This article is republished from the June 2020 edition of Backcountry Magazine.

On behalf of its member clubs and individual members, FMC strives to protect our finite and fragile environment. So why then, when online digital publication is now so common, does FMC continue to publish its flagship publication, Backcountry, in print?

Backcountry’s A5 printed format gives FMC a point of difference – it’s portable – not too big, but thick enough to survive a pack journey – and hence a regular hut shelf feature, making it well known in exactly the right context. For those not consigned to stove fuel, also allowing some printed copies to enjoy a ‘shelf life’ much longer than many printed magazines.

Nevertheless, a seemingly inexorable trend during the past couple of decades has been the shift away from printed to digital publications. The number of trees saved as a result must be mind-bogglingly large by now, which is of course a great thing, although it doesn’t appear to have stopped gigantic swathes of our planet’s forests from continuing to disappear.

FMC’s Backcountry is no different in this sense. We’ve seen a slow decline in printed numbers. Twenty years ago (1999), FMC financial member numbers, which primarily have driven Backcountry print quantities, were on a par with 2006. Our print quantity data is available from 2006. In that year the print runs per issue were about 13,000, dropping fairly steadily to 11,000 by 2014. Since then runs have continued to slowly decline – in 2017 they were 10,500, in March 2020 9,400.

Print runs have been one or two thousand above financial member numbers (allowing for some free distribution), but more recently they have actually fallen slightly below financial member numbers. This reflects the call by some clubs to reduce their postage costs and to adopt more ‘environmentally friendly’ practices.

The smaller print runs get, the less economically viable Backcountry becomes, and I fear the less of a tangible profile it will hold. Yes, printing requires resources and we don’t want those resources to be wasted. But it can be claimed that a printed Backcountry enjoys a much longer ‘attention span’ than an online copy does. If so, print therefore achieves a wider and perhaps also deeper overall readership than online. The messages and information shared on the pages of Backcountry do more good for our environment and the FMC cause than saving some paper will. These are reasons why FMC encourages clubs to retain and support their printed distributions.

But how about the big issue facing us in this twenty-first century – CO2 emissions and print versus digital? We’ve looked in to this, using online CO2 emission calculators and seeking advice from an expert at calculating CO2 emissions at the University of Otago. Depending on what information source is used, views and calculations varied wildly, but in balance, we have to acknowledge that, on the face of it, distributing printed Backcountry emits more CO2 than distributing it online. But it’s not an easy thing to accurately assess if you really try to get a fix on the overall picture. It’s not as simple as just looking at the CO2 emitted directly by producing and distributing printed versus online copies of Backcountry.

For example, not all electricity is equal. When it’s produced here in New Zealand a much greater proportion of it is from renewable sources like hydro than if produced from the likes of coal powered generation overseas. To build a truly complete overall picture you also need to consider what went into producing the paper, inks and machinery involved in printing on one side and what it took to manufacture the computers, servers, cabling and so on used on the digital side.

There are also issues around resource renewability and wastage, CO2 emissions and even the ethics of fair trade and the extent of fair treatment of the labour forces involved, that apply all along the production, distribution and consumption cycles for both print and online.

This overall (very complex) picture aside, if we come back specifically to just printing and distributing Backcountry, how about other environmental considerations like the use of toxic chemicals in paper and ink production; or the cost and use of non-recyclable materials in distribution? Our printer/distributor Chris Keen has been working on ways to make our print and distribution processes as environmentally friendly as possible. At present we use vegetable based ink and FSC certified paper produced from second generation wood. Regarding distribution packaging, all courier packs are compostable bags or corrugated cartons. He has also removed air freight totally from his distribution programme (those CO2 emissions again). Quite often there is enough time to send quantities by land rather than air to many of FMC’s member clubs who then distribute copies of Backcountry to their own members. Our Backcountry distribution ‘deadline’ is often driven by when clubs hold their regular/monthly meetings.

By now you can be excused for feeling confused about whether or not it’s best to continue distributing printed copies of Backcountry or changing completely to digital. What I hope does become clear though, is that this issue isn’t black and white. It’s complicated. But FMC is doing everything possible that we know about to produce and distribute Backcountry in print in the most environmentally friendly way that we can. Why, because we believe in balance, printing Backcountry is still our best option to continue getting our messages and those of the wider backcountry community out to our members and the wider community.

Ironically, as I prepare this June Backcountry for publication it may only ever see the light of day in digital form. And we just recently made the March Backcountry available online at the same time as printed copies became available. Why? Covid-19! Many printed copies of March Backcountry were delayed from reaching their final destinations and disruptions to our normal distribution arrangements have put printing of at least some of this June issue in question. As you read this you will know what happened.

This article is excerpted from the June 2020 edition of Backcountry Magazine titled ‘A New Dawn’. Don’t forget that back issues of every FMC Bulletin / Backcountry are available to read in the FMC Archives, but the latest issue is only available online 3 months after the print version is released. 

Please visit the FMC website to find out how to get your print copy and your FMC discount card.