how to buy a greener book

What has a lower carbon footprint — buying a book from a local store or ordering it online?  What about buying your books via a Kindle or other e-reader?

Amazon, the leading online seller of books, has been very coy about revealing their carbon footprint (although they point out lots of things they do to make their deliveries more environmentally friendly).  However, the findings from a case study of may provide insights into the eco-friendliness of e-commerce more broadly.  The study finds — perhaps surprisingly — that shopping online is often more energy efficient than shopping locally.

On average, shopping online was 30% more energy efficient than shopping locally, but there was a large amount of uncertainty and variability in many of the numbers that went into that analysis.  By varying several of the largest contributing factors, shopping locally can easily end up being the greener option.  In particular:

  • Shipping express or otherwise getting an item via air delivery increases the e-commerce carbon footprint dramatically.
  • By far the largest source of CO2 in local purchases is the customers driving to and from the store.  Short driving distance, high fuel efficiency, or alternate forms of transit can all shift the balance in favor of shopping locally.
  • On the e-commerce side, two potentially large but highly variable factors are the carbon footprint of the product packaging (which Amazon has made efforts to reduce) and the efficiency of the delivery from the local distribution center to the customer’s house.  For instance, having electric or hybrid delivery trucks and efficient scheduling can greatly improve the eco-friendliness of e-commerce.

Of course, there are other reasons besides carbon footprint that may also influence your decision to shop locally vs. online.

What about owning a Kindle or other e-reader?  Obviously, buying an electronic copy of a book eliminates most of the sources of energy expended in buying a print book locally or online.  However, a lot of energy goes into building an e-reader, and also into disposing of old ones.  They take energy to run, as well.  How does all of that compare to the carbon footprint of buying print books?

One well-publicized report by CleanTech concluded that buying your books on a Kindle is more energy efficient than buying (new) books in print, so long as you read 23 books or more per year.  However, Eco-Libris has critiqued this analysis, pointing out that there is too much uncertainty about Amazon’s carbon footprint to know how many books are needed to make a Kindle the greener option.

Eco-Libris also has an extensive collection of articles and other reference material addressing the environmental impact of e-readers more broadly.  While there’s no conclusive answer about the relative greenness of e-books vs. paper books, it clearly makes a huge difference how much you read and whether you buy your paper books new or used.  Unless you are a voracious buyer of books and/or periodicals, it looks like you should not consider the environmental impact as an argument in favor of buying an e-reader.


  1. Debby W. Said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 12:34 am

    How about libraries?

  2. lauren Said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    I haven’t done research on libraries yet, but it’s a good question. Clearly there are many advantages to libraries. Libraries require far fewer books to be produced than bookstores, and bookstores often end up destroying unsold copies. Shipping a few copies of a book to a library is surely greener than shipping many copies of a book (over and over) to a local shop. But how green the process of acquiring a copy of a book is from the perspective of an individual library patron also depends largely on how much energy they expend getting to and from the library (as is the case when buying, borrowing, or freecycling used copies of books from other sources). And I’m not sure if there are other factors that I’m neglecting to consider when it comes to libraries — a topic for a future post, perhaps.

  3. Ruth Rosselson Said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    While it is true that a lot of energy goes into making an e-reader, there are other ways of putting books onto it other than buying from Amazon. I bought an e-reader (rather than a kindle) so that I could avoid Amazon, and am able to download from other retailers, and also from my local bookshop (which I can walk to). I can also borrow e-books from my local library (which i would also walk to), therefore also reducing the environmental cost. There are also thousands of out of copyright books available online for free. I’m currently reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte. However, I don’t know what the process is of getting them online and how much energy that uses.

    I would point out that it’s also important to recognise that not all publishers use recycled or FSC-certified paper in their books. This means that virgin paper is used for books. Environmental costs aren’t just carbon-based in terms of transport and energy use but also consider resource-use. If you consider this too, I would say that on balance, second-hand books and libraries are going to be the greenest option – especially if you walk, take public transport or cycle to get there. Downloading out-of-copyright books is probably also a green option, if you already own an ereader (this doesn’t work on kindle I don’t think).

  4. lauren Said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    Ruth: Thanks for the thoughtful points!