Jul 062011

Can books survive e-books?

by Kathryn Cai (UG ’11)

As a reader I cherish the complete experience of reading a book:  the weight of it in my hands, the smell of the pages, the permanence of the words, and most especially, because every good book claims a little part of me, the knowledge that I can reopen the same pages and return to the self I was when I was first so captured by its words. Even in light of my (creepy?) love affair with print books, the advent of e-book readers made me briefly wonder if I should abandon paper and ink for a more sustainable way to feed my literary habit. As it turns out, however, there seems to be a solution, as booksellers are becoming increasingly aware of sustainability and many are going a step further to integrate both social and environmental concerns into their business models.

Better World Books, for example, offsets the carbon emissions from both shipping of books as well as emissions associated with the company’s general operations. Selling books collected primarily through nationwide book drives held on college campuses and those rescued from libraries pending transport to landfills, Better World Books helps to circulate books already in print and shares part of the profit generated with a number of libraries and non-profit partners focused on literacy worldwide. Last year the company also announced the creation of an Incentive Stock Option program that allotted 5% ownership stake to five initial partners, Books for Africa, Room to Read, Worldfund, the Robinson Community Learning Center, and the National Center for Family Literacy.

The company uses Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) as well as certified offsets, so buyers can ease their conscience about online purchases. Books are mailed using local post offices when possible, since the National Postal Service uses the lowest amount of energy per package among mailing services. Additionally, a discovery by the founders has led to another important environmental contribution – every year, libraries discard millions of older copies to make room for new additions, and those unwanted books often simply make their way to landfills. While the thought of all those books plunging to oblivion is enough to make a book lover’s heart hurt a little bit, our landfills also don’t need the added strain. To date, Better World Books has been able to keep 8,000 tons of books from entering landfills and has hopefully found new homes for them where they can continue to be used.

For me, Better World Books offers a balance of maintaining a sustainable consumption of print books while also supporting practices that I value. A company that aligns every step of its process with environmental and social standards is one that recognizes that every action has a reaction and therefore must be carried out with due responsibility. While e-books are outselling traditional books on Amazon, the methods of Better World Books seem to contribute far more to sustainability and to a mindful consciousness surrounding sustainability than does a mindless purchase of virtual books, though they may not be made of paper. It is my hope that models like that of Better World Books, ones that reduce wastefulness and actively contribute to building social good in the world, can also help sustain the culture of the print book.

Kathryn Cai (UG ’11) is a Summer Intern at the Center of Social Value Creation and works in special projects and social media strategy.

  One Response to “Bringing Sustainability to the Printed Word”

  1. Dear Kathryn,

    As a fellow former special projects and social media intern, I know how many amazing stories there are out there for you to share and it warms my heart that you chose Better World Books. I work with the BWB Community and am honored to have such smart, eco-friendly and socially conscious fans such as yourself. Thank you so much for telling the world about what we do and why we do it. If everyone gave and got their books from us, can you imagine a what a more green and educated world this would be? Hopefully, thanks to your post, Mother Earth is smiling right now!

    BWB Community

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