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Conservation through capitalism – Econlib



Conservation Through Capitalism

I recently came across a news story that highlights something about capitalism and the profit motive that is underappreciated by the very people who clamor for it the loudest: resource conservation. Capitalism not only encourages maximizing output – it also encourages minimizing the use of inputs. If you want to save resources, capitalism and the profit motive are your best friends.

The story in question describes how the publisher HarperCollins has reduced the amount of paper they use to publish their books, as a result of making numerous “subtle, unnoticeable adjustments” to the font and layout of the pages. The effort first began in their Christian publishing division, where making these adjustments resulted in 350 fewer pages per Bible, resulting in over 100 million fewer pages in 2017 alone – four times the Empire State’s Building, according to the story.

HarperCollins tried to use these innovations across their publishing lines and put quite a bit of effort into it. There were a number of factors to take into account and weigh against each other:

The team got to work. They tested their theories with a large book in their catalog (over 600 pages) by creating 50 versions of it with different fonts. HarperCollins uses a wide variety of ready-made fonts in its books, rather than custom fonts. As the team conducted the experiments, they noticed that some fonts were more compact, resulting in fewer pages, while still remaining easy to read.

…Ultimately, the designers discovered that smart font selection, coupled with thoughtful layout design that reduced white space, resulted in more words per page…And when you place them side by side, the differences are imperceptible.

And what has been the reward for all these efforts? The report tells us that “these subtle, unnoticeable changes saved 245.6 million pages, equivalent to 5,618 trees.” The other result, of course, is that these changes “have reduced HarperCollins’ printing costs.”

You might dismiss this as no problem. While 5,600 trees may seem like an impressive number, how big is it really? After all, they are there more trees on Earth than there are stars in the entire galaxy! In light of that, aren’t 5,600 trees small potatoes? Yes, but at the same time that reinforces the point I want to make! The market provides strong incentives to find and implement every viable option to reduce and minimize the resources required for production. If there is a means available to reduce resource use even slightly, there is someone out there who will look for it, find it and implement it. In contrast, can you imagine a government agency that puts teams to work going through similarly intensive efforts to ensure that they use only the minimum amount of resources necessary?

The difference is that capitalism and market discipline provide a very different institutional structure and set of incentives—incentives that government agencies lack. And because of this difference in incentives, market players will take much more care to conserve and reduce resource use than government actors. So if your goal is resource conservation, be glad that markets exist – and cheer that they are expanding.