Book Buying: An Environmentally Friendly Guide
In today's market, many consumers want to shop with the environment in mind. And that includes book buying, too. But with so many options, such as online buying and e-readers, making environmentally friendly choices can be complicated. Indeed, while searching for definitive answers to environmentally friendly book buying, I sifted through many layers of criteria that often couldn't be arranged in any particular order. Because of that, I consider this post to be more of a general guide—one that provides resources for you to explore further while illuminating some gems along the way. Originally published October 7, 2016; last updated June 5, 2017
The first section of this post is dedicated to environmentally friendly bookstores that exemplify stellar environmental and social commitments. In the remaining part, I explore online purchasing verses buying in stores, the business of publishing and discarding new books, independent bookstores, purchasing from Amazon and e-books verses printed books.
So, let's take a look! Grab a cup of something warm and get ready to think beyond the boundaries of either/or as we venture into the murky seas of environmentally friendly book buying. I hope this guide helps.
Environmentally friendly book buying - top picks
Most of the bookstores listed below are restricted to online selling. I'm not separating online book buying from brick-and-mortar bookstores because in today's market the two go hand in hand. Most physical bookstores will have an online component. Granted, the environmentally friendly bookstores listed below all have websites for online ordering. In addition, Half Price Books maintains storefronts scattered across the country.
Beyond selling new and used books, Alibris offers cash for textbooks, textbook rentals, music, movies and matches independent sellers with buyers. In addition, they sell to libraries. But Alibris is also a fun place to work. For example, the company allows employees to bring along their dogs! Alibris cares about education, community, and the environment.
They partner with Year Up, which matches young adults who lack opportunities with companies in need of skilled workers. The Alibris about page has a video about the Year Up program along with information on other projects they support—buildon.org, donarschoose.org, and Can I Lick the Spoon?, which won a Points of Light Foundationaward.
Their contributions to community include support to local food banks, environmental projects, a local farm, toy drives and more. And employees receive two service days per year, which allows them to donate their time without having to worry about the consequences of missing work.
By offering used books, CDs and DVDs, Alibris prevents goods from accumulating in landfills. They use energy efficient light bulbs and support bike-to-work programs. In addition, they have a team of employee volunteers who meet regularly to discuss how the company can become even more sustainable—beyond their current practices of composting coffee grounds, using compostable products at company events and giving employees pre-tax public transportation vouchers. You can learn more about these programs, here.
What did two young college graduates do with degrees in mechanical engineering and information systems shortly after the dot-com industry went bust? Well, first they began tutoring Notre Dame football players. But what were they supposed to do with so many leftover textbooks? Sell them online, that's what.
Better World Books sells new titles and collects used books and text books from a network of college campuses and libraries throughout the country, keeping books out of landfills. And as a triple-bottom-line company, they value profits, people, and the planet, donating a book to someone in need for every purchase made on their website. Through their purchases, customers are supporting literacy projects through non-profit organizations such as Books for Africa, National Center for Families Learning and Room to Read.
Also, Better world Books supports the planet by balancing all shipments from Mishawaka, their headquarters, with carbon offsets through 3Degrees. They've provided new homes for, or recycled, over 250,000 tons of books and reclaimed over 900,000 pounds of metal shelving from U.S. libraries.
Although profits are important—employees, customers, literacy partners, investors and the environment—share equal consideration at Better World Books. For additional information, watch the excellent video series, which explains even more about the company and its mission.
And they offer free shipping worldwide. Yep.
Biblio brings together booksellers and customers, making over 100 million used, rare and out of print books available to those in the specialized book market. Signed letters and books are two examples of works included in the rare collection.
In addition, by working with booksellers around the world, they're able to locate used textbooks at reduced prices and partner with CampusBooks to help students sell their dusty textbooks. Yet, Biblio also locates new and used selections for school classrooms.
What's most impressive, however, is their business model. They combine the character and feel of an old used bookstore with the modernity of the internet. Biblio is about love of books and building customer relationships. From their inception, Biblio adopted the triple-bottom-line philosophy—be profitable, serve people and care for the environment.
Environmentally friendly book buying often has a strong humanitarian component, too. They've built 13 community libraries in Bolivia, and some of these were built before Biblio even made a profit. Nevertheless, they decided to give before it was financially feasible to do so.
