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Ethical Bookshops

Guide to 27 leading UK bookshops, with best buys. Including alternatives to Amazon and its various book-selling brands.

We also look at the best options for ebooks and audio books, sustainability, buying second hand books, book swapping and using libraries. 

About 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.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying print, e- or audio-books:

  • Is it a local, independent seller? Buying from independent shops keeps high streets alive with indie businesses and maintains spaces for in-person book-browsing. Buying from independent shops also ensures that authors are paid fairly, which is not always guaranteed when buying books sold on offer by larger retailers.

  • Is it second hand, swapped or borrowed? Both physical books and ebooks can be swapped and loaned. This reduces the environmental impacts involved in book production and the bookselling supply chain. See below for links to several initiatives. Charity shops and second hand booksellers also stock audiobook CDs second hand.

  • Is it a charity or not-for-profit? Buy from retailers that have socially beneficial structures, though it’s important to do your homework and make sure that their do-gooding claims on the front page are genuinely meaningful actions.

Best Buys

Your local library or independent bookshop are best buys, and most can get items by request. Best for print: World of Books 2nd hand; Best for audiobooks: Oxfam 2nd hand audiobooks; Best for ebooks: eBooks.com

Also Recommended

Better World Books and Biblio, especially their second hand books, are both recommended buys.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying print, e- or audio-books:

  • Is it Amazon? Amazon, the world’s largest book retailer, maintains a monopoly over the ebook market through its Kindle brand and audiobooks through Audible. We have been spearheading a boycott of Amazon's goods and services since 2012. The company's poor tax record and many workers' rights abuses are just the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg.

  • Is it doing anything about its climate impacts? Unfortunately, there is a lack of reporting by booksellers of their supply chain emissions and environmental impacts. Book publishing in the UK alone uses an estimated 15 million trees worth of paper a year.

Companies to avoid

As this is a guide on how to avoid Amazon, avoid all the Amazon brands: Amazon, AbeBooks, Audible, and The Book Depository.

  • Amazon
  • AbeBooks
  • Audible
  • Book Depository

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

World of Books [P,E,A]

Company Profile: World of Books
14.5

Better World Books secondhand [P,E,A]

Company Profile: Qumpus Inc
13.5

Biblio secondhand [P]

Company Profile: Biblio
13

Better World Books [P,E,A]

Company Profile: Qumpus Inc
12.5

Biblio [P]

Company Profile: Biblio
12

Ebooks.com [E]

Company Profile: Ebooks.com pty limited
12

Oxfam 2nd hand books [P, A]

Company Profile: Oxfam GB
12

AwesomeBooks secondhand [P]

Company Profile: AwesomeBooks
11.5

Bookshop.org books [P,A]

Company Profile: Bookshoppe Limited
11

Guardian Bookshop [P]

Company Profile: Monwell Limited
11

Oxfam books [P,A]

Company Profile: Oxfam GB
11

AwesomeBooks [P]

Company Profile: AwesomeBooks
10.5

Books Etc [P,A]

Company Profile: Books Etc
10.5

The Works bookshops [P]

Company Profile: The Works Stores Ltd
10.5

Alibris.co.uk [P,A]

Company Profile: Alibris
10

Blackwells Bookshops [P,E,A]

Company Profile: Blackwell UK Ltd
9.5

Hive [P,E,A]

Company Profile: Hive Store Ltd
9.5

WH Smith Bookshops [E,P,A]

Company Profile: WH Smith Plc
9

Apple iBooks [E]

Company Profile: Apple Inc
7

Foyles Bookshops [P,A]

Company Profile: W & G Foyle Ltd
7

Waterstones Bookshops [P,A]

Company Profile: Waterstones Booksellers Limited
7

Wordery [P,A]

Company Profile: Wordery.com Limited
7

eBay books second hand [P,A]

Company Profile: EBAY UK Limited
6.5

Rakuten Kobo [E,A]

Company Profile: Rakuten Kobo
5.5

eBay books [P,A]

Company Profile: EBAY UK Limited
5.5

Google Books [E]

Company Profile: Google LLC
5

Audiobooks.com [A]

Company Profile: Audiobooks.com
3

AbeBooks online bookshop [P,A]

Company Profile: Amazon.com Inc
0

Amazon.co.uk [E,P]

Company Profile: Amazon EU SARL
0

Audible audiobooks [A]

Company Profile: Amazon.com Inc
0

The Book Depository [P]

Company Profile: The Book Depository
0

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

The pandemic led to more UK adults getting their noses in books, and Amazon was the main beneficiary. We explore alternatives to putting your pounds in its already bulging pockets, as well as looking at ebooks, sustainability issues and diversity. 

