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Story | 02/24/2022 13:00:00 | 10 min Read time

Leading the green revolution – Lessons from Condé Nast’s push for greater sustainability

In May 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged out of control around the world, Condé Nast announced a series of ambitious sustainability targets for the next five years. That the media giant would go ahead with its plans during such tumultuous times is an indication of just how serious it is about leading a green revolution in publishing.

 

IconProfile.png Alice Pilia

Alice Pilia is a seasoned public policy expert, with experience working in local and national government, international organisations and multilateral forums. In 2018, she joined Condé Nast where she set up, and currently oversees the Global Public Policy function, which covers government affairs, sustainability and social impact.  

 

“A lot of media companies would have said, ‘we’ll wait until this mess has gone away and then we’ll tackle sustainability’,” says Senior Policy Advisor Alice Pilia, who chairs the company’s Global Employee Sustainability Council.

“But at Condé Nast we were determined that this was something that needed to be done. The fact that we could launch a strategy in the middle of the pandemic made me proud and very optimistic about the company’s ability to deliver a long-term commitment.”

I think every company has a duty to improve their sustainability standards, but for media there is an additional responsibility. We inspire, inform and engage people in a way that other sectors hardly do.

Condé Nast is certainly turning words into deeds when it comes to sustainability. Its five-year Sustainability Strategy – part of a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030 – has seen offices in London, Germany, Italy and Spain move to 100% renewable energy as the media group looks to make a global switch to clean energy by 2025.

Condé Nast has also eliminated 82% of its single-use plastic as it completely phases out the harmful material, while, in January last year, 100% of the paper in Condé Nast’s print magazine titles were internationally certified as ‘sustainable’ – the company delivering against its target 10 months early.

 

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In addition to these successes, Condé Nast has been able to reduce its corporate greenhouse gas emissions by 59% between 2018 and 2020.

Pilia believes it’s crucial the media industry places itself at the forefront of the sustainability fight. “I think every company has a duty to improve their sustainability standards, but for media there is an additional responsibility,” she points out. “We have a unique role. We inspire, inform and engage people in a way that other sectors hardly do.

One of the pillars of our sustainability strategy is to become a voice for change and that is what every media company should aim to do. It’s about the trust and bond that we have with our stakeholders.

“One of the pillars of our sustainability strategy is to become a voice for change and that is what every media company should aim to do. It’s an additional moral responsibility and about the trust and bond that we have with our stakeholders. We can’t ignore it.”

In it together

A crucial part of Condé Nast’s push towards greater sustainability has been its Global Employee Sustainability Council, which provides a platform for employees to identify shared objectives, set goals, exchange ideas and collaborate on global priorities.

The council is made up of 20 Condé Nast employees from 12 markets, with members working closely with an executive steering committee composed of senior leaders from across the company to develop and support global and market-based initiatives.

 

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“The sustainability council is a brilliant way for us to understand the different issues across all the markets and to understand what solutions we should consider and pilot,” says Pilia. “The focus of colleagues in India is different to those in America. When we have this beautiful platform we have a global conversation about it. There are so many interesting ideas that pop up.

“With sustainability there is a real sense of urgency across each and every one of our markets. A lot of colleagues from every function, from commercial to editorial to marketing, are very passionate about this issue so it is only right that we involve them as much as possible in the way we shape our strategy and our sustainability journey.”

If we manage to crack the circularity of the paper, print publications are not going to be a massive issue for the industry.

 

Print is not the problem

The success Condé Nast has had in bringing in sustainable paper for its magazines almost a year ahead of schedule shows how print publications can fit in comfortably into any green strategy.

“Paper is a very interesting material – it’s the easiest one to fully integrate in a circular economy,” says Pilia. “And if we manage to crack the circularity of the paper, print publications are not going to be massive issue for the industry, especially since a lot of content creation is moving online.”

Of course, swapping digital for print does not automatically mean you are being more sustainable, with Pilia advising media companies to take a good look at the carbon emissions of its online operations.