But Biblio also has an environmental component. They purchase carbon offsets and apply them to all operations of their business, including shipping. In addition, Biblio partners with NativeEnergy (a Native American energy company). In this way, they're supporting renewable energy projects and communities. You can read more about their environmental contributions, here.
Finally, Biblio has donated books to children in poor communities, prison inmates, homeless shelters and so many others.
My description of their operations doesn't really do them justice. I hope you'll take a look at Our Story for more insights into how they began and continue on their epic venture.
Chelsea Green Publishing specializes in books, DVDs and videos on the "politics and practice of sustainable living." Subject matter includes "organic farming and gardening, permaculture, ecology, the environment, simple living, food, sustainable business and economics, green building, and more."
They began as an independent publishing company in Vermont, 1984. As of 2012, Chelsea Green Publishing became an employee owned company, where employees own 78% of privately-held stock. The founders own the rest and remain committed to independent publishing and to remaining in Vermont.
Many of their titles have won numerous awards. Some of you might be familiar with such well known books as The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation.
But Chelsea Green Publishing doesn't just publish books on sustainable living—they model these practices by participating in the Green Press Initiative, which requires publishers to meet or exceed certain standards for recycled paper and the paper bleaching process. They print all of their books and catalogs on chlorine-free recycled paper using soy-based inks as much as possible. And all of the printing takes place in the U.S. In addition, they maintain their own warehouses and distribution.
Take a look at their blog for recipes and interesting excerpts from book titles. I could get into trouble—so many interesting books to buy!
No discussion on environmentally friendly book buying would be complete without including Half Price Books, which, in addition to online purchasing, has physical stores scattered throughout the U.S.
Half Price Books was birthed in an old laundromat in Dallas, Texas, 1972. Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson put an ad in the local newspaper, offering to buy old books. They ended up with thousands of books—and customers.
Although they started from humble beginnings, Half Price Books is anything but small. With 120 stores sprinkled across the U.S., they're the largest family-owned new and used book retailer in the country. They also buy and sell books online from around the world.
But what I admire most about Hal Price Books is their commitment to people and the environment, which has been part of their business model from the beginning. Along with providing employees a profit sharing program, they're giving back to the community by promoting literacy, donating books to such non-profits as Feed the Children and the American Red Cross. They also build libraries at pediatric hospitals and special needs clinics. And teachers and librarians receive a 10% discount throughout the year.
Environmental education is another important component of their business model as demonstrated through reusing; recycling; and conservation of paper, energy, and water. And they also donate some of their books to Better World Books, mentioned above.
New Society Publishers strives to provide tools to create an ecological, sustainable and just world through its publications. Some of their books and e-books include topics on sustainable building, homesteading, climate change, environment, conscientious commerce and renewable energy.
They started out by offering non-violent, civil disobedience training in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Additionally, they maintained an office in British Columbia dedicated to the food co-op movement. The two offices merged in 1990, with its current headquarters located on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.
New Society Publishers prints all of their books on 100% post-consumer FSC certified recycled paper, using only vegetable-based, low-VOC inks. The paper used in their office is also FSC certified and 100% post-consumer recycled, and none of the paper originates from ancient forests. But also, to prevent unnecessary waste, they produce all catalogs in a pdf format. Carbon omissions are offset through the Community Carbon Marketplace. And in addition to all of the above, they recently became a Certified B Corporation.
A wealth of resources for responsible book buying
New Society Publishers also offers e-book selections on their website and other websites listed on this page. However, they encourage responsible digital reading, providing the resources needed to make an informed decision. Take a look at these three helpful links on their e-books page: The Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, Conflict Minerals: Raise Hope for the Congo and Slavery Footprint.
Do you think about environmental and social consequences of your purchases? Of course you do! Would you like to know which companies are concerned about these issues too? I encourage you to take a look at all three of these resource guides. I'll be using them right along with you. One of the benefits to writing a post on environmentally friendly book buying is that I end up creating my own directory. But I hope that you find it helpful, also.
An innovative new trend in environmentally friendly book buying is print-on-demand publishing. To fully appreciate this technology requires an understanding of how the publishing industry works, which I'll explain further down this page.
