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.

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buying local vs. eating less meat

Lots of my friends are “locavores” — people who try to buy their food from somewhere nearby, rather than importing it from far away.  One reason they cite is environmental friendliness — transporting food takes energy, which mean releasing greenhouse gasses.  Eating local is one way to reduce your carbon footprint.

A recent analysis, however, summarized by Andrew Winston of the Harvard Business Review, points out that far more energy goes into growing food for the average U.S. household than transporting it:

  • 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

Also of note: lamb is far worse for the environment than beef, which is far worse than other common meat products.  The same graph compares the energy used to produce a number of foods.

Of course, there’s no reason not to do both things to help the environment — buy more produce from local sources and eat less meat and dairy.  But if you find yourself weighing the costs and benefits in order to decide when and whether to buy local or eat red meat in a given case, keep in mind the relative contributions to your carbon footprint.

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