Is This Really Greener Reading?

Alison Morris -- October 14th, 2008

In recent months I’ve been noticing a marked increase in the number of publishers who claim to be "going green" in one way or another. For many of them "going green" has meant creating a new imprint that uses eco-safe materials and/or donates money to environmental causes. DK, for example, has a new line called "Made with Care." They claim that these books are their "greenest books ever, made with the most ethical and environmental processes [they] could source." Meanwhile Simon and Schuster’s Little Green Books "will be made from recycled materials, and the storylines will cover subjects such as improving the environment, learning about endangered animals, recycling, and much more."

I have mixed feelings about initiatives like these that ultimately just create more "stuff" even if that "stuff" is being created out of recycled materials. Rather than create a new line of books that are specifically more eco-friendly, why not just make ALL of your existing, or at least forthcoming books more eco-friendly? This is a poor metaphor, I know, but the "create a new line of books model" is kind of like saying "Over-population is a problem so we’re going to breed a special group of children who know that overpopulation is a problem, rather than just having fewer children in the first place."

Does anyone else see a problem with this?

I was thinking about these things as I read through the picture books on Penguin’s spring list, which (like those of the aforementioned publishers and others) included some efforts at eco-innovation. One is a book to which I’m giving an award for  BEST COLOPHON I’VE SEEN ALL YEAR. It’s The Great Paper Caper by the brilliant Oliver Jeffers, whose picture books are among my favorites, and whose website is among the coolest I’ve seen. I haven’t seen the colophon of Penguin’s edition so I don’t know if they’ll adopt the same format, but the British edition of the book (published by HarperCollins) features this colophon (click on the photo to view it larger):

Awesome, no? The image of a tree is fitting for several reasons: the theme of paper recycling appears both in the plotline of The Great Paper Caper and in the finished book’s production. On his website Oliver explains that the book "is inspired by and printed on FSC paper [paper that comes from replenished forests], a noble cause, and frankly, common sense. The first edition hard back comes in four different colour covers, with a bonus disposable jacket that turns into a plane. No joke."

I applaud the cleverness of these eco-friendly touches, and (for the umpteenth time) I applaud the cleverness of Oliver Jeffers’s writing and illustrations too. My question, though, is this: If Oliver Jeffers’ new book didn’t have recycling as its inspiration and/or theme, would it have been printed on FSC paper? And if the answer is no, then WHY NOT? I’m guessing the answer is that it’s more expensive to print books on FSC paper. And that the marketing hook is missing if the book is printed on FSC paper but the book isn’t ABOUT recycling.

That just bugs me.

Moving on, I’d actually like to give out a second "award" here, though I realize this one isn’t going to be taken as kindly. With apologies, my award for the WORST TRADEMARK I’VE SEEN ALL YEAR goes to Frederick Warne, publisher and licensor for The World of Beatrix Potter (distributed in the U.S. by Penguin), for its new publishing program called "Peter Rabbit TM Naturally Better" OR (here in the U.S.) "Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better TM". Note the interesting change in punctuation as the name crosses the Atlantic.

As it’s explained on the Penguin website, Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better is "a new initiative which promotes products that are made from safe and ethically responsible sources." I have NO problem with the idea of such products (in fact I applaud them!), AND I actually think the books in this line are very nicely produced — the illustrations in the Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better board books and cloth books are very tasteful simplifications of Beatrix Potter’s original designs, and the muted color palette employed on their pages is truly lovely. But the NAME??

First of all, I don’t like the implication that Peter Rabbit needs to be "improved" somehow. I realize that the "better" in the trademark refers to the fact that these books are "better" for the planet than their predecessors, but it’s impossible not to read those words as meaning that the books themselves are somehow "better" content-wise than the originals and that, "NATURALLY," that’s the case. It’s as if we’re being told "the content and art are bad in their original state but, NATURALLY, they’re better once they’ve been redesigned or rewritten or re-imagined and re-branded (again and again and again)." On a pettier note, I also just think the name sounds cheesy. And I think that ellipsis just make things worse. It’s like there’s a pause after the product’s name in which we wait for the advertising punch line to be delivered.

I can’t begin to imagine the number of meetings that were held and names that were tossed out before Warne settled on this one, and (again) I applaud their motivation for creating this line and the finished results. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think someone could have coined a better name for this line (perhaps one of YOU can come up with an improvement?) AND that the line just adds more books to a brand that’s already chock full of them.

I think what’s really bugging me again here, though, is this attempt on the part of publishers to look virtuous and nature-loving by adding new lines of supposedly eco-friendly books. You can use all the eco-friendly materials you want in their creation, but the fact is the production of more titles requires the use of more energy. So, sorry folks, your eco-footprint does not get ANY smaller with the creation of these babies. Naturally.

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