For now, what's important to know about OR Books is that they're a traditional publisher that prints books and e-books on demand—not to be confused with print-on-demand books for self-publishing. They sell directly online to consumers and bookstores, publishing only one or two selections a month. By operating in this manner, excessive inventory and returns are avoided. In fact, OR Books doesn't accept returns from booksellers or consumers. Because book publishers so often pulp (book pulping) unsold books and returns, print on demand is, by far, a more environmentally friendly solution.
In order to maintain quality, OR Books only publishes carefully chosen selections by established authors and newly discovered talent. They don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. Take a look at a couple of short videos about the two men who started this progressive publishing company, which I hope will change the way consumers, publishers and booksellers think about the publishing industry. As a point of interest, they refuse to wholesale to Amazon.
Other online and in-store book buying options
Below is a list of other well-loved book buying options. Many of them don't specifically fall into the category of environmentally friendly bookstores or make any kind of humanitarian claim, but they often specialize in used and rare books in specific niches. Used books are always preferable to new ones from an environmental perspective. And the marketplace is full of other excellent online and offline bookstores. But I had to find an ending point, somewhere.
I would also like to point out that when I searched online for environmentally friendly book buying, university bookstores also appeared in the results. This surprised me, but it really shouldn't have. University bookstores seem to be leading the way as eco-friendly sources for books, school supplies and gifts. Many offer stainless steel water bottles and other earth-friendly products too.
Abe books opened as an online bookseller in 1996, specializing in locating and selling hard-to-find books. Although they became a subsidiary of Amazon in 2008, Abe Books remains a stand-alone business with offices in Canada and Germany. They continue to offer new books, used books, rare books, used and new textbooks and out-of-print books from booksellers scattered around the world. Additionally, they also have a textbook buyback program. Antiquarian books dating back to the 15th century and signed books are examples of their rare book selections.
BookFinder.com is more of a search engine for new, used, rare and out-of-print books, and textbooks. They search every major online catalog, but the seller is responsible for shipping all purchases. There's no additional markup, though. With operations in Berkeley, California and Dusseldorf, Germany, BookFinder.com is run by a group of technically oriented librarians and programmers.
Bookinista loves books and wants to keep them out of landfills. They sell used, remaindered and slightly damaged books online—keeping their selections ever-changing and exciting.
This particular resource has much less to do with finding environmentally friendly bookstores as it does with caring about people with print disabilities. Bookshare is an online resource that supports school districts, children and adults with reading disabilities and those who are vision impaired. Do you know someone who might qualify for Bookshare? Take a look at the requirements here.
Buzz Bookstore specializes in rare, antique and collectible books. There's nothing quite like an old book. My grandmother passed a few collectibles on to me, and I cherish them dearly. The character, feel and smell of old books inspire curiosity about the hands that held them. But don't be fooled by my lofty descriptions. I saw a book that was published in 1978 on their website. I graduated from high school that year. Does that make me an antique? You don't have to answer that. Regardless, these books belong in the hands of people; they don't belong in landfills.
More than just an environmentally friendly bookstore, the Ecology Center is a resource for information and eco-friendly products. But unless you live in, or happen to be visiting, the San Francisco Bay Area, shopping at the Ecology Center will be impossible. Yet, the good news is that you can support them through IndieBound.
Goodwill sells used books, videos, music and video games. All purchases and donations support their free job services program. The above link is to their online store, but it also never hurts to search for books at a Goodwill store near you.
Although there wasn't a lot of information about Kent Bookstore on their website, I found an article that describes their reward system for buying used books. I doubt that I'll be in Canada anytime soon, but this bookstore looks like a wonderful place to read books while sipping sustainable coffee. Canada, here I come!
Although the focus of this post is environmentally friendly book buying, don't forget about your local library. Most people like to keep a collection of favorites around, but some books are read only once, leaving them to languish on bookshelves. Take a look at WorldCat, a search engine tool for locating books at local libraries.
Powell's Books in Chicago specializes in used, rare and scholarly books primarily for academia. Something that caught my eye is that they purchase remainders and hurt books, which they sell wholesale to other booksellers. No author fancies their book being remaindered as both authors and publishers lose out on profits. But this is preferable to pulping books, which is what happens if no buyers step up to the purchasing plate. They have an online storefront on Abebooks.com.
