10 indie magazines tackling sustainability
Independent magazines have always pushed the boundaries of culture.
This hasn’t always been to their financial advantage. More often a labour of love than a business, they’re typically side projects alongside somebody’s day job. Sadly, many are too short-lived.
But this is also part and parcel of what makes the indie mag. With principles and identity before profit and scale, they’re uniquely adept at capturing cultural shifts ahead of the curve, and tackling complex, even controversial issues with intellect and sensitivity.
Unsurprising, then, that many have taken up sustainability as a cause.
There are some similarities in their approach. Few use recycled papers (though many would like to), due to the higher cost and budgetary restrictions. Many have chosen rough, uncoated stock for its natural look and feel, and as a fitting carrier for candid, smartphone-style photography and unapologetically intellectual prose.
But the indie mag scene is most remarkable for its diversity and innovation in approaches to sustainability, and not just in the range of subject matter (titles in this review cover art, cooking, politics, sports and more).
As more brands increase investment in their environmental creds, it’s worth examining how these mags have harnessed sustainability as creative pivot, and uncovering ideas which may be useful print inspiration for businesses in every industry.
We investigated 10 magazines currently tackling sustainability, from America and the UK.
Thanks to Jeremy Leslie of MagCulture for providing the mags.
1. It’s Freezing in LA
“I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total and very expensive hoax!’
Donald Trump, 2013
With its psychedelic colour palette, and a title borrowed from America’s President, your first assumption is that It’s Freezing in LA! is a direct product of America’s west coast.
Actually, the organisation is a UK-registered non-profit, and the mag is a superb example of how it’s possible to harness a tight budget as a source of creative inspiration.
IFLA screams counter-culture.
Many features, which might be rejected by higher-end mags, are deployed by IFLA as a clear part of its identity.
A bargain at £7, with its handy compact dimensions, and running to only 60 recycled, uncoated pages, the mag feels half-way between magazine and political pamphlet.
Our copy isn’t quite fully folded, springing slightly open along the saddle-stitched spine. Whether that’s intentional or a consequence of the mag’s promise to ‘sell all misprinted copies’ doesn’t really matter; it only contributes to IFLA’s hipster identity.
Inside, margins are so left so thin, that the shouty, oversize type of the editor’s note appears to protest being confined to the page.
The choice of content is right in step.
In ‘The Future of Freshness’ (pp. 35-38), the correspondent delves into our perceived dependence on carbon-hungry refrigeration as a means of food preservation.
“This cold chain has completely altered our collective conception of freshness and, more importantly, our perceived right to consume fresh goods.’
A fitting observation from a magazine which, perhaps not inadvertently, alters our conception of what constitutes ‘quality’ in print.
2. Where the Leaves Fall
Where the Leaves Fall is frank in its presentation of difficult subject matter.
Opening a piece on low-carbon burials (pp. 36-43), a body, shrouded in white and beautifully adorned with fresh-cut flowers, lies in an open woodland grave.
But there’s no intention to shock.
Rather, through the magazine’s four sections – ‘death’, ‘journey’, ‘seeds’ (mostly photographic series), and ‘dialogues’, a collection of essays at the end – the reader is guided safely through the darkness.
The print itself is part of that process.
The off-white text stock is easy on the eye, softening the colours of the work of various featured photographers, and imbuing every image with the magazine’s signature style. Thread-sewn OTA binding makes for an effortless flick-through, exposing sinews of white cotton between the pages.
No surprise, then, that Where the Leaves Fall states its own mortality in the opening pages: ‘100% carbon positive and recyclable’.
In a piece titled, ‘Death: the giver of life’ (pp. 122-123), the essayist writes:
‘Nature has built a hugely complex system to clean up the remains that are left by the process of death…nature has been composting, upcycling, reusing and recycling for millions of years.’
In its goal of ‘exploring humankind’s connection with nature’, Where the Leaves Fall tackles subject matter that might be harrowing, and instead make it easy to bear.
Whereas some mags pursue an agenda, Riposte pursues agendas as a theme.
It ranges through topics as broad as music, technology, film, politics and fashion, with intellectual feminism as the connecting tissue (it’s positioned as ‘A Smart Magazine for Women’).
However meta, Riposte never feels lofty or superior; rather, it makes direct efforts to meet the reader at ground level. Pages 10-14, on which a series of essays are printed, are reminiscent of It’s Freezing in LA, in the use of Times-esque type, with thin margins, on Arcoprint Milk, a soft white, uncoated stock.
