Okay, what I'm going to be writing here is sure to upset a few people. Yet it needs to be discussed.
Some people need to be subjected to an intervention for their addiction. Their addiction is tenacious, nasty and harms not only themselves and their businesses, but also the entire planet. Let's be clear and blunt about this: Book publishers are addicted to providing books to retailers on a "returnable" basis (essentially on consignment). And retailers are addicted to those sales terms.
They are in denial about this. "We're trying to cut down." "It is really not as bad as people say." "It is not my fault. Everyone else does it." "One more can't hurt, eh?"
Two years ago, the Green Press Initiative released a treatise urging a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the book industry (including paper-making and printing). You can download the document here: http://www.greenpressinitiative.org/treatise/treatiseIndex.htm
Within the Treatise itself is one section:
Recycling and Reducing Consumption
Implementing strategies which will foster improved efficiency and continued reductions in paper consumption - including reduced basis weights, the minimization of returns and improved recycling.
I believe that it is counter-productive to advocate "the minimization of returns" as this only perpetuates the dangerous myth that selling on a returnable basis is necessary within the industry. Selling on a returnable basis leads to over-ordering and over-printing. That is a fact. The scale of the problem is also a fact: over one billion extra books are printed unnecessarily every year. Publishers and retailers have proven over the past eight decades that they are not able to be responsible in their behavior around selling on a returnable basis. It is a sick, dangerous addiction, and they are in denial. Providing books on "returnable" terms is the crack cocaine of the book industry.
It could be argued that advocating a "minimization of returns" is like saying, "let's minimize violence against women/children/the environment/etc." Maybe only raping on Saturday nights? Would you say to an alcoholic that they should "minimize drunk driving"? Would you tell a junkie to minimize getting high and robbing corner stores? The goal must be to STOP harmful, wasteful, unnecessary, addictive practices, not to condone them.
If the practice of returns is eliminated altogether (switching to the firm sales terms used by almost every other industry), the Green Press Initiative's goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 could be reached in months, not decades. As we have seen with the recent, almost-overnight switch across the industry to selling eBooks on an "agency model," the book industry could change its sales terms for printed books quickly. But only IF there is a will to change. That will happen only IF people end their denial about their addiction.
Too bad that treatise was written by addicts. I believe their intent was noble and grand; too bad they couldn't see beyond their own condition toward a healthier future.
What form will the intervention take? Perhaps it will be consumers threatening a boycott. Perhaps it will be your shareholders deciding to end their relationship with executives who are addicted to behavior that harms the planet and is wasting billions of their dollars.