Powell's loves books and engaging with customers. They sell new and used books—with an inventory of over two million. For many people who visit Portland, Powell's is the main attraction. A third-generation family-owned company, Powell's in an integral part of the Portland community. They operate five stores in and around Portland, OR, with their flagship store being the largest new and used bookstore in the world. Take a look at all the events and services Powell's City of Books offers. You can even publish your own book there.
ThriftBooks is an online used bookstore with over seven million books . Orders $10 and over ship free in 100% recyclable packaging. They've donated over one million books internationally to literacy programs, partnered with libraries for fundraising programs and recycled unsalable books.
IndieBound is a community of local independent bookstores that belongs to the American Booksellers Association. In a nutshell, IndieBound supports local independent bookstores, which, in turn, support local communities by providing jobs and reinvesting tax dollars. Buying locally also means there's less packaging and fewer transportation costs—hence, a lower carbon footprint. Independent bookstores offer more choices, diversity and contribute to charity more than twice the rate of national chains. Some of the bookstores listed above are part of the independent bookstore community.
Visiting local bookstores is one of my favorite activities. Books that I didn't know existed become coveted possessions. That's one of the advantages of being surrounded by books; it creates the desire to learn about topics you either weren't aware of or thinking about at the time. In this way, we gain knowledge and new interests.
I found an excellent series in the Guardian on favorite independent bookstores around the world, beginning with ten bookstores recommended by readers (link to part 1). One of the bookstores even houses live chinchillas! Here's the link for part II, an additional list of readers' favorites.
A personal note about independent bookstores
When our family lived in Benicia, California, the downtown was within walking distance from our home. On week days, after walking my son to school, I would head down to the waterfront. My route passed through the main commerce section of town, and I took advantage of this, buying Christmas presents and other gifts from local sellers. I was a regular customer at Bookshop Benicia, purchasing not only books, but also greeting cards, fair-trade chocolate, handmade items, calendars and geeky stocking stuffers. But they also sold used books. So, don't forget about local bookstores because they are often an environmentally friendly option too. Do you have one in your neighborhood? Bookshop Benicia created rich memories, and for that, I'm especially grateful.
Support your local independent bookstore through online purchases.
If there's not an independent bookstore in your community, you can support IndieBound by purchasing books online. It works like this: When you purchase books online through IndieBound, they divide the proceeds evenly between all bookstore members across the country. Alternately, you can enter a zip code, and the website will direct you to a list of bookstores located in your area, which supports local communities.
The rise of Amazon and independent bookstores
An interesting side note on IndieBound is a Spotlight on Amazon section, featuring a report, Amazon and Empty Storefronts, which describes how Amazon has economically impacted communities through the loss of storefronts and tax dollars. This is a controversial topic, but I encourage you to read at least some of it so you're better informed when buying books or other items online.
Also, some evidence suggests that Amazon's presence has affected big retail bookstores the most, not the independents. In fact, according to the article in Slate and on the Indie Bound website, independent bookstore openings have increased 20-35 percent since 2009, a year marked by financial losses on many fronts.
Independent bookstores can't compete on the same playing field with Amazon, and they don't need to. They remain free of the whims of investor demands and have never been considered big growth entities. Unlike big chain stores, they offer a variety of curated books, both old and new, that fill specific niches. Wheres, public companies, like Barnes and Noble, must justify their decisions to investors. Large chain bookstores have a responsibility to turn over large volumes of books. That special book in the corner that sits on the shelf too long counts as a loss to chain bookstores. Therefore, they simply can't cater to the unique needs of customers in the same way that independent bookstores can.
When considering environmentally friendly book buying, is it better to purchase online, or drive to the store?
Some have suggested that it's better for the planet to purchase books online, especially new books. This seems mostly to do with carbon emissions and the publishing industry's practice of pulping unsold books—a topic I'll explore at the end of this post. Another source also calculated the lower carbon footprint of online shopping. The data is based on carbon emissions from people driving to the store and back, with distance being a factor, also.
According to a study in Germany, if you live less than 8.3 miles from the store, it's better to purchase items in stores rather than online. But the results of a study in the UK concluded that online shopping wins out every time, if you're concerned about the environment. Another factor that also contributes to making online shopping greener is cutting out warehouse distribution.
