Better World Books: Bringing Sustainability to the Printed Word

By Kathryn Cai

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 there’s a sustainability alternative: many booksellers are begining to integrate both social and environmental concerns into their business models.

Better World Books, for example, offsets the carbon emissions from books shipments and general operations. The company sells used books collected primarily through nationwide book drives held on college campuses and they also recue library rejects that are headed for the landfill. With this strategy of reuse, Better World Books helps to circulate books already in print. 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 read and enjoyed.

The company also shares part of the profit generated with a number of libraries and non-profit partners focused on literacy worldwide. Last year they 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.

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.

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 at the Robert H. Smith School of Business of the University of Maryland, and works in special projects and social media strategy.

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.