Creative print options make for a dynamic reader journey.
A change in stocks marks a change in content: p. 16-17, the mag juxtaposes four-colour Arcoprint Milk stock with full-colour black-and-white, as a segue into characteristically self-aware fashion editorial:
‘Fashion is often misunderstood, trivialized, or reduced to aesthetics alone…it has the power to address complex questions of representation or human rights.’ (p. 18)
In our photograph here you can make-out the difference: type visible on the reverse of the translucent Arcoprint, and light reflecting off the gloss.
Agenda II – a mag-within-a-mag on sustainability, occupies pages 161-182.
Created by Slow Factory, a sustainable fashion consultancy, this section slots neatly into the Riposte narrative.
The opening editorial directly tackles the tricky reality that campaigning for sustainability (or any cause) can be a middle-class privilege:
‘…just writing a letter to a political candidate means you have 15 minutes in your day that perhaps someone else doesn’t have… Eating plants isn’t cheap, regardless of what people will tell you.’ (p. 164)
…and the content catches you off-guard. It takes a close look at the photo art series, ‘LANDFILLS AS MUSEUMS’ (pp. 168-171) to realise it’s a joint venture involving adidas.
Riposte doesn’t talk about its sustainable printing creds, but the Agenda II section cover is on G.F Smith’s Extract stock, made from coffee cups, and the text on 100% recycled Revive Offset.
Riposte is printed by Park. Read the case study here.
Half magazine, half recipe book, Seed might pose a practical problem to anyone intending to make use of it in the kitchen.
What if it got wet?
The 100% recycled, uncoated pages – which certainly wouldn’t wipe clean – are simply too beautiful to risk spoiling.
But to fixate on the culinary dimension would be to miss the bigger picture.
Seed is a soothing journey into domesticity and Englishness. A celebration of rare apple varieties occupies pp. 62-65; from p. 78, the magazine’s editor ‘Shares her childhood passion for collecting stones’.
The magazine’s subtitle is, ‘celebrating food, craft, travel, sustainable living’; but while it does cover sustainability in the opening editorial, it’s careful never to challenge the reader:
‘…we need a combination of leadership shown by farms… and government intervention in the form of redirected subsidies’.
You cannot overlook that the magazine is self-consciously middle-class, and gently aspirational.
On the wide side at 21 x 27.5cm (slightly squatter than A4), and printed with pale, sun-washed photography, the pages seem to waft a sea breeze as you flick through. The photography series of kitchenware from pp. 58-61 is as elegant a product placement as you’ll ever see.
But that does nothing to dilute Seed as a concept in print, or undermine its pleasurableness as a relaxing read.
Each issue of Mission is ‘devoted to a particular charity or cause.’
Whilst this issue focuses on youth (the last one was on sustainability), Issue 3 still offers a sizeable amount of coverage to the green agenda.
Pp. 66-83 is a photo series on climate protests, and on p. 118 there is an editorial on a sustainable fashion label, Riley Studio:
‘…a seasonless brand. To bypass the environmental damage that comes with creating a new collection twice a year…’
This makes Mission a refreshing voice in an industry which has an uncomfortable relationship with the environment.
In a 2019 article on Fashion, an industry website, scientist Dr. Linda Greer wrote a piece entitled: ‘Most fashion brands don’t know enough about their carbon footprints to actually shrink them’[i].
Greer delves into incredibly complex global supply chains of the fashion industry, and the difficulty of measuring (let alone controlling) your carbon cost.
This helps explain why Mission stands out from this collection, both in its content, and in the way it’s printed.
Principally a fashion magazine, it’s made up of large, glossy pages. It doesn’t say what it’s printed on, but such paper is likely to be as environmentally friendly as any uncoated stock, and gloss is well suited to reproducing images of finely-detailed textiles.
The content is less challenging than the likes of Riposte, but this is part of its strength.
It’s catering for readers who may not be seeking an academic read, and who may find trendy, uncoated stocks to be unfamiliar and unappealing. They’re likely choosing between this, and countless other mainstream fashion titles.
Mission has staked a claim on that market niche – packaging up fashion with support for various noble causes. A welcome alternative to your everyday fashion mag.
Naked-bound, Emergence forces you to consider it as an assembly of component parts – of which there are many. The second page lists no less than eight different typefaces, and eight different papers.
It doesn’t spell out that many of these materials are interesting for their sustainability credentials: ‘Circle Offset’ by Igepa Nederland, for instance, is 100% recycled.