No easy answers
Personally, I think we're asking the wrong questions. It's worthwhile to consider changes in transportation methods when choosing purchasing options, too. What about the increased use of electric vehicles? And just like large chain booksellers, Amazon also has distribution centers, which negate the advantages of online shopping. My opinion is that there are too many complexities to online shopping verses in-store shopping for a definitive answer.
It's important, in my opinion, to consider quality of life, also. Who wants to live in a community with boarded up storefronts? Although some may disagree, I see independent bookstores as important anchors in communities. And my hope is that they thrive.
In the end, the answer to the question shouldn't be either-or. Both online and brick-and-mortar stores have a role to play as environmentally friendly book buying options. The solution is to continue working toward decreasing the carbon footprints of both.
What about Amazon?
There's no doubt that Amazon offers convenience and variety when shopping for both new and used books. And undiscovered authors have especially appreciated its low-cost publishing and readership opportunities. In addition, for those of you interested in donating to a specific organization or charity, check out AmazonSmile, a program where a percentage of sales from purchases support the organization or charity of your choice. Also, many of the used books sellers on Amazon represent charities, providing another way to purchase books while giving back to communities. They also offer textbook rentals and will buy used books and textbooks from consumers. And as noted below, Amazon isn't as likely to return as many books to publishers, which is good for authors, the environment and publishing companies.
But Amazon is also controversial, both on environmental and social fronts.
The New York Times (August 2015) published an in-depth report about Amazon's treatment of workers , both at the corporate level and in its distribution centers. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, responded to the article, which you can read about here. And what's it like working at an Amazon fulfillment center? Even though warehouse work has never been easy, according to the article, above, many workers also lacked job security. One prior Amazon employee, however, didn't think working for Amazon was all that bad. So, I'll leave you to read both articles and form your own conclusions.
Amazon's environmental record
But one of the biggest complaints that journalists have against Amazon is that they're secretive; they don't disclose much information to the public. Also, it's been noted that they've been much slower than other big companies to act on environmental issues. Even though 80 percent of companies responded to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Amazon has not. Both the Greenpeace Click Clean Scorecard and Climate Counts Scorecard rate Amazon poorly on their role in mitigating climate change. Compared to Google, Facebook and Apple, Amazon's environmental performance is lackluster, or perhaps even worse.
Even their electronics recycling program requires customers to mail in items. Well, I kind of get that, but consumers must have also purchased the items from Amazon. In comparison, Best Buy recycles any electronic device at all of their stores, regardless of the product's origination.
Cleaning up Amazon's image
Beginning in 2014, however, Amazon began hiring highly qualified professionals to help improve their environmental record—and their reputation. But other than committing to purchasing renewable energy, Amazon hasn't made its intentions clear.
One point to consider, though, is that Amazon's return rate of books sent back to publishers is probably much lower than the book industry's return rate as a whole. And as you'll discover in the next section, this is a good thing. In addition, Amazon's CreateSpace print-on-demand program allows authors to self-publish. This solves the overprinting of books dilemma that runs rampant in the publishing industry.
I would like to see Amazon do more in the environmental arena, though. Why not take all the drive and innovation, which has become synonymous with Amazon, and apply this to helping the world do more to mitigate the effects of climate change? It would think, moving forward, that the way to gain and keep its customer base is to internalize the idea that we all have a role to play in shaping Earth's future—both for the environment and its people.
Please note: My understanding is that Amazon has made significant improvements since I first published this piece in October of 2016. Here's a link to Amazon's sustainability page.
Returns, Remaindering and Pulping
I learned about some disturbing practices in the publishing industry while researching environmentally friendly book buying. First of all, did you know that publishers often pulp unsold books? We're talking about machines that chew them up and spit them out. And I'm not referring to well-loved books that are too beat up to sell—even in the used book market. I can understand recycling those books. But can you imagine dumping thousands of new books into a pulping machine? How would you feel if you had written those books?
Forget about any emotional attachment for the moment. What about the environmental waste? So, publishers recycle the books into paper. That doesn't sound too bad. But think about the printing, shipping, and storing costs of thousands of books that consumers will never read. And bookstores often return books to the publisher—only for the publisher to ship them out again at a later date. That's a lot of wasted energy and paper!