Alternatives to Amazon for books

Amazon and its brands AbeBooks, Audible and the Book Depository are at the bottom of our bookshop ethical rankings.

Apart from your local library or independent bookshop, the most ethical alternatives include World of Books, Better World Books and Biblio. Our recommendation for audiobooks is Oxfam 2nd hand audiobooks, and for ebooks it is eBooks.com

Three of the main issues with Amazon are:

  • tax avoidance
  • building a monopoly
  • denying workers’ rights

For almost a decade Ethical Consumer has being calling for a boycott of the company over its tax avoidance which costs the UK millions in public funds every year,

And we’ve seen resistance to Amazon grow. Not only have we been joined by Fair Tax Mark, Tax Justice Network and others in condemning the company’s tax record; we’ve seen workers, unions, anti-racism organisations, anti-gentrification movements and others raise voices against Amazon globally.

By boycotting the company, we are taking part in this global movement and building the pressure for Amazon – or the legislation that allows its abuses – to change. In many markets there are wonderful alternatives to Amazon. We take you through them in this guide to bookshops, and also in our guide to ethical online retailers, and guide to delivery companies.

Monopoloy board with Amazon on most spaces

Buying books without using Amazon

Amazon started out as an online bookseller. But bookshops existed before Amazon and there are still many available as alternatives.

The two largest UK dedicated book retailers are Waterstones and Blackwell's. WHSmith and The Works also have a significant high street presence although they are not dedicated booksellers. The family-owned book chain Foyles was acquired by Waterstones in 2018 for an undisclosed fee.

Although the number of independent bookshops has been in decline since Amazon’s launch in the UK two decades ago, the Booksellers Association (BA) claims that the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland is now 967– the largest since 2013. Although 44 bookshops closed their doors in the UK and Ireland in 2020, 50 new ones opened.

The independent bookshop scene is dynamic, with many shops specialising in certain genres or services, for example:

  • Category is Books based in Glasgow acts as a space for the LGBT+ community to share queer history, culture, writing and storytelling. It operates a pay-it-forward shelf so those low on funds can still order books.
  • Kim’s Bookshop offers a ‘Book Finder’ service to help people find a book they may have read yonks ago, or a story they’ve heard of but cannot find.
  • Housmans in London, or News from Nowhere in Liverpool, are examples of not-for-profit bookshops that specialise in radical literature.

Don’t forget, even if an independent bookshop doesn’t stock the book you’re after, many of them can order it in on request.

If you want to support your local independent bookshop, the Booksellers Association provides a helpful search page. You can add your local shop to the map too. And the Alliance of Radical Booksellers has a handy A-Z list and a map locator for radical bookshops in the UK on their website.

Ethical online bookshops

Bookshop.org is a new online book-buying marketplace which began in the US and launched in the UK in 2020. It supports independent bookshops, including those without a bricks-and-mortar presence, in establishing their own virtual shopfront on its website “to help build a strong, sustainable future for independent bookselling”.

It was descried by the Guardian as “revolutionary”, but more data is needed to show that it is indeed creating movement away from Amazon. Additionally, some independent bookshops have argued that, whilst bookshops would usually take between 43% and 50% on a book, a shop selling through Bookshop.org can receive only 30% of the cover price.

With this in mind, the best way to support independent bookshops is still to buy from them directly, which Bookshop.org does advocate.

Combined book search tool

If you want to search multiple ethical platforms at once, take a look at the Ethical Book Search from Ethical Revolution. The site searches the more ethical choices of book retailers in one search and can be adjusted for different countries, format, new or second hand etc.

Results are presented in order of price from each bookshop, and also presents what their Ethiscore rating is, so you can make an informed choice as to which retailer to use. Or you can filter out which ones to not use in your search.

Bookshop or library

Libraries, swapping books or buying second hand

Time to revive the library

Libraries are on their last legs, with the effects of multiple years of funding cuts having led to closures or reductions in opening hours. During 2018 alone, 130 public libraries closed in Britain.