This seems a shame, and it’s possible the designer wasn’t aware (they tend to choose the stock for its appearance, tactility and reproductive abilities), or that the sustainability info may simply have never reached the editor.
But it may also be deliberate; Emergence has a more complex goal than highlighting its own sustainable values.
The magazine sets out to ‘explore the threads connecting ecology, culture and spirituality’[ii]. It’s made up of highly stimulating interplays of texture, colour and shape, and true enough, the connecting threads are visible as you flick through: stripes of cotton, white and black, dividing the page.
The effect is unsettling. Helped on by dark illustrations and photography, supine on lay-flat spreads, the identity of Emergence feels coherent, yet fragile – a sensation enhanced by the use of surprisingly lightweight, high-bulking stock.
‘When You Meet with the Monster, Anoint its Feet’ (pp. 218-231) draws the reader into this same peril of fragility.
The essayist urges us to consider the ‘corrosive spillages and a frightening excess of broken ecological boundaries’ in the Anthropocene (‘the age of man’ – our current geological era).
In this age…
‘…the human being is being composted – or, we are experiencing great difficulty in determining where the nonhumans stops and the human begins’.
At £20 a pop, you suspect few copies of Emergence will be composted in a hurry.
But with its moody appearance and stark content, thoughts of the fragmentary nature of being never stray far from the mind.
Parvati is the coming together of various different sustainability causes.
The parent company, Kupid’s Play, is a record label which focuses on ‘bringing artists who have the potential to make a positive impact on our beautiful planet through the commercial mainstream’.
A nautical focus is lent by the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, with stories on anti-whaling campaigners (pp. 94-97) and the role of the icecaps in controlling global temperatures (pp. 32-35).
A healthy helping of wellness-oriented content, meanwhile, shows an equal interest in the human as in the planet. A written guide to meditation occupies pages P. 102-105, shortly followed by ‘THE YOGA YOU CAN LEARN FROM TREES’ (pp 114-117).
Overall, the magazine is a nice example of what can be achieved with relatively simple elements.
A high-GSM stock lends a weighty feel to each page, as well as to the magazine as a whole, with a lightly-textured textured coating lending an extra touch of class.
We’re also big fans of the uses of typeface: an elegant Baskerville-esque serif for most of the paragraph text, whilst a choice of heavyweight Gotham capitals as header type ensures messages hit home.
The discerning printer could probably tell Parvati was printed on a budget, but it doesn’t really matter.
As an article on London’s Arcola theatre (pp. 77-81) so eloquently puts it:
‘“Give me place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” Often, it is just a handful of people who connect the rest of the world and make the change.’
The handful of people behind Parvati would appear to be a case in point.
It’s pitched at women, but Season – a magazine celebrating fashion and football – rejects clichéd fashion tropes.
Rather than an A4 glossy, this mag is slightly over A5 size, on uncoated paper, with choices of colours and typefaces that couldn’t be pegged to one gender. Issue 7 (the sustainability issue) is printed on two sustainable stocks: 100% recycled Revive Offset, and 50% recycled Symbol Freelife.
The title provides a good opportunity to reflect on the modern role of print magazines.
A recent report into traditional media by GroupM, part of the WPP group, noted that:
‘…what is left of print as a medium can still be very effective for marketers, but the scale is so different that it is best viewed as a niche platform.’[iii]
Having now run to seven issues, this magazine proves that the ‘women’s fashion x football’ niche is as alive and kicking as the women’s game. Season paints a truly inspirational picture of a thriving global community of passionate readers and fans.
The opening editorial features footballer and social media influencer, Florenzia Galarza telling Season about how she’s ‘organizing games and picking up trash to protect the planet’. Ranging more widely through the magazine, stories of entrepreneurship and camaraderie abound.
We also noticed a nice touch for footballers of all ages. In a nod to every kids’ football magazine, a sheet of collectible stickers is printed on the back page.
9. More or Less
Whereas Mission highlights the problematic nature of fashion as its subject matter, More or Less embraces it.
It does this partly by poking fun at itself.
For starters, it’s comically oversized: ¾” thick and 36cm tall, and despite being heavily ad-subsidized (£14 seems a very fair price for a giant magazine), constant flickers of humour ensure it retains its indie vibes.
‘Pamela Anderson brings sexy to sustainability’, states the front cover. Our copy (Issue 03 is available in a choice of three cover images) shows the model herself: close-up, upside down, the portrait verges on the absurd.
But More or Less also has a serious side.
