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Chelsea Green Publishing is the first American publisher to focus their concentration on the politics and practice of sustainable living. Chelsea Green created a sustainable social enterprise that highlights environmental and social issues, and addresses them by informing and educating the public with an extraordinary backlist of non-fiction books. Chelsea Green is recognized as a leader in the industry and as the leading publisher of books in this space.
At Chelsea Green Publishing, innovation is present in the content published by their authors and the education and engagement provided to their readers. When Margo Baldwin and her husband moved from New York City to Vermont, her husband re-connected with a former classmate, Eliot Coleman, when he was running Milton Academy’s Mountain School program. Coleman is a champion of small, organic farming. In 1989, Chelsea Green published Coleman’s first book, The New Organic Grower.
“A major development was … publishing [Eliot’s] first book, The New Organic Grower, which was way, way, way ahead of its time and is still in print, and one of our best sellers in regards to gardening and farming books. The good thing about doing ‘how to’ books is that it roots you in the world. It’s not an abstract idea. I think a lot of significant gardening and farming authors have built on Eliot’s original ideas and they have become very popular today,” said Baldwin.
Coleman’s second book, Four Season Harvest, published in 1992, explored growing vegetables year round in a greenhouse. Baldwin states “that idea even now is sort of considered avant-garde but back then it was totally unheard of!” She believes that Coleman’s books attracted subsequent authors to Chelsea Green, helping to define the Publisher’s place among the “leading edge of new ideas, and new experiments, and new ways of thinking about agriculture.”
Chelsea Green has continued to work with authors to create cutting edge books in subjects beyond agriculture, including world renowned environmental and social pioneer Donella Meadow’s posthumously edited Thinking in Systems, the 2017 new release Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, and the New York Times bestseller The Art of Fermentation.
Chelsea Green Publishing was founded in 1984 out of a love of books. Baldwin states, “When we started, we just wanted to be; to do good books.” While the initial intent was not to devote the company to publishing material solely focused on sustainability, the transformation into a socially conscious enterprise with a commitment to environmental stewardship evolved naturally.
Baldwin asked, “What else has changed the world like books?” She conveys an excitement for the possibilities and impact that books, when well done, can have. The process is collaborative, and she credits the authors for helping to define Chelsea Green’s mission. Their books have continued to gain recognition, but Baldwin notes that while certain segments of their market are aware of issues impacting sustainable development, there is still a large portion of the public that is oblivious to what is happening. As a publishing company, Chelsea Green adds value where other publishers do not. Baldwin’s vision for the future is that the company will continue current business practices, maintain a talented and committed group of employees and authors, and have a greater impact by educating more and more people.
Chelsea Green sees their purpose as a publisher “to reverse the destruction of the natural world by challenging the beliefs and practices that are enabling this destruction and by providing inspirational and practical alternatives that promote sustainable living.” This is accomplished by “publishing for the practice and politics of sustainability.” Empowering both their authors and their readers to share information and knowledge, restore healthy local communities and economies, as well as act as responsible stewards of both natural and cultural ecosystems.
“Every time a new book rolls out that you feel has potential to change the conversation or change the world, it is extremely fulfilling and satisfying,” said Baldwin.
Throughout history, books have changed the world many times over and provided opportunities to expand education for diverse populations. Chelsea Green’s books provide knowledge required for progressing into a more sustainable future. They curate a wide selection of books, each with a unique perspective from the respective author. While the publisher is providing quality educational materials to the market, they are also impacting progress toward meeting other Sustainable Development goals by leading as an example. For instance, they helped create the Green Press Initiative whose mission “is to work with book and newspaper industry stakeholders to conserve natural resources, preserve endangered forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize impacts on indigenous communities.” The work of this organization to raise awareness of the impacts of the book and newspaper industry on the environment and identify opportunities for improvement along the supply chain certainly lead to improved life on land by encouraging responsible production patterns.
The New Organic Grower started what would be a three-plus decade commitment to publishing books on sustainable living. While staying true to their niche market and audience, Chelsea Green has remained a leader in the industry highlighting the work of authors that bring “in-depth and practical knowledge to life.” By expanding their titles to include health and how-to books they are remaining an important and profitable player in a crowded field.
In their vision and purpose statements, they actively seek to steward equally, four types of capital: intellectual, social, natural and financial. In 2012, Chelsea Green Publishing became an employee owned business. The employee owners ensure the publisher’s commitment to progressive content and they benefit from the continued success and profitability of the company. In an article written 2014, Baldwin stated they had nearly $5 million in sales.
With over 350 titles in print, Chelsea Green focuses on the triple bottom line of benefiting people, planet, and profit. The books that they publish highlight unique approaches to finance and economics, health of soils and those who eat what is grown in those soils, as well as a way to share innovative thinking and ideas about the world at large.
Within their local economy, Chelsea Green Publishing created quality jobs filling roles from editors to production, sales to marketing. Five years ago, the publisher chose an alternative ownership model - an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. A majority of company’s private stock (78%) is held by its 20 employees, with the remaining stock held by the founders. Operating as an ESOP is good for business and community by providing employee benefits and incentives that are shared with the broader community in which they operate, contributing to a thriving circular economy. Each employee owner is highlighted on the website, putting into their own words the mission of their company.
“Our goal is to provide resources that empower citizens to take planet-saving action through the politics and practice of sustainability.” - Elizabeth Babcock
“As an employee-owned company, we care deeply about the quality of our books, from editing to design and production. We aim to publish works that make a difference, ones that will be relevant and useful to our readers over the long term, both today and in the future.” - Ben Watson
“Chelsea Green consistently prints on FSC-certified, recycled paper, invests in its community and employee owners, and uses time and resources to share excitement for these ideas around the world.” - Melissa Jacobson
The publishing industry is inherently wasteful with book production resulting in approximately 12.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually. As one of the founding members of the Green Press Initiative (GPI), Chelsea Green includes an environmental impact statement in each book they publish and has pledged that at least ten percent of their book titles meet or exceed GPI standards. All of their books are published on recycled chlorine-free paper with soy-based inks. To further limit their carbon footprint, they contract with printers based solely in North America. Keeping an eye on their supply chain and emissions, they operate their own warehouses and distribution which ensures quality working conditions, customer service and product.
Green Press Initiative brings together both large and small publishers, paper manufacturers, printers and booksellers. GPI created a certification process to identify leaders in reducing the social and environmental impact of publishing books. In collaboration with multiple stakeholders from across the publishing industry, as well as experts from specific environmental impact areas, the certification was created to be “meaningful, credible, and achievable for publishers that place a strong emphasis on reducing environmental impacts.”
The opportunity to create books, to share knowledge widely, lead to a synergy in which Chelsea Green Publishing has a platform to contribute toward reaching elements of many of the UN SDGs. In addition, because the founders are mindful of the impact of their business operations, they chose to operate as responsible stewards of the health and wealth of both the environment and their employees.
Margo Baldwin, Cofounder, President & Publisher