Despite this, millions of people still use libraries. Libraries enable people to enjoy books without spending money. And the Public Lending Right ensures that authors receive a (modest) payment of around 8.5p each time one of their books is borrowed from a public library, including audiobooks and ebooks which almost all public libraries offer free via services like BorrowBox.

If you like to read your books through an e-reader, it’s worth knowing that some libraries lend the devices as well as the content.

To find your local public library visit your local authority website. It's free to join public libraries in the UK.

Swapping books with strangers

Going beyond consumerism is increasingly accessible through book-swap initiatives. The well-established Books for London scheme provides shelves of books across London’s tube and train stations. Meanwhile, the worldwide Little Free Library initiative, through street-corner bookshelves, seeks to make books accessible to everyone, everywhere. With over 90,000 micro-libraries in over 100 countries, it’s worth seeing if there’s a Little Free Library in your area.

Buying books for strangers is at the centre of an initiative started by The Big Green Bookshop in 2018. Today, nearly every Wednesday, people take to Twitter to #BuyAStrangerABook ‘for no other reason than because they want to, and they can’. The idea is that people request a book or ask to buy someone one, and the Big Green Bookshop facilitates the sale and delivery from its store in Hastings.

Other options for swapping books are Book Crossing and BookMooch.

Buying second hand

In April 2021, footage was publicly released of Amazon’s Dunfermline warehouse destroying over 124,000 items of unsold stock including books galore. Amazon destroys ‘unsellable’ stock that is outdated or has been returned; to keep it stored is worth less than trashing it and bringing new stuff in.

Buying a used book from an indie store or a charity shop is a vote against this wasteful profiteering logic. If it’s a new release you’re after, you may be surprised how often they appear both in print and audiobook on charity shop shelves and websites.

One catch though: whilst buying second hand is typically cheaper than buying new, authors don’t receive income from the sale. In a bid to change this, UK-based World of Books and Bookbarn International have established the first royalty scheme which benefits authors every time someone purchases a used printed book through their websites.

Cartoon of independent bookshop with delivery of empty Amazon boxes

Ebooks and Audiobooks

Jeff Bezos likes ebooks as, in his words, a print book is “always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment”. But the space tourist’s preferences are not everyone’s, the floppy format is still the most sold in the UK.

Even so, digital book sales increased significantly during the first six months of 2020, whilst the volume of printed book sales in the UK dropped by £24.3 million during lockdown. The market research firm Mintel suggests this is likely to be partly due to print books becoming more difficult to obtain due to the pandemic and because the government ended the so-called ‘reading tax’ of 20% VAT on ebooks.

Digital and CD audiobooks generated £164 million in 2020, a 12% rise from £146 million in 2019. Audiobooks are popular amongst younger people aged 16 to 24.

Debate continues around whether authors benefit fairly from audio and ebooks. Some have called for authors to receive a greater share of ebook royalties beyond the current 25%.

Audiblegate - authors take on Amazon

Meanwhile, audiobook streaming and subscription models are rising in popularity. Audible, owned by Amazon, which dominates audiobook subscriptions, has been criticised by authors for misleading them and being opaque around their earnings. Writers receive a percentage of the overall pool of money made from these services, rather than a cut of their titles’ sales, often less than the royalty stated in their contract.

Moreover, Audible’s ‘easy exchange’ policy allows customers to return audiobooks or ebooks after having read them entirely, the costs of which are then deducted from writers’ royalties. Authors and narrators are leading the #Audiblegate campaign, arguing that authors, publishers and narrators should only be liable for ‘true returns’, i.e., when listeners have only got through 25% of the audiobook.

For alternatives to Audible and Amazon, see our table for which providers offer ebooks and audio books.

Free ebooks and audiobooks

Audiobooks and ebooks are harder to find on street corners, but there are some free access platforms for them as well. For audiobooks, LibriVox is a non-profit and ad-free project that works towards the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain”. It offers audiobooks not covered by copyright, well-known titles as well as some hidden gems.

The realm of free ebooks, meanwhile, constitutes more dodgy terrain. The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office estimates that 17% of ebooks are consumed illegally. Whilst it might seem like pirating ebooks is a move against the ideology of consumption, authors don’t get asked permission, or remunerated.

