Second hand books and more sustainable, ethical living go hand in hand. Let’s take a look at 7 of the best places where you can buy books online in the UK that are all Amazon alternatives.
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.
As the incredible, and recently late, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón said in his masterpiece The Shadow of the Wind…
“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 a more sustainable and environmentally friendly element to it thanks to the reuse of an existing resource.
A good second hand book may also echo the life you’re trying to live – a simple, ethical, eco friendly choice.
So where can you buy a book online from a company that has good ethical, social and environmental records?
Top 7 places to buy a book in the UK that’s not Amazon
If you’re looking for a quick answer, here’s a list of the best places to buy a second hand book 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.
As of November 2020, there’s a new ethical online bookselling platform where you can buy books and support independent bookshops at the same time. Take a look here at Bookshop.org who are aiming to be an ethical Amazon alternative.
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.
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.
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.
From an environmental point of view, the lowest long-term environmental impact remains sharing paper books (individually or in a library system) or buying second hand books. 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.
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.
How to buy second hand books ethically
As you can see there are swings and roundabouts when it comes to buying books in an eco-friendly way. 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 below 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.
7 best Amazon alternatives to buying books online UK
I think most people are aware of Amazon’s poor ethical record. According to the ethicalconsumer.org, Amazon scored 0/20 on their ethical and environmental record, quite an incredibly bad achievement.
The Ethical Consumer takes ethical, social and environmental records into account to give an overall score for each bookseller. I’ve included the ratings for each of the booksellers below to give you some context.
There are a good number of socially conscious, ethical alternatives out there to get your second hand books from. You can get what you want whilst not feeding the monopolous, billion dollar behemoth more than is necessary.
Here are 7 fantastic ethically-minded online retailers where you can buy a second hand book.
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 at competitive prices either. As a company they stand for so much more than that.
World of Books 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 second 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.
Ethical Consumer score: 14/20
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.
They also operate an online shop where you can buy second hand books. As a registered charity all proceeds go towards their life changing work. Very good stuff.
Ethical Consumer score: 11.5/20
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 for sale.
Ethical Consumer score: 10.5/20
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.
They 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.
Ethical Consumer score: 10/20
The Wordery story started in 2012 with five friends who wanted to establish an alternative online bookshop. They’ve certainly done well – five million customers in over 100 countries according to their website.
Wordery are also using their established nature and influence for good. They’re committed to working with charities to improve literacy among young people and have partnered with national literacy charities in the UK. When they do send books out, they use recycled paper and cardboard, which is fully recyclable by the customer. Did you know that cardboard is biodegradable too?
Although you might think they’re not quite at the ethical and environmental level of World of Books, Wordery are 12 years younger, so hopefully their positive impact will only continue to expand going forward.
Ethical Consumer score: 8.5/20
Established in 2004, Awesome Books state that they’ve 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.
Not included in the ethical consumer survey.
Not strictly second hand but I thought deserving of a mention at the end.
The well-known high-street bookseller Waterstones was founded in 1982 and has around 280 bookshops across the UK. They’re one of the very last national bookshop chains. I used to work on King Street in central Manchester and loved wandering down to the Waterstones on Deansgate at dinnertime, browsing the shelves and sitting down with a coffee on the top floor.
They also operate as an excellent online retailer with a home delivery or click and collect service from their physical bookshops. Although they originated under Tim Waterstone, they are now owned by an American hedge fund and a Russian billionaire, hence there fairly low ethical consumer score. Still the positives outweigh the negatives for me here.
Ethical Consumer score: 8.5/20
Buy second hand books
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.
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 score of 0/20 are: Amazon, AbeBooks, Audible and The Book Depository (which is 100% owned by Amazon). 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.
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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