Conscious about buying brand new? Are you looking for a great website to buy a second hand book online?
With the decline in high street charity shops, book shops and places selling second hand books, more people are looking for used books online. It’s thought that between 2018 and 2022, the demand for second hand books grew at an annual rate of 5%.
And buying a second hand book is a fantastic choice to make. I know as I’ve bought my fair share over the last few years, including from many of the book shops featured on this list. Buying books is my weak spot, I admit it.
For many, it’s all too easy to head to Amazon to buy a book. I know the feeling. They’re efficient and reliable, it’s true. But they also have an atrocious social, environmental and ethical record. If possible, it’s best to try and avoid using Amazon from a sustainable perspective.
I’m here to tell you that it’s just as easy to buy a second hand book online from an ethical and sustainable bookseller.
Let’s take a look at 9 of the best sites where you can buy used books online UK. You can also buy new books from many of these places, which are all Amazon alternatives.
- Quick look: Top 9 ethical places to buy a book online 2023
- Why buying more ethical books is important?
- 9 Best Amazon Alternatives To Buy Used Books UK
- What about Waterstones?
- How to buy books ethically?
- Environmental impact of books: Print books vs E-books
- Share or buy second hand books online?
- Unethical Booksellers to avoid
- Wrap up on buying 2nd hand books online
Update: This article was updated September 2023. Waterstones was removed from the list and replaced with Used Book Search. I explain a bit more at the bottom about the Waterstones omission.
Quick look: Top 9 ethical places to buy a book online 2023
If you’re looking for a quick answer, here’s a list of the best sites to buy second hand books online in the UK.
For more details on each online bookseller, including an ethical and environmental score, scroll down a little more to get more information.
- Oxfam Book Shop
- Better World Books
- World of Books
- Hive Books
- Awesome Books
- Used Book Search
Why buying more ethical books is important?
I love books.
There’s a pure simplicity of it just being you and some words printed on paper. They are their own work of art.
From the knowledge and insight they hold and the work and energy that’s gone into creating them, to the beautiful manufacturing, the smell, the covers, the binding and overall comfort they bring.
New books are great, and I’m all for supporting authors and independent booksellers, but there’s also something particularly special about buying a second hand book. They hold their own story.
They might show a bit of wear and tear and well-thumbed pages but that part of the charm. I actually like it when I see old markings, a small corner fold and someone’s underlining. Shared wisdow.
As the incredible, and recently late, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón said in his masterpiece The Shadow of the Wind (if you’ve not read it, read it!)
“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”Señor Sempere, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A second hand book also comes with better environmental sustainability credentials thanks to the reuse of an existing resource. A good used book may also echo the life you’re trying to live – a simple, ethical, eco friendly.
If you’re interested in this topic, take a look at my list of the 15 best books on sustainability and the natural environment. Some brilliant books on this list.
So where can you buy a second hand book online from a company that has good ethical, social and environmental records?
9 Best Amazon Alternatives To Buy Used Books UK
I think most people are aware of Amazon’s poor ethical record. According to Ethical Consumer magazine, Amazon no-scored on their ethical and environmental record, quite an incredibly bad achievement.
For that reason they do not feature on my list (neither do any of the other booksellers that they own).
There are a good number of socially conscious, ethical alternatives out there to get your second hand books online from.
Here are 9 fantastic ethically-minded retailers where you can buy used books and second hand books online in 2023.
Oxfam are of course a very well-known high-street charity shop in the UK, founded in 1942 in Oxford. But did you know they actually have a global footprint in 67 countries worldwide? Their mission is simple: to eradicate poverty.
I love buying books from Oxfam on the high street but they also operate an online shop where you can buy second hand books UK. As a registered charity all proceeds go towards their life changing work. Very good stuff.
2. Better World Books
Better World Books were founded by two friends in the US who wanted to generate revenue from second hand book sales to fund literacy.
In their quest for used books, they quickly found that libraries stored on thousands of books destined for landfill. By saving these and giving the used books a new home they could also help the environment.