Publishers print too many books.
The publishing industry prints more books than the market demands. Part of the reasoning behind this is the practice of allowing bookstores to return unsold books for credit. Your favorite clothing and electronic stores don't get to do this, as far as I'm aware. They put the merchandise on sale and count unsold goods as a loss against profits.
Sometimes, rather than pulp a selection of unsold books, the publisher will remainder them, instead. This is the practice of selling books at a loss in order to cover shipping and printing costs. These are the bargain books in chain bookstores, outlets and malls. Although I don't have proof, I suspect publishers and bookstores sell them through online outlets, also.
Who's to blame for these practices?
I wouldn't go blaming evil publishers and their sidekick villain bookstores. Based on the articles I read, returns, remaindering and pulping appear to be part of a system between bookstores and publishers that's difficult to break, even though neither probably likes it. For more information on how the practice of book returns began, take a look at this excellent post at WritersWeekly.com by Angela Hoy. But it's the large chain stores that return most of the unsold books—more so than the small independent stores. Small stores aren't required to turn over large volumes of books, and they control in-store practices to a much greater extent, tending to be more responsible in their purchasing procedures.
Bottom line, for the sake of the environment, allowing returns in the publishing industry needs to stop. Most authors think that if publishers stopped accepting returns, bookstores wouldn't over-purchase books in the first place. Then, they wouldn't need to unload them. This is why, as I mentioned earlier, that some experts think that purchasing online is a better choice. But that depends on which online company you purchase them from. And I would like to emphasize, again, that it's primarily the big-box stores and bookstore chains that return the vast sum of books to publishers.
E-books or printed books?
A hotly debated topic in the environmentally friendly book buying spectrum is the current obsession with e-readers and e-books. No, e-readers aren't actual stores, but where we purchase them and how we use and dispose of them makes a big impact on the environment.
Just like with the buy online verses buy in a bookstore question, there's no simple answer to whether e-books or print books are better for the environment. I suspect, and I say this without criticism, that you probably weren't going to change your reading medium based on this blog post. We all have different preferences for how we most comfortably consume media. Many of you may read both e-books and print books. And I don't think e-books are taking a hike anytime soon. And it's true; they do save trees.
Am I going against my desire to do what's best for the environment by purchasing an e-reader? It's doubtful. According to CustomMade, the best solution is to approach each option with information. In regards to e-readers, don't replace them unnecessarily. In fact, this holds true for any electronic device. Manufacturing electronics uses up valuable resources, and often times, their components consist of conflict minerals, which have environmental and social consequences.
Here's the e-book resource page from New Society Publishers. I already linked to the Greenpeace electronic guide above under the New Society Publishers heading. If you really can't live without a new e-reader, donate or sell your old one to someone who will appreciate it. Finally, when an e-reader is beyond fixing, donating or selling, make sure to dispose of it responsibly.
By conducting a bit of research, e-readers and e-books can be part of your green book buying repertoire. Think of them as environmentally friendly book buying alternatives with the caveat that you must choose with care, and if possible, use a sustainable energy source when charging and powering up.
For even more information on e-readers and e-books, including articles on specific brands, I found an extensive list of articles on the Eco-Libris website.
Buy print books intelligently— both online and in stores
In regards to print books, which we appreciate and have quite a few of in our house, purchase used, when possible. The online stores listed in this post make excellent choices. And despite what you've heard and read elsewhere, local independent bookstores are valuable resources—ones that support local communities. They don't participate in returns nearly to the degree of big-boxed stores, preventing the pulping of thousands of books. I suspect that some of them don't return books to publishers at all.
Environmentally friendly book buying: closing thoughts
I wish you luck on your environmentally friendly book buying quest! By purchasing used books more frequently, choosing booksellers carefully and learning about the environmental and social impacts of electronics companies, consumers can help make the book industry more sustainable. Although I focused on environmentally friendly book buying, don't forget about your local library, too.
I'd like to thank Socialbrite for an excellent article that launched me on my environmentally friendly book buying quest. JD Lasica, from Socialbrite.org, published a piece on socially conscience bookstores, which just so happened to overlap with environmentally friendly book buying. It's funny how the two seem to go together—or is it?