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Notes from the Writing Life

Are My Books Destroying the Rain Forest?

I write for a living. I write about the environment and I write books for children, and I’ve always figured I worked in a pretty green industry. I don’t drill for oil or mine for coal, and since I work at home I barely even drive a car.

But yesterday I got a copy of a new report by the Rainforest Action Network called Turning the Page on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. Turns out, my industry isn’t as green as I thought.

RAN chose three children’s books that were printed in China from each of the top ten children’s book publishers and had their pages tested by an independent laboratory for fiber associated with deforestation in Indonesia. The result: sixty percent of the books (18 out of 30) contained fiber linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. Books with rainforest paper came from nine of the ten publishers -- despite the fact that half of those publishers have policies committing them to the use of sustainable paper sources.

AS RAN explains:

Unchecked by government or industry, pulp and paper companies are razing natural rainforests on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and replacing them with acacia pulp wood plantations. This expansion of the pulp sector directly threatens endangered species like tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction in Sumatra. It is causing ongoing conflicts with local communities whose lands, livelihoods and rights are being usurped, and it is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions from rainforest loss and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands. Driven by global demand for pulp and paper that favors “low-cost” producers, the enormous emissions from the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatlands have vaulted the country into the rank of the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. Moreover, at least half of the logging in Indonesia takes place illegally.

It turns out that half of the American children’s picture books printed on coated paper are printed to China and China is the top importer of Indonesian pulp and paper.

With the rapid growth of book printing and manufacturing being outsourced to China, the U.S. book industry has become increasingly vulnerable to controversial paper sources entering its supply chain. . . . .From 2000-2008, Chinese sales of children’s picture books to the U.S. ballooned by more than 290 percent, averaging an increase of more than 35 percent per year.


At this point in my reading of the report, I nervously walked over to the shelf where I keep copies of my own books. Firefighters in the Dark? Printed in China. Baby Shoes? Printed in China. The Sea Serpent and Me? Printed in Singapore. Phew. Or at least I hope so. The truth is, I really don’t know whether Singapore is any better, although I just called RAN to ask.

So what am I to make of all this? The first thing that struck me was how little most of us know about where the objects in our lives come from. I doubt any children’s book writer would be happy to learn that her books were contributing to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest, but how many of us would have thought to ask?

And, now that I know, what’s the responsible thing to do with this knowledge? The first thing I did was to sign RAN’s “I Love Books and Rainforests” petition. But I also have new books coming out, and it will be up to me to raise these concerns with my publishers and see what they can tell me about paper sourcing. In fact, all of us who love children’s literature should be asking questions and demanding answers. Chinese printing is cheap, as is Indonesian paper, and the current crisis in publishing has meant that publishers are looking to save money anywhere they can. But while I am a staunch defender of the printed page, I still want that page to come from sustainable sources – even if that means my books cost a little more.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle. When we as consumers demand that everything be cheap, we do so at a high price for artists, small business owners, and the environment Readers – that’s you and me -- must be willing to pay full price for books. Paying full price means buying them at independent bookstores, which – unlike Amazon and the chains -- don’t force publishers to sell books at unsustainable discounts. After all, publishers who outsource to China are responding to market forces. And market forces? That would be us.


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