If you love books, it’s sometimes hard to strike the right balance between supporting booksellers, authors and publishing houses, while also lowering your carbon impact on the planet. We’ve definitely struggled with this dilemma ourselves, especially as one one of our top priorities is to support indie bookshops – including booksellers who only stock new books.
However, in the light of our growing climate crisis, one thing is sure, we can no longer continue to consume in the same quantities – or accept a no-holds barred approach to book production. In this guide, we’ve assembled information about varied facets of the book industry to help you make more informed choices about eco-conscious book buying.
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What is the carbon footprint of a book?
Let’s start with the basics. In his excellent book, How Bad Are Bananas, (published in 2010) Mike Berners Lee estimates that the average 250pp paperback book has a footprint of 1kg CO2E average (in the middle of a scale between using recycled paper and virgin paper, varying paginations and taking pulping into account).
E-readers have a larger footprint than physical books. Berners-Lee calculates the production carbon load of creating a reader at approximately 50kg2. This is before electricity, and IT usage are taken into account. Factor in the short life span of technological devices, and e-readers only really stack up if you’re reading over 25 titles a year on your e-reader.
What do our carbon emissions need to be by 2030?
To keep within the Paris Climate Agreement and limit the global temperature to a rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, individuals will need to cut their ENTIRE annual carbon emissions to 2.3 tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, a decrease of 50%.
It’s worth noting that Berners Lee estimates that a UK inhabitant emits 15 tonnes of CO2E per year and a US inhabitant, 28 tonnes of CO2E when the entire infrastructure is taking into account so we may have more work to do than we think!
How Sustainable is the Publishing Industry?
According to Ethical Consumer, the UK book publishing industry uses an estimated 15 million trees worth of paper a year. In the UK, 81 publishing houses, authors and production companies have signed up to Publishing Declares. This sets out a number of goals with a headline aim of limiting “warming to 1.5°C by setting measurable targets across operations and the extended supply chain to achieve net zero as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest”. It sounds optimistic, but at present, the website only has one page and no links to tangible results. We can only hope that this is the start of a much more comprehensive report.
In 2014, here was a similar treatise in the US, but the page sadly no longer exists. After considerable research, we are unable to find evidence of this agreement so please let us know if a) this is still live b) where we can find it.
On an individual basis, publishing companies appear to be taking their planetary responsbilities more seriously and have added more detail to their environmental policies. The main emphasis for many seems to focus on paper sourcing and office sustainability. As former print production co-ordinators, we would be very keen to see specifics about carbon emissions from printers and transportation (Harper Collins has made a statement about this – it would be interesting to see progress), as well as statistics about pulping. You can see sustainability policies published by the big five publishers below:
- Penguin Books Sustainability Policy
- Bloomsbury Environmental Policy
- Hachette UK Environmental and Ethical Policy
- Harper Collins UK Sustainability Policy
- Macmillan Sustainability Report
Offsetting still plays a part in these statements – a factor that needs to be viewed with caution. This is because offsets such as treeplanting can be used as an excuse to avoid real action (we need both).
Where can I buy books ethically?
As a general rule of thumb, buying secondhand books is the most eco-conscious way to acquire books (after swapping with family and friends, and library borrowing) because this dilutes the inherent carbon load. Ethically, the case isn’t so clear though as authors don’t receive royalties from secondhand sales.
For secondhand bookshopping, charity shops have the edge due to the extra societal benefits that the income funds, followed by independent booksellers, both online and offline.
With all of these options, making a decision can be complicated. For instance, buying online may reduce personal transport emissions, but the bookseller could be operating unsustainably on many levels. Although it’s likely that individual bookshops will have to be much clearer about their environmental credentials in the future, this information often isn’t available at the moment.
Recently, several bookswap schemes such as Bookmooch and paid model, Bookswap have launched in the UK. These have several advantages, reducing carbon emissions while also allowing readers to source specific titles and pass on their unwanted books. This is a great way to keep your library under control.
Buying new books
From an environmental perspective, this is the least sustainable of all the options, but the cultural, educational and economic gains are significant. Sadly with the demise of public libraries and the UK Net Book Agreement, readers are having to prop up the industry, but hopefully this will change in the future. Again, when bookshopping sustainably, it comes back to selecting both the right publisher and the best retailer – not easy without the information.
Luckily for us, Ethical Consumer has recently updated their report on ethical bookshops. It makes for interesting reading.
The top 10 ways to acquire books sustainably (ranked)
As we’ve mentioned earlier, there are many grey areas when it it comes to acquiring books so for the purposes of this final rundown, we’re focusing solely on sustainability. Do you agree with our ranking?
- Reread your books
- Work through your TBR pile
- Swap books with friends and family
- Borrow books from the library
- Buy secondhand books from charity shops
- Bookswap via an online initiative
- Buy secondhand books from independent booksellers
- Buy secondhand books online
- Buy new books from independent booksellers
- Purchase new books from ethical online booksellers
- Buy new books from major retailers
We’ve bought books in many different ways over the years depending on our financial situation, but going forwards, we’ll be steering our bookbuying towards more eco-conscious book buying with a 70/30 split between used books and new books (rather than the 30 used/70 new split that we have now). We’ll also be keeping a close eye on how publishing companies evolve over the next 3 years and will chart any developments here.
Do you plan to make any changes to the way you buy books in the future?