8 Green & Socially Conscious Online Bookstores

By J.D. Lasica

Most of us in the green and social good communities face the recurring question: Where should I buy my books — online or in the local community? And: How much more am I willing to pay to buy from an indie publisher or a green publishing house?

Let’s begin with offline. For the socially conscious, buying at a local store is preferable because it keeps money in the local community, supports independent enterprises and reduces your carbon footprint. There are a number of sites that make it easier to find and support local independent bookstores, where you can thumb though good old-fashioned print books. Chief among them:

  • IndieBound.org: Find bookstores and other independent retailers near you. Says Indiebound: “Spend $100 at a local bookstore and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43.”
  • BookWeb.org: Search for a brick-and-mortar bookseller in your community that belongs to the American Booksellers Association.

While buying a print book locally is a commendable approach, it’s not always possible in practice. Some communities don’t have local bookstores, so buying from an online retailer may be your only real option. In the past few years, socially conscious online bookstores have come into their own. Better World Books, Good Books and Chelsea Green are a few of our favorites. We know there are others out there, so please share your favorites in the comments!

Better World Books: Supporting global literacy

Founded in 2002 and now boasting more than 1.5 million customers, Better World Books takes in used books from schools, libraries, students — anyone with old books — and resells them online at low prices. A triple bottom line company and a founding B-Corporation, Better World Books donates a portion of its profits to 80+ nonprofit literacy development programs around the world as well as local libraries — they’ve donated $9 million so far, and they’ve reused or recycled 40 million books to date. The company, which employs about 200 people, offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee and ship worldwide for free in a “climate-neutral” way. Follow @bwbooks on Twitter.

Sample title: The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken ($4.48 paperback, plus shipping). We’ve found Better World Books to be most valuable with older titles.

Chelsea Green: Small but vibrant publishing house

For 27 years, Chelsea Green has published titles on the politics and practice of sustainable living. A founding member of the Green Press Initiative, Chelsea Green has been printing books on recycled paper since 1985. It carries more than 400 titles with a focus on renewable energy, green building, organic agriculture, eco-cuisine and ethics in business. It prints 95 percent of its books on recycled paper and strives for a triple bottom line practice. Follow@chelseagreen on Twitter.

Sample titles: Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff ($10 paperback, plus shipping) and The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, Michael McCurdy and Andy Lipkis ($17.50 hardcover), an ecological fable.

Good Books: All profits go to Oxfam

Based in Auckland, New Zealand, Good Books‘ business model is simple: Every time anyone buys a book through the Good Books website, 100% of the retail profit from every sale goes to support communities in need through Oxfam projects: funding projects that provide clean water, sanitation, develop sustainable agriculture and create access to education. No one at Good Books is paid and the firm has “zero operating costs.” Delivery worldwide is completely free, and Good Books has more than 2 million titles in stock in its catalog. Follow @GoodBooksNZ on Twitter.

Sample titles: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History by Michael Pollan ($24.30 NZ, $18.65 US paperback, free shipping)

Sustainable Insight: Focus on eco-friendly books

Sustainable Insight is an Australian online bookstore that specializes in sustainability and environmental books, DVDs and educational resources. Topics include gardening, agriculture, environmental management, organics and sustainability. Follow@SustainInsight on Twitter.

Sample title: The Chaos Point by Ervin Laszlo ($35.96 Australian, $35.74 US, plus $17.95 shipping to the US)

New Society Publishers: Carbon neutral

Since 1996, British Columbia-based New Society Publishers’ mission has been to publish books that contribute in fundamental ways to building an ecologically sustainable and just society, and to do so with the least possible impact on the environment. New Society acts on on its commitment to the world’s remaining ancient forests by printing its books on Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper stock and by going carbon neutral. 80 percent of its book sales come from the United States. Follow @NewSocietyPub on Twitter.

Sample title: Choosing a Sustainable Future by Liz Walker ($19.95 paperback, plus shipping)

OR Books: Print on demand

OR Books is a fascinating new model of the 21st century bookstore. It makes only a handful of titles available for purchase and prints them as orders come in. While there are a lot of print on demand publishers, the New York-based house “embraces progressive change in politics, culture and the way we do business.” OR Books publishes just one or two books a month, combining established authors with new discoveries. Founded only a few months ago, the company currently has just 13 titles on hand. Follow@ORBooks on Twitter.

Sample title: Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah L. Sifry ($17 paperback, $10 ebook, both ship in February).

Half Price Books: Save trees, books & money

Through its Marketplace, Dallas-based Half Price Books offers new, used and out-of-print books, music and movies, stocked by independent sellers from 45 countries around the world. These sellers — such as Alibris and Paperbackshop — set their own prices and ship your order directly to you. The vast majority of the books and other items sold are priced at half the current list price or less. Half Price Books is committed to promoting literacy and being kind to the environment, so it donates or recycles any books they don’t sell. “Throughout our history, we have been able to donate millions of books to nonprofit groups in our local community and worldwide,” the site says. Half Price Books promotes hands-on Green Team projects, a bagless initiative and an annual Banned Books Awareness Week. Follow @halfpricebooks on Twitter.

Sample title: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (99 cents used, plus shipping)

Biblio.com: An eco-friendly online bookseller

A nonprofit founded in 2005, BiblioWorks’ mission is to provide books to communities in need while adhering to the principles of environment, profit, independence and community (EPIC). Its Biblio was the first bookselling marketplace to offer carbon-offsets on all shipped orders. The program, ecosend, is accomplished in partnership with Native Energy, whose projects include building sustainable communities. Biblio also offsets carbon emissions from internal operations, practice recycling, energy efficiency, compost and paper reduction where possible, and it encourages buying local. The site says: “With increased globalization and big box companies reducing competition, we’re doing what we can to revitalize the small business economy by creating quality connections between readers, collectors and booksellers, and promote healthy business competition.” Biblio is more of a directory of online bookstores and booksellers rather than a direct online merchant.

Sample title: My book Darknet ($6.12 hardcover, plus $1.97 shipping)

Other choices

  • San Francisco-based City Lights Booksellers is a venerable independent bookstore with a well-known reputation for its expert selection of books and for its commitment to free intellectual inquiry. It created the nonprofit City Lights Foundation “with the goal of advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.”
  • Powell’s Books is a progressive, family-owned, unionized independent bookstore. In addition to its well-known online store, Powell’s operates in seven locations in the Portland, Ore., area.
  • Geared to educators and progressives, Teaching For Change’s Busboys and Poets Bookstore seeks to ensure that the next generation has the skills, information, and commitment to play an active role in their communities and in civic society.
  • Open Books is an award-winning nonprofit social venture that operates a wonderful bookstore in Chicago, provides community programs and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy. They accept donated books (50,000+ in stock).
  • Launched in 1999, Earthprint is the official online bookshop of the United Nations Environment Programme. A number of prominent international organizations have since joined this initiative to provide a central location for environmental and agricultural official publications.
  • Antioch University’s Activist Bookstore: Check out books centered on advocacy for social justice and sustainability.

J.D. Lasica is the founder of Socialbrite: Social tools for social change. The Socialbrite team offers social media consulting to nonprofits and cause organizations.

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