“What we did, which was a really interesting experiment, was also to include in our carbon emissions an assessment of our digital activities,” she says. “That is something not a lot of people are doing. Because of the prospect of digital becoming so prominent I was adamant that we needed to start measuring that as well. 

“The methodology is still evolving, but it is very important that we start looking at the carbon emissions of all our digital activities and that we don’t dismiss them as something that is automatically green.”

Showing plastic the door

Eliminating the use of plastic packaging has been one of Condé Nast’s most pressing concerns. The company has signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to phase out fossil-based, non-recyclable plastics from all products by 2025, with regular internal material audits ensuring it stays on target.

A major stumbling block has been getting the printing hardware to match the company’s new green vision. “In the production process you have to consider the availability of materials, cost and the supply chain,” says Pilia.

”The wrapping process is technical and done by massive machines. These machines are a major investment and the machine that works with the traditional plastic film is unable to process other materials. That requires a massive investment upfront from the printers.

 

“At the beginning of the process a lot printers were telling us – this is just you, there is no reason for me to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a new machine that only Condé Nast wants.

“But very rapidly the demand for new wrapping materials went up so it made sense for the industry to change and invest in processes and machinery that could meet that demand.”

While Condé Nast is also piloting using naked copies, it’s a strategy that comes with pitfalls beyond its control. “It’s the ideal solution but it depends on how good the postal service is,” Pilia points out. “If you are sending out subscription copies you need to make sure the postal service is able to cope with naked copies and you are depending on other partners that you don’t control.”

Green is the new black

Home to iconic brands like Vogue and GQ, and with an audience of more than one billion across 32 markets, Condé Nast is in the ideal position to help transform the world’s second largest polluter – the fashion industry.

The company has joined forces with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to help make fashion and textiles more eco-friendly - using its magazines to raise awareness about climate change and promote the re-use of clothes, sustainable style and innovative materials and technologies.

And the company is using its influence as a leading media brand to bring people in the fashion industry together at global events like the recent COP26 summit.

 “Condé Nast is very well positioned as a convenor and that is what we did at COP26 – we tried to facilitate and create platforms for the industry to have honest and constructive conversations to see what they can do as a group,” explains Pilia. “We co-chair a working group on communication and marketing of sustainable fashion and we were really happy to launch a set of guidelines.”

 

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Condé Nast has also teamed up with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) to create The Sustainable Fashion Glossary - a compendium of terms that acts as a reference tool to help clarify the terminology when it comes to sustainable fashion.

The guide, which has had input from Vogue editors and reviewed by a network of academics and sustainability researchers, will be updated every year to reflect new innovations in the fight against fast fashion.

“We are wordsmiths so it makes sense for us to help the industry to develop a common language and a shared understanding of the problem that will hopefully facilitate a more productive conversation and lead to solutions,” says Pilia.

“The glossary is providing the foundation for all the other engagement activities that we have been developing. It’s exciting because the glossary has already been adopted by a lot universities and training institutions.

“A group of young people discovered the glossary and took it upon themselves to translate into 20 languages. I’m proud of that because there aren’t that many documents that would inspire a group of students to do that.”

 

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Beware the greenwash

While Pilia has the full support of the company’s leadership at Condé Nast, she’s well aware that sustainability officers at other media companies might be met with more pushback.

“At the corporate level, for some groups, it might be hard to convince shareholders and boards that sustainability is something they need to tackle urgently,” she says.

“When this happens you have to make sure the energy that is being created by the workforce and readership is channelled to persuade the leadership. It requires resources, time and commitment.”

Pilia stresses the importance of backing up every green initiative and decision with proper research, pointing out Condé Nast’s decision to establish science-based targets to reach its carbon neutral goals by 2030 – the first media company to take this approach.

“You have to focus on doing things properly and establishing a very robust baseline,” she says. “You have to make sure the data is gathered and analysed properly and commit to transparency and accountability because our audiences are savvy and they will call us out in no time if they sniff a little bit of green washing.”

 

Writer: Pierre De Villiers


 

This article is part of the #MODERNPRINT series, a content collaboration with FIPP, showcasing the role of print in the modern media mix.

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