Sustainability issues around bookshops
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.
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.
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.
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.