5 ways to reduce your independent bookstore's carbon footprint.
I love bookstores.
I love the sight of books lining huge shelves from floor to ceiling, the smell of books, and how a person so entrenched in a book in the corner doesn’t even register someone passing by.
If you are reading this, you probably also love bookstores. You may even be an independent bookstore manager or owner, or an employee. And you probably also care about the environment.
The good news is that loving books and bookstores and loving the environment are not two mutually exclusive things. Despite all the discussion about whether or not readers should convert to e-readers in order to reduce paper usage in the book industry (turns out the number of books you have to read on your e-reader in order to make up for its rather hefty environmental footprint is around 20 books a year. If you do this over two years, that e-reader becomes ‘carbon neutral’), there is still a valid discussion on how to reduce the carbon and environmental footprint of the book industry as whole, including independent bookstores.
First, let’s get some context on the book industry. Generally speaking, this industry breaks down into four areas: authors, publishers and printers, bookstores and distributors, and readers. Each area has its own complex impact on the environment, spanning things like building energy use, ink and paper production, paper recycling, book transportation to and from distribution centers, shipping to customers, and more.
If you are an independent bookstore owner, it may seem a gargantuan task to even incorporate reducing your carbon footprint into your business plan - after all you are busy, this industry is tough, and for that matter you aren’t a large piece of the book industry carbon pie anyway, right?
It’s true that paper production, use and recycling comprises the largest chunk of the carbon pie in the book industry (cue strange imagery resulting from a bad metaphor - I’m sorry, my brain works best in pie charts). The logging of trees to provide the paper for books is a complex series of environmental impacts that highly depends on where those trees are, the age and importance of that particular forest habitat, water usage, distance to paper mill, etc. Add to this that the printing company, distribution center, and publisher all have the responsibility of tracking energy usage in their operations, transportation emissions from trucks carrying books to (and from) your bookstore (more on this later!), recycling emissions and water usage in the de-inking process, and it really is true that the carbon footprint of your independent bookstore does not seem to make or break whether we reach our global carbon reduction goals.
However, this does not mean that you have to twiddle your thumbs and shrug, saying “Well, there’s nothing I can do, I’ll just distract myself from what’s happening around the world and hope for the best!” In all likelihood, if you are reading this, you already care a great deal about the state of the environment, and want to take steps to do your part. That’s awesome!
If you are still not convinced, here are some reasons that your independent bookstore should be concerned about reducing its carbon footprint:
Reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint can save you money.
Reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint can future-proof your business.
Reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint can show your employees and customers that you care about what they care about.
Reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint can make your business more competitive and show others in the industry the way forward.
Reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint means that you are doing your part!
So how can you start?
There are five major ways that you can start thinking about reducing your bookstore’s carbon footprint.
Heating and cooling
Depending on where your bookstore is, you probably have to heat your space in the winter and cool it off in the summer. In Victoria in particular we are experiencing hotter and drier summers, and colder wetter winters. As such, taking a look at how you are heating and cooling your space is important to address your bookstore’s carbon footprint.
Some quick fixes you can do to make sure you are heating your space efficiently are:
Install curtains over your windows to close during the night. You can install them just behind your window displays. Curtains help add a little extra insulation and keep the space a little warmer during the winter and cooler during the summer.
Install draft protection on your doors to keep chilly winds from entering and cool air from escaping, and keep doors closed unless necessary.
Make sure that if you must use a space heater that it is the most efficient one you can afford. Space heaters use more energy that you think - so only use them sparingly!
If you have more time and a slightly larger budget, you can also tackle:
Contact your landlord to discuss upgrading options regarding your heating and cooling system - make them aware of local grants and permits that are available to lower the costs of these things. Natural gas heating generates a lot of emissions, so making the switch to an alternative heat source ASAP is an important step. Remember, your landlord will also benefit from these upgrades - if not least of which because of tightening regulations that are becoming more and more common. Now is the time to bring it up!