For nearly 30 pages (pp. 116-142) it leaves fashion behind, embarking long, intimate photo series of endangered animals. The enormous pages allow some to be depicted life-size, and despite the magazine being PUR-bound, the sheer weight of paper holds images flattish on the desk.
It’s also the only mag in our review to prominently display the FSC sustainability logo on its cover (although it doesn’t say exactly what stock it’s printed on).
The editorial helps you understand why More or Less has taken this approach.
On p. 52, creative collective ‘Give A Fuck’ acknowledges the uncomfortable lack of control one has over one’s public identity.
‘Whenever you have one person representing a movement, people tend to attack them and it becomes a weak spot. It could also limit our scope and outreach.’
Similarly, the magazine praises designer Nicole McLaughlin’s ‘uncanny ability to unsettle her audience’s relationship with consumerism’. Pp. 104-115 is a feature on McLaughlin’s work: clothes out of discarded pencil cases, tool belts and used packaging.
In poking fun, More or Less seems to be settling its own relationships – not only with fashion, but also with print.
10. Positive News
The issue of Positive News featured here is #99 – a remarkable success story in an industry where most publications rarely survive past a few issues.
Part of its success is in occupying a unique market niche: as ‘the inspiring current affairs magazine’, it combines authoritative, newspaper-worthy journalism:
‘The flight shame debate has had an impact on the spike in growth we have experienced for the past 12 months’ (p. 16).
…with a classic, indie-mag look and feel.
A choice of uncoated, off-white stock throughout allows colours to reproduce brightly, whilst also just softening the blacks, endowing the whole publication with smart-casual style.
Positive News does not seek to please everyone.
As a ‘co-operative media’ non-profit, it is notably left-wing, with one story on magic mushrooms, another on sustainable festivals, and ‘Team Effort’, a piece on employee ownership of companies:
‘The most safe governance relies on the division of power… Short-termism is one of the great weaknesses of capitalism’ (pp. 50-55).
…but it balances its political slant with a hefty helping of practical advice. The company featured in this article observes:
‘…a pledge not to be swayed by public opinion when it comes to sustainability best practice… the carbon footprint of imported tomatoes from the Mediterranean [was found to be] 10 times smaller than growing them in polytunnels in the UK.’
Little surprise, then, that Positive News contains useful advice for would-be magazine publishers as well, with sustainability creds featured on page 4.
With 99 issues under its belt and no sign of slowing down, Positive News is worth a read for anyone considering launching an indie title of their own.
Positive News is printed by Park Communications. Read the case study here.
Sustainable mags become sustainable business
Whilst business moves slowly, mags move fast: often putting societal and cultural change into print long before the rest of the world cottons on.
In the 1970s, punk music spawned its own sub-cultural printing industry – before the movement went mainstream, taking a number of magazines with it.
So what for the future of the sustainability-themed indie mag?
Positive News, which includes features on sustainability in every issue, has been running since 1993. In that time, Park’s portfolio of sustainable print has grown to include clients from every industry. And it may seem problematic for any publishing scene to retain ‘indie’ status when its chosen topic becomes a universally popular cause.
A 2015 article in The Guardian recounts how former NME editor Conor McNicholas perceived the Artic Monkeys’ rise to fame as having ‘killed the NME’[iv].
But Park forecasts no such demise for sustainability-themed indie mags.
Rather, as more businesses invest in print magazines (Park recently printed Sandwich for Unilever), we expect to see sustainability become more competitive as a topic, as publishers of every shape and size put their own spin on this far-reaching trend.
Some titles will not survive past a few issues. This has always been a reality of the indie mag business model – and not necessarily one to be mourned. Their transience is often part of their identity. Indeed, two of the mags in our review – Emergence and Where the Leaves Fall – force us to surrender any notion permanency in a sustainable world: either of print, or of ourselves.
But those that disappear will be replaced, and Park also predicts that at least a few of these mags are likely to go on to bigger and better things.
Governments are currently forecast to miss their Paris Climate Agreement goals by a country mile, making the cause of sustainability only more pressing and popular in the coming decades.
This may see the best titles rise in popularity, off the back of a hot topic, or even receive investment from larger media groups, or from consumer brands seeking an established outlet for their sustainability goals.
If sustainability-themed mags do ever come to be remembered like the 1970’s punk mag – as compostable artefacts of a bygone decade – this will unlikely be in our lifetimes. But it would also be cause for celebration.
Because that would mean mission accomplished, for the sustainability-focused indie mag.
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[ii] Emergence, vol. 1, back cover