Ethical shopping guide to booksellers, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to booksellers, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

This guide is part of a special report on Buying Books Without Amazon.


In this guide we look at UK online booksellers of both paper books (denoted by [P] on score table) and e-books (denoted by [E] on score table).

The guide includes:

  • ethical and environmental ratings for 23 major booksellers
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • how to avoid buying Amazon e-books for your Kindle
  • how to find independent booksellers
  • e-book lending sites
  • book swapping 



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Score Ratings

Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


Score table

The score table shows simple numerical ratings out of 20 for each product. The higher the score, the more ethical the company.

Move the sliders to customise these scores. 

Click on a product name to see the stories behind the score (subscribers only). 


Full Scorecard

The Full Scorecard shows the 'black marks' for each product, by each of the 17 negative categories. The bigger the mark, the worse the score. So for example a big black circle under 'Worker Rights' shows that the company making this product has been severely criticised for worker abuses.

Scores start at 14.  A small circle means that half a mark is deducted, a large circle means that a full mark is deducted.

Marks are added in the positive categories of Company Ethos and the five Product Sustainability columns (O,F,E,S,A).  A small circle  means that half a mark is added, a large circle means that a full mark is added.

The Full Scorecard is only available to subscribers. Click on the More Detail link at the top of the score table to access it.


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Move the sliders to change the weighting given to each category. You can open up each of the 5 main categories by clicking on the + sign. This way you can compare products according to what's ethically important to YOU.  


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Stories and Data behind the scores

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You must be signed-in to save your customisations. The weightings you have given to each category will be saved premanently (subscribers) or only for this visit to the site (registered users).  Once set, they will be used to calculate the scores in all the buyers' guides that you view. 


Stories and Data behind the scores

To see all the stories and research data behind the ratings you'll need to be a subscriber.

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Best Buys

as of May/June 2013

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.


Paper books - [P] on score table


Second-hand is best - Our best buy recommendation is that you always try and buy second-hand books.
We would recommend that you use Oxfam or Better World Books, where book sales go to charity. Or use your local second-hand bookshop.

New paper books
For new books we would urge people to use radical bookshops or your local independent bookshops.

For online bookshops, use Better World Books or Books etc. is good alternative initiative combining online shopping with supporting local bookshops.



E-books - [E] on score table


We recommend using the free sites - Project Gutenburg and Feedbooks (see below) or buy from or Books etc.

to buy



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Last updated May 2013



Buying books without Amazon


Amazon domination

In 2012, printed book sales fell by almost £74m, reaching a nine-year low. Total sales of printed books fell to £1.51bn in the UK, down from £1.59bn in 2011.(6)

Meanwhile, e-book sales grew 89%(1) (from £77m to £145m) in the same period aided by heavy discounts with some e-book titles selling for as little as 20p.(7)

The number of printed books sold also fell in 2012 to 202m, down from 209m the previous year, with the average price of a book falling by 10p to £7.49.(6)

image of books in ethical shopping guide


Again Amazon dominates these market places. In the UK, about 90% of e-books are sold through Amazon giving it a monopoly on e-book sales.(3) In addition it now controls around 23% of the printed book market.(4)

This is partly explained by the fact that officially you can only use Amazon’s own e-books if you have a Kindle and the Kindle dominates the market. There are ways to get non-Amazon e-books onto your Kindle. We explain how below.

A glance at our last bookshop product guide shows the impact of Amazon's dominance. 3 of the 12 larger retailers covered in 2008 have since gone out of business. Independent booksellers also continue to have a torrid time. Another 73 closed in 2012 – bringing the number left in the UK down to just 1,028 – down by around 4,000 since our last guide in 2008.(9)




The score table explained


All the companies on the score table sell books online. Those with a [P] next to them sell paper books, those with an [E] sell e-books. Additionally, the following bookshops have bricks-and-mortar shops: Oxfam, Foyles, John Smith’s, WH Smith, Waterstones and Blackwells.

For more on how the companies scored see our special report on buying books without using Amazon.




Price comparisons is a price comparison website listing online bookshop offers for the titles you type in. Amazon, Book Depository (also Amazon) and AbeBooks (also Amazon) often come up - but it lists the cheapest of the rest for you to choose from too.

In a reversal of Amazon’s famously unpopular suggestion to browse books first in a High Street bookshop and then buy them cheaper online, it’s quite fun to browse for books first on Amazon and then buy them from a tax-paying local bookstore. Or search on Amazon Marketplace and then buy the book you want directly from the seller by searching for it elsewhere online.




How to avoid Amazon if you already own a Kindle


For those of you who already have a Kindle e-reader here are some handy hints to help you avoid Amazon when buying e-books for it.



Feedbooks is a free, open-source version of the Amazon Kindle store and it’s totally legal.

To use it go to and download the Kindle-formatted catalogue. You do this directly on the device via the built-in browser.

Open the catalogue like you would any e-book and browse through the available titles. When you find something you want, select it; you’ll be taken to a download page and the book will automatically be loaded onto your Kindle.


Project Gutenburg

Project Gutenberg is a similar site but you’ll have to download the e-books to your PC first and then copy them over to the Kindle via USB cable.


Kindle-friendly file formats

Any file offered in MOBI or Plain Text is a perfect format for the Kindle; other formats – HTML, for example– will require conversion first.

Install Calibre on your PC/Mac to convert incompatible formats to Kindle-friendly formats.


Future-proofing your purchases

As we’re sure you’re aware, under Amazon’s licensing agreement they can remove any (or all) of your e-books from your Kindle e-reader at any time.

There are two options to guard against this.
The first is an illegal hack to remove DRM (Digital Rights Management), which we could not condone.

The second option is this:

  • Download all your existing books to your PC and save them as a backup copy. You’re allowed to do this. You should also be backing up the text files on your device that stores all of your notes and highlights, just in case.
  • Keep your Kindle’s wireless connection turned off unless you need it.

This will reduce your participation in Amazon’s cloud storage system, and increase the odds that should Amazon try and delete anything you’ll have some advance warning from other users’ tweets and posts if not from Amazon itself.




How to find independent booksellers


You can find your local independent bookshop by searching

This site also offers a book recommendation section, where local bookshops give advice on the best latest releases, and gives details of Independent Booksellers Week. The latter runs from 29th June – 6th July 2013 and will see numerous activities and events at local bookstores throughout the country. See for more details.




Swapping and lending books



e-book lending sites

There are sites where you can borrow e-books from other users and lend to them. These include:


Swapping paper books

There are also places you can go online to exchange paper books:

  • – Register your book and then set it free by leaving it on a park bench or in a gym allowing it to find a new owner
  • – A UK-based book exchange service.
  • – Mail your books to someone who wants them in exchange for points and then use your points to buy books from other users.


You might also like to try...

  • – This is an online tool to help you find your local reading group. It also offers tips and advice on how to run and set up a group and discounts on selected titles.


  • visiting your local library – For those of us lucky enough to still have a local library after the last round of cuts, they still offer a great opportunity to read for free. Most libraries now offer ordering services so you can access pretty much any book you like.



Company profile 


WH Smith is the only large bookseller to score a best rating in our bookshops guide for both their environmental reporting and supply chain management. However the company picks up marks for selling tobacco and pornography,[10] and excessive directors’ remuneration.[11]

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.




This guide is part of a Special Report on Buying Books Without Amazon which includes:




10 WH Smith annual report 2012 
11 An email from WH Smith’s in March 2013 from Sarah Heath



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