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Interview With

Sir Jonathon Porritt

Brendan Perring talks to environmentalist and author Sir Jonathon Porritt whose new book, The World We Made, sees a bright future for sustainability and the paper industries.

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All royalties from the book will go to support the work of Sir Jonathon Porritt’s other project, Forum for the Future, which works with businesses, governments and organisations globally to solve sustainability challenges

A bright future for print

Since the launch of your book, what has been its impact and what projects have you been working on?

Well I’m happy to say it seems to have been well received, which is nice for an author to hear. I think it’s attracted quite a lot of attention because the world of sustainability publishing is pretty doomy and gloomy and almost all books in this space tell of how dreadful things are and how much worse they’re going to get.

The World We Made changes the tone behind that, getting people to lift up their sights and realise that there’s a much more positive way of looking at the world if we can just get on and make things happen. People have really responded very positively to that more upbeat approach to what sustainability means.

At the same time for us in the future this is really all about innovation and how to accelerate that sustainable innovation story. We’ve been very focused on that and put out an innovation showcase online at www.theinnovationshowcase.co. We picked 50 examples of innovation from the book and did a little feature on each of those individuals or technologies. Our purpose in the forum is to keep promoting innovation in that way.

Paper is obviously a highly sustainable resource when manufactured in the right way. How extensive do you feel paper manufacture from non-sustainable resources still is?

I think it’s now increasingly apparent to pretty much everybody who is involved in the world of paper that it is a raw material of enormous value both economically and from an ecological point of view.

It is true that there is an assumption that using paper is wasteful and irresponsible. That, to me, is completely crazy

It is a raw material that can be used on an indefinitely sustainable basis and there’s no reason why, with the right kind of forestry management techniques and manufacturing techniques, that this resource shouldn’t be a permanently valuable resource indefinitely in the economy. There’s a kind of virtuous circle, where people recognise the huge value of this raw material but also recognise that it has to be pulled into the market in the right kind of way.

What is the wrong way?

There’s a lot of misconception about what sustainability really means in practice. It is true that there is an assumption that using paper is wasteful and irresponsible. That, to me, is completely crazy.

In terms of the broader debate, of paperless offices and paperless processes, dematerialisation and virtualisation, that’s really horses for courses. There are many instances where doing something virtually or electronically makes more sense than going to paper. That’s just the reality. It’s to do with achieving the best cost effective functionality, not a question of one necessarily being more environmentally sustainable than the other.

The World We Made is told from the perspective of Alex McKay, a teacher looking back from 2050 telling the story of how we got from where we are in the present to a much better place environmentally

We did do an e-version of The World We Made, which commented on the environmental footprint of e-books. People automatically assume that this is, by definition, a lower carbon more environmentally-friendly way of producing a book. A lot of those assumptions need to be tested. It’s all part and parcel of correcting those misperceptions.

Printing processes is the other side of the equation for our industry, what are the information resources that printers can call on to assess their impact on the environment, and work to reduce it?

The great thing is there’s huge knowledge of this now and if a printer, small or big, wants to find out how to genuinely become an environmentally-friendly printer, it’s not difficult to do.

The real issue here is why more big companies and big organisations who claim to be green don’t procure all their printing services from the greenest printers. For me that’s a much bigger mismatch in the system. We ask all our partners at Forum for the Future, ‘If you look at your sustainable procurement strategy, why are you not systematically procuring all your print material from the most sustainable sources and getting it printed in the most sustainable way?’

If you’re a business that’s thinking to the future then getting good at sustainability now puts you in a much more competitive state for the future

That’s frustrating for a lot of the people who are investing in more environmentally friendly ways of printing, when they don’t find that the market is responding as enthusiastically as it should.

Could it be about money? Ultimately if businesses have to choose between sustainability and their bottom line over a product, they’ll normally go for the option that doesn’t hurt their profit. Is this a misconception?

I think this is as much about laziness and complacency as it is about cost. I don’t think that customers really do the deep analysis of different cost options when they are procuring their print services. I’m pretty critical about that.

Whenever we come to printing our own materials, for example, for our magazine at Green Futures, we constantly keep an eye out for whether there is a lower cost way of producing a high value magazine. We are a charity, so we are constantly keeping a lookout for ways we can reduce our costs. Every time you dig into it, the green way honestly doesn’t cost us any more than doing it in a less environmentally-friendly way.

Greenfield SAS of Arjowiggins Group, the first European sorted office waste paper recycling plant, provided the recycled paper on which the book was printed

What is the economic argument for business both small and large in our industry for embracing environmentally-friendly practices, and producing products which are as ‘green’ as possible?

I think there are two principle economic arguments. The first is in the real time, right now is just getting much better at leaner processes. The great thing about green or more sustainable is basically about getting waste out of your system. It’s true about waste issues, it’s true about water and about chemicals. When we say green what we’re actually talking about is lower cost.

The second half of this is anticipating the future. I don’t know anybody out there who thinks that energy is going to get a lot cheaper in future, that governments are going to be doing a lot less about climate change in the future, that people are not going to be as concerned about the environment as they are now.

The direction of travel towards a sustainable world is absolutely clear. It is going to happen. The thing that we are having difficulty with is the speed of travel. Resource and energy costs will rise. If you’re a business that’s thinking to the future then getting good at sustainability now puts you in a much more competitive state for the future.


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