanent remote working has become how we operate, with in-person meetings in Cambridge every couple of months. There is therefore no office space for us to make more environmentally sustainable, as we had begun doing in 2020. There is some doubt about whether remote working is better for the environment, given the energy required to run working spaces in different homes,[1] but since OBP is not taking a hybrid approach to remote working – so there is no office space to heat and power at any time, and nobody is making even a part-weekly commute – it seems likely that we have lessened our workspace carbon footprint with this change, since the big carbon saving when working remotely is, of course, travel.

Our commutes were previously very low carbon as most of us cycled or walked into work, but two of us did drive in (sharing a car) or catch the bus. We have a member of the team who joined us in 2020 and lives in London, and who would have had to commute daily on the train had we returned to office working. Several of our other employees also now live further across the country – moves enabled as a result of the shift to remote working – so the lack of a commute has become a bigger factor in keeping our carbon footprint small.

The other major commitment we have made in terms of our travel is not to fly for work. Prior to 2020, members of staff would fly to conferences or collaborative work events multiple times per year if it was convenient (some of these events, although not all, are listed on Our Advocacy page), and this was certainly the largest part of our travel footprint. At the start of 2020 we made the commitment not to fly again for the foreseeable future, and this was almost immediately made simple as a result of the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when gatherings moved online or were cancelled.

Now, we are beginning to see a return to events being held in person, and this may mean that we are unable to attend some of them. For example, one of our staff is appearing at the Charleston Conference in America in November, and her ability to participate was dependent on there being a way for her to contribute remotely – which fortunately, there is. It’s important for organisers to be mindful of the value of a remote option when planning events, for those who are not able or willing to travel for reasons of budget, health, or the climate. We hope that remote participation at events like these is one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic – as indeed is a reminder that we can change our usual patterns of living and working to enable more sustainable options and greater levels of access, if there is sufficient collective will.

We also participate in an international partnership, the COPIM project, and again, not flying as part of this has been made easy because of the pandemic, but also the willingness of our project team to make remotely working together a viable option. The COPIM team have written their own post with much more detail about how we made this happen together and what we have learned, but one of the key messages is that remote collaboration can be made productive, enjoyable and viable if there is a desire to do so.

The other element of our work that carries a carbon cost is that of hosting, printing and disseminating our books. Open access publication immediately cuts down on one significant carbon cost: since the vast majority of the usage of our books is digital, this largely reduces the need to print out and physically transport copies.

We typically sell around 200 copies of books in a physical format per year via a print-on-demand system, and the books are shipped to wherever in the world the purchaser wants them. Print-on-demand itself reduces waste, as we do not produce copies that are not sold and have to be destroyed. Our printer and distributor, Lightning Source, has printing hubs in different parts of the world, including the UK, America, Australia and Asia, and copies are printed closest to where they will be delivered, which is more economical environmentally. Lightning Source also receives a number of certifications from the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, and the Chain of Custody certification from these three organisations. These all recognise that the paper used by Lightning Source is from responsibly and sustainably managed forests.

There are of course carbon costs to digital dissemination too. However – as with much of our carbon footprint – this is difficult to track accurately. We use Amazon servers to host our website and other online systems (such as Thoth) which we use to disseminate the digital editions and metadata for our books. Amazon provides a handy tool with which you can calculate the carbon footprint of your server use – but unfortunately, this gave us a zero reading! That might be because everything we use is virtualised and the actual hardware is shared by thousands of organisations, making it difficult to isolate our particular footprint.

In fact, this entire post lacks numbers, focusing instead on categories of behaviour. Our next challenge will be to try to establish a way to calculate and track our carbon footprint numerically in a meaningful way – so if you have any recommendations, please let us know!

[1] There is a lot more that could be said about the various knock-on effects of home working – for instance, how it has cut down on the amount of waste that used to be generated by staff choosing certain kinds of packaged food and drink for consumption outside the home – and this may be interesting to explore in another post.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is an editor at Open Book Publishers. She is also completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, studying nineteenth-century theatrical adaptations of novels and poetry.