Addressing sustainability within the global publishing industry is a topic that is increasingly important to everyone. To help give us an insight into how publishers can contribute and take action, the IPA interviewed Sherri Aldis, Chief of the United Nations Publications. View fill video below and here.

There’s only 10 years left to achieve the ambitious targets set by the sustainable development goals. How do you think publishers can and should be contributing to this effort? 

The UN is calling this decade (2020-2030) the Decade of Action, and I think that word “action” is key. We know through various surveys undertaken in the past 12 months, notably with Davos, that about 74% of adults globally have heard of the goals. Whilst hearing about them is good, acting on them is better. COVID -19 has been hard for everybody around the world, publishers included. At the same time, it does provide us with a reset and an opportunity to give new impetus to achieving the goals. Also, it has taught us about solidarity and how multilateral action can be effective. It is important for us now to go into this decade of action with the intention to have concrete results and publishers can contribute to that in many ways. This contribution basically falls into two categories. The first category is publishing content on the SDGs that is helping to raise awareness about the Sustainable Development Goals to all target audiences. From children, through initiatives like the SDG Book Club, through to adults and researchers. Publishing reliable content provides a scientific basis, a foundation for the goals and enables a scientific approach to the goals and to combat misinformation. This is a very important way that publishers can contribute.

The second big bucket where publishers can contribute, is in their own business practices and by embracing sustainable business practices. We’ve seen a huge movement over the past couple of years in the publishing industry towards addressing more inclusion and diversity, which I really commend. But it also extends to encouraging ethical business practices, not only internally in your own publishing business but also throughout our supply chains.

There are also a number of publishers that are members of the United Nations Global Compact, an arm of the UN, that creates a link between the corporate sector, private sector and the UN. This is very encouraging as it shows many publishers have already committed to sustainable business practices and the list includes examples of large publishers and small publishers throughout the world.

Above and beyond those contributions, I would say having worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years, I do think that the SDGs align very well with the values and the ethics that I’ve seen there firsthand. Over these years, there seems to be a really natural commitment to the kinds of ideas represented by the SDGs and we would like to leverage that. Clearly, there is a also market for this.  Again, we see that 74% of adults have heard of the SDGs and we see an increase in interest on our own platforms and in our content. There is a big focus on youth engagement at the moment and you can see all of these energized young people who are out there on the streets speaking up for climate change and their rights. They have very high expectations of us and aside from being the right thing to do, there is a financial justification to be producing content in these areas to these markets.

Publishers are a hugely important constituency, again, not just in terms of actual business practices, but in terms of amplifying the message. It is all about getting the word out and publishers have a very important – and very international – platforms with a global audience in all different languages. So, it is very important for the UN to have the publishing industry’s support.

I’ll just finish with one last thing, which is that it’s not just about government. Probably the biggest impact will come from businesses and individuals stepping up. It’s about all of us, it is about you, me, about our industry and our businesses leveraging that action and making it lead to success in achieving the goals by 2030. That’s what the Decade of Action is about.

In your perspective, has the COVID -19 pandemic brought us closer or further away to achieving the SDGs?

Clearly, COVID is a crisis, there’s no question about it. However, our Secretary General has said it is not just a health crisis, it is also an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a security and human rights crisis. It really does require a coordinated and compassionate response, but at the same time, we look at this as an opportunity to consider this a turning point in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

We were already off track for many of the goals and COVID has negatively contributed to our progress.  For example, we were already off track to end poverty by 2030 and with COVID, an extra 71 million people have been pushed into poverty. Food insecurity was already on the rise and COVID has led to what could be seen as a hunger pandemic, as people around the world are increasingly not able to have access to enough food. For education, school closures have affected 90% of all students around the world and again we were already off track in our progress towards inclusive and equitable education. The one area that seems to have been impacted slightly positively is the climate crisis.  COVID has led to a 6% drop in greenhouse gas emissions, which still isn’t enough as the targets were 7.6% , but it at least something positive.

COVID has also created a sense of solidarity around the world, people have been protecting each other by staying at home, wearing masks and engaging in practices that will save themselves and their families. The one take away from this pandemic I see, is that we are one global family and we need to work on these issues together and give these issues a sense of urgency.

What advice do you have specifically for publishers wanting to contribute towards the SDGs? 

There are so many ways publishers can contribute and one way is the idea of publishing content on the SDGs. This could be conducting and publishing multi-disciplinary, international research that we need in order to nourish policy decisions and challenge some of the assumptions that we have. It can also be digital platforms and books dedicated to the SDG themes. You can also recommend children’s books for the SDG Book Club and we definitely encourage publishers to do that as well. Another thing that many publishers are doing is creating accessible ebooks as a direct contribution to SDG 10- Reducing Inequalities.  You can also use the SDG logos and icons on your content or websites that helps to frame content in relation to the SDGs, getting people to identify with the SDGs and understand the concepts behind them. To do this, you can easily ask for us permission which is simple to do.

On the supply chain or the sustainable business practices side, it really is about looking at your supply chains. Ensuring that not only you as a publisher, but also throughout your supply chain, for example your printers and distributors are also incorporating ethical and sustainable business practices. This might be using recycled or responsibly sourced paper and looking at your carbon footprint which many publishers have been doing for over a decade now. Internally, I think that publishers could assign somebody to be an SDG ambassador or focal point to raise awareness.

Another simple way that we are all doing right now is reducing travel. We are not flying to the Frankfurt Book Fair and as sad as it is not to see everybody in person, we are all making a positive contribution to reducing carbon emissions. Let’s look on the bright side with that.

It’s about communicating internally and externally and getting people to act. We have a wonderful new way for publishers to be able to contribute directly to the Sustainable Development Goals which we’re launching and announcing at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. It is a wonderful cooperation that we have engaged upon with the International Publishers Association to create the SDG Publishers Compact. This helps to formalize publishers’ commitments to the Goals and concretely gives publishers some tools, ideas and targets to take action through sustainable business practices and sustainable content production. I would very much encourage everybody to take a look at the SDG Publishers Compact and seriously consider joining it as it is very much aligned with what I see as being publishers’ inherent values and ethics. I don’t think the Compact will be a huge stretch for many publishers and it’s just a great way to show your support of the Sustainable Development Goals and everything that they embody during this Decade of Action. Every small act helps. We can’t do everything at once, but we can make progress through small acts over the next years and one way to do that would be to join us in this effort through the SDG Publishers Compact.