Better World Books are a Certified B Corp, just like World of Books, which is a brilliant achievement. They also have a fantastic range of second hand books online for sale.
3. World of Books
This Sussex-based company are now the most popular second hand book seller in the UK. I must admit, there one of my favourites too. It’s not just the fact they sell second hand books online at competitive prices either. As a company they stand for so much more than that.
World of Books, now going by just WOB, are founded on a do-good ethos: helping charities and making a positive impact on the environment through recycling and reuse. They’re a wholly responsible company and operate a circular economy approach and have aligned their values with the relevant Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations.
They’ve gone way beyond just selling 2nd hand books online and are now recognised as a Certified B Corporation, meeting the highest standards of social and environmental impacts. Great products, great service and ethically conscious = winning.
Hive is a community focussed online retailer and offer a different approach to their socially conscious business. They’re passionate about books and operate a network of 360 independent bookshops across the UK.
Hive support these bookshops with every sale they make. How does this work? Well, after you’ve bought something, you have the ability to choose a bookshop in the network who will then get a percentage of the sale.
A great way to support a local business from the higher reaches of the online world.
Bookshop.org is a new kid on the online bookselling block.
Their main aim is to promote, local independent booksellers in the UK. They’re also aiming to be an ethical, sustainable book marketplace and are becoming a certified B Corp, like some of the others on this list. Alongside this, they offer carbon neutral shipping.
I wrote a detailed blog post all about Bookshop.org that will give you the low down on who they are, where they’ve come from and how ethical they are.
6. Awesome Books
Awesome Books was established in 2004 by Mubin Ahmed from Reading, UK. Since their start, Awesome Books have paid out over £5m to UK charities as well as saving 132 million books from landfill!
Since 2019 they’ve committed to donate one book for everyone sold to their global literacy projects and have donated over 100,000 books to schools worldwide. It’s great to know that you can buy a second hand book and automatically have one donated to a worthy cause across the world.
You can visit their website below or even take a look around their eBay store.
As the name suggests, Biblio love books!
They aim to operate as a local bookstore but on a global scale. They specialise in second hand books online as well as rare copies. So if there’s a book you can’t find anywhere, have a look on their site.
They were founded by Brett Sherar in the US in 2000 where they first established as a search engine for books. They’ve come a long way since. Now their technology helps connect book lovers and independent booksellers in 50 countries.
Biblio run their green book marketplace to serve three purposes: achieve profit, serve people and preserve the environment. They offer carbon neutral shipping, which they call Ecosend, on all orders.
8. Used Book Search
Used Book Search is a bit like a book search engine. You can find all sorts from standard used books to textbooks and rate out of print books. It sounds like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books from The Shadow of the Wind all over again.
When you search for a book, the results bring up a list of where the book can be sourced from. You then have the ability to compare prices between second hand sellers.
Give it a go and see what you think.
I’d like to throw a curve ball in at the end.
As well as new books and used books, I do love an ebook. They’re particularly useful to take on the go and read at night when you don’t want the light on (or have been told to turn it off).
As the name suggests, Ebooks.com sell electronic books, or e-books. E-books are a good eco book alternative as there is no physical product. This means fewer resources for production, no transport and no waste.
The company was established back in 2000 and now hold over a million unique book titles. You can read their books via the Ebook Reader app. This is available on both iOS and Android systems, as well as Kindle Fire (but not other Kindle models.
Ebooks.com are a great alternative to buy an environmentally friendly book online.
What about Waterstones?
Founded in 1982 and with around 280 bookshops across the UK, Waterstones are one of the very last national bookshop chains. I would love to list them here but unfortunately Waterstones have been removed.
Well, to put it bluntly, they’re not a very ethical company.
For starters, they are owned by Elliott Management, a hedge fund founded by a Wall Street billionaire.
Secondly, for a large company with almost £400m turnover in 2022, they have no sort of environmental policy and zero transparency.
Lastly, they don’t pay workers very well at all. In fact, an ex-worker contacted me to let me know the dire situation. A few years back, an established bookseller in London was on £8.62 an hour. Meanwhile, one lucky Waterstones director received close to £300k.