In Victoria, most of our electricity is supplied by relatively low carbon hydro energy, however, there are still cost savings to be had by taking a look at electricity use in your business. Furthermore, by reducing our overall electricity load we can help do our part to ensure that we aren’t creating more unnecessary demand for new power plants, or from purchasing power outside of our grid. Here are some ways we can start reducing electricity use in your independent bookstore:
Lighting is an obvious one but there are still a lot of shops that haven’t yet upgraded their lighting situation, I highly recommend switching to LEDs to save money and energy. If you have a little extra time and money, install motion detecting lights and switches in all rooms that are not used all the time - such as storage rooms, bathrooms, and offices.
Make sure all computers and terminals are set up with a sleep function that reduces power consumption when not in use, and turn them all off overnight.
Examine your reasons for keeping lights on in the shop during off hours. Although there is an argument that keeping the lights on improves security and allows window shoppers to eye your goods, examine why your store has this policy in place and discuss with your team whether the benefits really are worth the cost of using electricity during those hours.
Physical store items (furniture, decorations, and SWAG)
This section may be more relevant to newly opening stores, but it is worth taking note of where you source your furniture and decorations from.
Choose secondhand when possible - bookshelves, reading chairs, tables - check local sales from hotels to get multiple of the same item.
If possible, source furniture and decorations locally - you could even work together with another local company that sells such things and make use of them while they are on display in your shop!
Be intentional with your SWAG - offer it only if it provides actual value to the customer. You can do this by including coupons on the SWAG, along with a way to collect email addresses to be able to deliver digital swag in the future, this is a great way to make sure that the item doesn’t immediately end up in the landfill.
The majority of the waste produced by your bookstore is paper products - boxes that contain books and other items that are for sale. Luckily, paper is the most commonly recycled item in most municipalities.
Here’s what you can do to improve your bookstore’s waste related environmental impacts:
Make sure that you and your employees are separating their waste according to what waste pick up streams you have available.
If you do not have paper recycling available in your building, find out why and lobby for the service to be included, or organize for weekly pickup with a local service provider.
If your bookstore offers book delivery, choose packaging that is either recyclable or compostable depending on what services are offered in your area. Bonus points if you can use post-consumer recycled packaging!
Consider collecting gently used books to donate to schools and organizations in need.
Embodied emissions from the books themselves
Books are made of paper, which requires a great deal of processing and do have a larger footprint than e-books and audio books, that’s just a fact. It’s also true that the process of delivering books to your store from a distribution center has a significant amount of transportation emissions associated with it. Furthermore, if you partake in the returns policy of returning unsold books to the distribution center, you have to account for double those emissions. Although you can arguably say it is the distribution center’s job to reduce the transportation emissions, and the printer’s job to do so for paper and ink use, you can still do your part to influence how the industry will change moving forward.
Here are a few ways your bookstore can help reduce emissions from the publishing industry:
Look into what printed book options are available - some printers are offering bamboo printed books, recycled paper printed books, and more. Printers like Friesens and publishers like Penguin Random House are steadily improving their paper use by ensuring paper is sourced from certified providers. This helps ensure that paper is not coming from trees in critically important habitats. Although these options may not be available for all books, asking about what options are available and featuring a few titles from authors who took the care to care for the environment can bring awareness to this issue.
Carefully consider where the books you get for your store are coming from, and whether you will have to return them if they are unsold. This may just look like seriously looking at what you choose to stock, prioritizing distributors closer to you, or asking your current distributors options regarding reducing emissions due to book travel.
Did you know that many publishers are making efforts to become carbon neutral and benefit the environment? Most notably, Penguin Random House and Macmillan - two of the “big 5” publishing houses, have made significant strides to improving their environmental impact. It is worth taking the time to check a publisher’s website to see if they have done similar. If not - send them a note to let them know you are interested in working with publishers who prioritize the environment in their business plan.
There is a lot you can do as an independent bookstore to improve your carbon footprint and prioritize the environment. And it’s important to remember - take each step with intention, care, and without burning yourself out! It is better to start your carbon neutral journey slowly, and to remember - imperfect is better than not at all!
If you are interested in learning more about reducing your carbon in the book industry, look forward to upcoming blog posts that will discuss how you can save money for your business by going green, the carbon footprint of a bookstore’s supply chain, and the carbon footprint of a physical book. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out on Instagram and Twitter @ecothinkproductions.