Joanne Harris from the Society of Authors has suggested that rather than keep trying to shut down these sites, the solution “is to get the reading public to understand why using them is dishonest, wrong and is killing publishing”.

As an alternative, Project Gutenberg – a US-based not-for-profit – provides free access to e-versions of books no longer under copyright.

Nearly all public libraries lend ebooks and audio books (the latter in digital or traditional format) for free.

Sustainability issues around bookshops

Product Sustainability

Companies selling second hand and new books have been separated in the table. Since the last guide, two new bookshops offering second hand books, AwesomeBooks and Biblio, have been included.

AwesomeBooks, Biblio, Oxfam, Better World Books and eBay all received a Product Sustainability mark for selling second hand books. Better World Books, World of Books and Oxfam sell second hand audiobooks as well. The circulation of second hand books contributes to the reduction in use of paper, plastic packaging, water, transport and energy required in the production of new books. As World of Books focuses its business entirely towards this, the whole company was awarded a Company Ethos mark.

Carbon action

Only four companies received a best for Ethical Consumer’s Carbon Management and Reporting rating, one of which was World of Books, which focuses on books already in circulation rather than selling new ones.

Maybe surprisingly, the other three companies to receive a best rating were Amazon, Apple and Google. These companies were acknowledged for their goals to reduce their carbon emissions in line with internationally agreed targets. That being said, in 2019, Amazon and Google sponsored a gala organised by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank known for spreading climate denial misinformation. Records also show that Google has donated money to more than a dozen organisations that have campaigned against climate legislation in the US.

Biblio and Better World Books, two of the smallest companies examined, provided a lower-carbon alternative by focusing on second hand books. However, both only got a middle rating as rather than detailing convincing cuts to their own emissions, they used carbon offsets – which Ethical Consumer does not consider to constitute legitimate climate action.

Waterstones received a worst rating as it did not provide any detail about future emissions reductions. WHSmith and eBay both received a middle rating as they reported their emissions, including those of their supply chain, but lacked future targets that weren’t reliant on offsets. Foyles, Wordery, Alibris, Hive and Blackwell’s all failed to provide any information regarding their carbon management and reporting practices.

Across the board, there is a lack of transparency in reporting of supply chain emissions and in decent targets.

Environmental Reporting

Only two large companies received a best rating for Environmental Reporting, which were WHSmith and eBay. However, Biblio and Better World Books were also given a best as they are small, and focused on the sale of used books.

Eight of the booksellers, including the household names Waterstones and Blackwell’s, provided no environmental reporting at all. EBooks, which is a predominantly digital business, did not mention any use of environmentally friendly IT infrastructure.

Sustainable paper?

This guide did not rate booksellers on the paper policies of books themselves as currently booksellers don't really have any power over how books are produced. However, larger shops commonly sell stationery items like notebooks, journals and printing paper, and so we rated them on their paper policies, hoping to find a preference for using recycled paper.

The shops rated were WHSmith, The Works, Waterstones, Foyles, Oxfam, and Hive.

Only WHSmith and Oxfam appeared to have paper policies. WHSmith outlined its progress in sourcing paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), but did not state how much was sourced from each. It therefore scored a worst, because PEFC is widely considered a weaker standard than FSC.

Oxfam received a middle rating as at least 90% of its wood and paper was either FSC-certified or recycled but it did not provide details of how much was the latter.

One of the reasons to be critical of FSC, aside from it not doing enough about the pollution and emissions caused by virgin paper manufacture, is the series of exposés and scandals about FSC-certified wood having originated from illegal sources.

Greenpeace has criticised the FSC eco-audit process because companies being audited pay the certification bodies directly, creating a conflict of interest.

The campaign Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion, has argued that the only paper that can be truly called ‘environmentally friendly’ is post-consumer waste recycled paper and calls on the Booksellers Association to use its leverage to promote it.

Executive remuneration versus staff wages

Eight companies were marked down for ‘Excessive Remuneration’, including Google, whose parent company Alphabet Inc. paid at least five members of staff over £1 million in 2021. Its Chief Business Officer received £48.5 million. Apple iBooks, WHSmith, Waterstones, eBay, and Amazon along with its subsidiaries AbeBooks, the Book Depository and Audible, were also marked down.

