At the Frankfurt book fair in 2020, the United Nations (UN), in collaboration with the International Publishers Association (IPA), launched the Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact. Attracting more than 100 signatories, the Compact features 10 voluntary commitments which underscore the responsibility of the publishing industry to create a sustainable future by accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The launch of the SDG Publishers Compact in 2020 also saw the release of IPA’s landmark report Publishers and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on how publishers, large and small, are contributing to sustainable development.

In 2017, under the guidance of former President Michiel Kolman, the IPA’s work on sustainable development received a renewed focus. His work led to IPA’s partnership with the UN on the SDG Book Club and increased engagement of IPA members on sustainability issues. Kolman led a survey of IPA members in 2018 which produced some interesting results: although 84% of IPA members agreed that the SDGs are important for society, only 73% saw them as relevant to the publishing industry. This finding suggests a gap between vision and execution which requires closer industry cooperation and dialogue on defining tangible ways the industry can take action on sustainable development.

IPA’s SDG member survey in 2018 further found that publishers are most concerned with their impact on SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), and SDG 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institution), but findings from IPA’s more in-depth policy study from 2020 revealed publishers, directly and indirectly, are making an impact on all 17 SDGs. Efforts to increase industry stewardship of sustainability issues continue to be spearheaded by Michiel, who now leads the IPA’s Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee. His work has contributed to an evolving dialogue on how direct of an impact the publishing industry can have on sustainable development.

In the past, the publishing industry’s impact on sustainable development has been portrayed by some as indirect and mostly informational — such narratives understate the contribution of the publishing industry as limited to publishing books and content that help to inform and inspire action rather than viewing publishing as an industry capable and willing to take action itself. One clear example of this perception was how, despite the publishing industry’s long-acknowledged impact on humanity and our industry’s contributions in responding to the global pandemic, many national publishing industries were ultimately labeled as ‘non-essential.’ The value of the publishing industry to some of our most critical stakeholders appears to be so indirect that many of our colleagues received little to no government support in weathering the global pandemic.

With the support of publishing leaders like Michiel and IPA Vice President Karine Pansa, who leads the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee’s Sustainability Working Group, the narrative of the publishing industry as a passive, indirect contributor to sustainable development is beginning to change. However, more needs to be done.

As I wrote in my previous blog, many publishing ecosystem players view the global pandemic as an existential crisis where solidarity and action, as opposed to passive, indirect industry discussions, need to be translated into on the ground progress. My conversations with International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) Plan stakeholders have revealed a growing bias towards action catalyzed by the global pandemic which has led to surging interest in stakeholder capitalism and collective action.

Stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem want to see an accelerated, inclusive dialogue on how the industry can itself have a meaningful impact on environmental, social, and governance issues. Industry stakeholders seem unwilling to have their role relegated to being informational, indirect responders to development challenges and social issues like racial injustice and fighting climate change.

The IPA’s issue-leadership on climate change in the lead up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is a further example of the publishing industry’s more direct approach to asserting its value in driving change from within. Key players from across the publishing ecosystem are uniting to sign a joint statement at Frankfurt Book Fair to call for action on climate change. The statement clearly articulates the need for industry-driven, follow-on initiatives that translate the statement and consultations into action ahead of COP26.

Publishing is at a very critical stage where stakeholders are expecting more accountability from the industry on environmental, social, and governance commitments. At the same time, the global pandemic has heightened our own industry’s expectations of its impact.

While the publishing industry has previously sought to align its impact with the SDGs, there is potentially a need for the industry to come together to define more precisely what is meant by ‘sustainable publishing.’ By getting more precise about what we mean by ‘sustainable publishing’ as an industry, we have the power in our roles as publishers, printers, bookstores, libraries, authors, educators etc. to have much more of a direct impact on sustainable development than an informational role. It’s time we change this outdated narrative of our industry’s impact.

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