Waterstones Managing Director, James Daunt, was well aware of the situation but nothing changed.
Waterstone’s also own Wordery after Ellitt Adivisors bought the online bookseller in 2020. However, Wordery are in big trouble and will soon be no longer. As of earlier in 2023, they entered liquidation.
This is a shame as prior to being bought by a hedge fund, they were a good brand.
How to buy books ethically?
There’s no easy and completely environmentally friendly way to read books.
However, there are better, more eco and ethical ways to buy books:
- Buy second hand books where you can rather than new
- Share books and/or join the library
- Don’t send unwanted books to landfill, always recycle
- Support independent booksellers
- Choose eco-conscious and more ethical sellers (my list covers that)
- If you do use an e-reader, use it till it works no longer rather than upgrading when a new version comes out. Recycle an e-reader (along with other electronic items) in the correct manner.
Environmental impact of books: Print books vs E-books
Print still dominates the book market with over 80% of the share. But it’s also clear that the second hand book market is growing.
According to Patrik Oqvist from World of Books, he says “the second hand book market is growing by 8-10% a year”. This is great news for the environment – reusing rather than creating new, meaning less energy expenditure and less waste. For the UK book market alone, an estimated 15 million trees are cut down each year for paper.
Even when print books reach they end of their life and are unwanted, most eventually find their way to a pulping machine to be recycled into cardboard. This still has an environmental footprint to it but it’s much better than going to landfill.
There is a slight juxtaposition in that books are made from the very trees that we strive to keep in the world. The trees that purify the air, soak up carbon and release oxygen.
Can cutting down trees to make books be justified?
In my view, yes. But it has to be in a sustainable manner of course. All sustainably managed woodlands should make sure that trees are replanted to make up for the loss.
People are always going to read. It’s part of our very nature to learn and share knowledge within human communities and societies. Cooperation and learning are what have given humans our huge advantage over other species.
Share or buy second hand books online?
From an environmental sustainability point of view, the lowest long-term environmental impact remains sharing paper books. This can be done between individuals or via a library system – yes, libraries do still exist!
Next best is to buy a second hand book online or at your local charity shop. Every book resold or shared is one that doesn’t need reprinting.
E-readers can hold an infinite amount of books, saving on the environmental costs of logging trees.
But creating an e-reader requires the mining of limited earth metals and produces much more carbon dioxide.
There’s further problem in that an e-reader may only last a couple of years before it needs replacing and they are particularly problematic to dispose of sustainably as recycling e-waste is difficult.
On the other hand, producing a printed book uses a lot of water and also requires ink, which release volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. There’s also the transportation cost of shipping and delivering each book to a new home.
However, print books can last an awful long time and when they are eventually disposed of, they can be fully recycled and provide the materials to produce something else.
Also, always look out for the FSC logo on the book. FSC, standing for Forest Stewardship Council, ensures the paper is sourced from sustainable woodlands and forests.
Unethical Booksellers to avoid
There are some places where you certainly shouldn’t buy your second hand books from if you’re considering ethics and the environment.
Online booksellers with an impressively bad ethical rating include:
- AbeBooks (100% owned by Amazon)
- Audible (100% owned by Amazon)
- The Book Depository (now closed)
You also have the brands owned by Waterstones/the American hedge fund. These include Foyles and Blackwells.
Stay clear of these if you can and try to buy your second hand books with the confidence that you are helping in your own minor, but positive, way. Every little does indeed help.
Wrap up on buying 2nd hand books online
Buying a second hand book is giving it a new lease of life. Like all good stories, they should be shared and no good book should just have a single reader.
By making use of an existing resource, you save the need for it to be printed, which not only keeps trees being felled but all the accompanying carbon emissions that go with producing and delivery a book.
It helps create more sustainable, circular economy based businesses where there’s no such thing as waste – everything is a resource to someone.
It’s not completely environmentally positive but buying your book from an ethical and environmental conscious seller makes the world of difference over the long term.
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I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.