Meanwhile, Waterstones has been criticised for paying its shop-floor employees meagre wages. According to The Bookseller, the owner of Waterstones, Elliot Advisors, paid £93 million in bonuses to a handful of London staff during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, whilst shop-floor employees of Waterstones were furloughed and left “struggling to pay bills, borrowing money to make ends meet”. One employee had to turn to a foodbank.

Afrori Books - Creating diverse book shelves

Afrori Books is an independently-owned bookshop in Brighton that specialises in books by black authors. Carolynn Bain set up the store after being frustrated by the size of the BAME section in well-known bookshops. The books that Afrori stocks have been selected by Carolynn through long, committed stints of research.

In 2020, 5% of British children’s books featured a main character who was black, Asian or minority ethnic, up from 1% in 2018. The number of books published in the UK that featured any black, Asian or minority ethnic characters increased in 2019 to 10%, up from 4% in 2017. But this remains well below the 33.5% of primary school aged children in England who are from a minority ethnic background.

Afrori Books has a three-point mission:

  • support black authors
  • create diverse bookshelves
  • be a voice against injustice.

Through this, the business aims to encourage book-readers and bookshops to think more about the kinds of books they have on their shelves. Not only can this raise the profile of minoritised authors, but it has long been said that books can be both a window and a mirror for thinking differently about the world.

Positively, in 2019, 19.6% of authors in the ‘young adult’ genre published in the UK were people of colour, compared with 7.1% in 2017. However, in the same year, only 2% of children's authors and illustrators were British people of colour. This is in comparison to the 16% of the working age population from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds in England.

Research has shown that, while publishers often hope that their books can reach beyond a predominantly white, middle class audience, it is this core readership who are the primary focus of all acquisition, promotional, sales, and retail activities. For authors who are successful in getting their book acquired, many still face obstacles including “quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.”

Additionally, limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand.

Buying books can be a radical act

During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the sales of books by several black British authors rose to the top of UK bestseller lists. However, despite this and the efforts of many high street bookshops to promote Black History Month each October, there remains a lack of representation on bookshelves.

“The fact that [Afrori] has to exist” Carolynn stated, “shows you what the industry is like.”

During Black History Month in 2020, Carolynn explained her frustration when she noticed that only 5 books of 15 displayed in the window of Waterstones’ Brighton branch were written by black authors.

“Being an ethical consumer is about intentionality”, Carolynn states.

“It’s a choice not to buy from Amazon.”

Whilst not always the cheapest option, the reason that people shop at Afrori is not because of the price, but because of the wide range of titles they offer which are otherwise hard to access.

Carolynn’s hope for the future is that she won’t have to spend hours promoting black authors because it will be the norm that their work is available everywhere. But this, she reminds us, requires the active allyship of bookshops and readers.

Book lying in rubble

UK booksellers in solidarity with Gaza

In May 2021, a two-storey high bookshop in Gaza, Palestine was destroyed after it was targeted by the Israeli military during a round of deadly airstrikes. The bookshop, named Samir Mansour Library, was almost 21 years old and served as a community centre as well as publishing house for the works of local authors.

The decimation of the shop meant the loss of tens of thousands of books in various languages: “We lost the faces of the books, hundreds of thousands of valuable and irreplaceable books, which were not easy to bring into besieged Gaza. We lost the steps of passers-by.” said the owner.

Many UK bookshops responded by supporting a global crowdfunder to rebuild the bookshop, initiated by the founders of human rights organisation Reprieve. By September 2021, the campaign had raised £176,363.

Independent bookshops which contributed funds included Little Toller in Dorset and Indie Bookshops UK – an online independent bookshop directory. Others donated books, with one Leicester-based online book store sending 1,000 books whilst the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign organised a city-wide book collection.

Company profile 

World of Books (WoB) is a UK online re-seller of second hand books that was bought in July 2021 by Livingbridge, a UK private equity investor.

It was founded in 2008 and is currently headquartered in West Sussex. It emphasises a circular business model and focuses on diverting books away from landfill and sources books both via charitable partnerships and directly from consumers, then selling them through its website and other marketplaces. All books in an unsellable condition are recycled. World of Books is part of AuthorSHARE, a new scheme to pay authors royalties on used book sales.

Want more information?

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. 

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