Every baby step in the right direction these days, however, seems to underscore the challenges that remain. It's easy to envision a crisis of rising expectations bearing down on the magazine business if environmentalists start to target the waste produced by industry-standard practices. If that happens, an annual "green" issue won't be enough to manage relationships with readers.
The business stakes, from circulation revenue to paper costs to potential regulation, are real. And it's not that readers will defect en masse from ink on paper. It's that businesses and local governments are increasingly making environmentally minded decisions that affect magazines.
"More and more people are talking about these questions every day," said David Refkin, director-sustainability development at Time Inc., one of the parties behind the recycling campaign. "And they're going to be asking questions of the people they do business with. 'What are you doing?' 'Are you part of the problem or are you part of the solution?'"
Barnes & Noble, for one, has begun specifically promoting magazines that use recycled paper, including Shape, Fast Company, Mother Jones, ReadyMade, Nickelodeon Magazine and Body & Soul. And an advocacy group, Co-op America, calculated that if the whole North American magazine business used just 30% post-consumer recycled paper, nearly 1.7 billion pounds of greenhouse gases would not be emitted into the atmosphere.
Certain marketers have also begun to exert pressure. Aveda, the Estée Lauder hair and cosmetics unit, changed up its magazine mix back in 2004, when it began advertising only in consumer titles that use at least 10% post-consumer recycled paper, a policy it still holds.
One particular area of concern is how the industry feeds the newsstands. For every copy of a magazine that sells on newsstands, publishers often print and deliver another three copies that just sit there until they're out of date. There's a valid business reason for that: an oversupply of copies on newsstands ensures that no potential customer will find a given title out of stock and leads to better overall sales.
Among the top 100 magazines of 1996, for example, about 74% reduced their distribution by an average of 36% over the past 10 years, according to Dan Capell, editor of Capell's Circulation Report. "They lost 52% of their newsstand sale," he said. "Going the other way, the 26% that raised their distribution ... gained 21% in units sold."
Wholesalers push green
But agitation for change has already come from the wholesalers that carry the huge costs of transporting all that extra paper out and back. Anderson News, for one, has tried hard to improve efficiency for years. Wal-Mart, in one dramatic example, just culled some 1,000 titles from the list of magazines its stores can carry -- a move partly informed by the company's sustainability program, intended to cut waste.
The good news is that about 95% of those extras get recycled, according to a study by Time Inc. and Verso Paper, another partner in ReMix. The campaign is actually aimed at increasing the abysmal 17% recycling rate on magazines that do get sold.
So what happens when consumers start considering the resources, from trees to oil, that are consumed by all the copies that won't sell in the first place?
"You have then got people who are actively involved, who are talking to companies about what they're doing," said Paul Rossi, The Economist's publisher for North America. The Economist already works with the Institute for Sustainable Communication and the Sustainable Advertising Partnership to evaluate and study its carbon footprint.
"These people have focused on lots of industries, but I think that focus will eventually come around to direct mail, catalogs and magazines. The reality is we cut down trees to make the product," Mr. Rossi said.