Sunday, August 10, 2008

Discovering Magazine Profit in Sustainability

Discovering Magazine Profit in Sustainability
Wal-Mart has saved billions of dollars-can't we?
By Bob Sacks
Does the current magazine business model have anything to do with sustainability? Not the ability to sustain ourselves as a business, but rather the new-age definition of environmental sustainability as defined by Wal-Mart. You remember Wal-Mart-the conglomerate that distributes nearly 25 percent of all newsstand titles? Oh, yes, you remember Wal-Mart-the mega-discount retailer that recently cut 1,000 magazine titles from its roster. But did you ever wonder why it did that?

As I found on the Wal-Mart Web site, "through sustainability, Wal-Mart has saved billions of dollars in costs and has begun to drive profitable product innovation. Our goal: Offer our customers an increasing volume of affordable, sustainable products that help them live better every day."

Wal-Mart wants to improve the quality of life for people on a global basis. Wal-Mart is preaching and insisting on accountability for sustainability with all vendors.

This may sound like corporate rhetoric, but it isn't. Wal-Mart is serious. It has discovered profit in the new mantra of sustainability. It has saved $10 billion in improved, sustainable packaging. It has increased efficiency in its truck fleets by 15 percent. It is in hot pursuit for two reasons. One, it makes good business sense. The savings that it is experiencing are dramatic and have been achieved by many other companies as well. Two, the public has come around to the concept and now is starting to demand sustainability in the products it buys.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that sustainable development marries two important themes:

1. environmental protection does not preclude economic development; and

2. economic development must be ecologically viable now and in the long run.

What does this have to do with magazines? Everything! We are not yet a sustainable business under Wal-Mart's definitions. This is an important concept for us to recognize. I have been ranting for years about our inefficient distribution system. I have also said that if we don't fix it from the inside, outside forces will fix it for us. Well, there you have it; those forces are in action as we speak. Do you think this sustainability movement will just go away? Do you wish to continue with business as usual? Are you developing a distribution plan for the future? And by the future, I don't mean your next issue-I mean next year and the years after that.

Proven sustainability may be legislated and forced upon all businesses. There is legislation circulating in Washington, D.C. right now that demands an 80-percent reduction of carbon footprints. How would you accomplish that reduction? Wal-Mart, the distributor of 25 percent of our newsstand product, is demanding efficiencies, and now the government is, too.

The future of print publishing, if we are to have one, must address sustainability issues. How "green" or environmentally friendly is a publishing process that prints 10 magazines, sells three and then sends seven to landfills, or at best, re-trucks the unsold copies to a pulping facility to be re-trucked back to a mill, to be converted to paper and re-trucked back to a printing plant? Deleted digits (as in digital 1s and 0s) do not require diesel-burning trucks to haul them away, and old digits do not fill up landfills.

I hope you can agree that from a "green" perspective, publishing is not yet a sustainable business.

So with the rising costs and earth-unfriendly nature of our manufacturing and distribution of formerly living trees, and with the increased acceptability and functionality of digital products like e-paper, the path to successful publishing is very clear. To me, the quick route to a drastic reduction in our carbon footprint is adopting the philosophy of 100-percent retail sell-through-a no-return, newsstand-based business. This concept horrifies some professionals. (It's more the fear of the unknown than the actual facts of the process. Jobs will change, responsibilities will change and business models will change, and people abhor change.) But at the end of the day, and before the end of our business and our planet as we know it, it is an inevitable and eco-friendly distribution model. After the horror of this transformation is over, we will save billions of dollars and perhaps the industry as well.

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a printing/publishing industry consultant and president of The Precision Media Group ( He is also the co-founder of the research company Media-Ideas (, and publisher and editor of a daily international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. Sacks has held posts as director of manufacturing and distribution, senior sales manager (paper), chief of operations, pressman, circulator and almost every other job this industry has to offer.