One of the most prevalent issues of higher education is how outrageous and inaccessible textbooks are. At the start of every academic quarter, I often worried about deciding between purchasing a new edition $300 textbook or saving money for my food and tuition. It wasn’t until I fell upon the site, ThriftBooks, that I was able to find used, quality books at prices I could afford. I recently purchased an English textbook routinely priced at $50 for only $7 through the site, and I encouraged my friends and classmates to do the same. What really impressed me about ThriftBooks, though, is the extensive transparency and equity initiatives of their sourcing, operations, and distribution processes. It is all too clear the company recognizes the value of making books widely accessible and affordable for communities at-large, while still ensuring a more sustainable secondhand alternative for students and book-lovers alike.
Starting in 2003, ThriftBooks has grown to be the largest online used book seller in the U.S. Initially, they only sold through Amazon, eBay, and other online retailers, yet as they became more popular, they developed their own secondhand platform. Buying secondhand books as opposed to purchasing new makes a truly profound environmental impact. For one, the newspaper and book publishing industries consume “153 billion gallons of water each year” with each newly-made book consuming an average of “two kilowatt tons of fossil fuels.” And, unfortunately, an estimated “320 million” books are disposed of in landfills each year, generating harmful emissions and toxins that spread to our air and local water systems. Hence, choosing to purchase used books prevents the wasteful landfill conclusion of a product inherently made to be long-lasting.
Building off this commitment to sustainability, the company directly sources their books from nonprofits and community-based services like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent De Paul as well as public libraries, schools, and universities. With every partnership, they make an effort to sustain a profit-sharing relationship, in which they not only repurpose books but provide financial support to each institution they source from. They also always ensure the materials they cannot use or sell effectively are not disposed of in landfills. Rather, they attend to reducing their carbon footprint by sending all unserviceable materials to recycling plants. Each ton of their 100% recycled post-consumer copy paper saves “24 trees, 7000 gallons of water, 4100 kilowatts of electricity, and 60 pounds of air pollution. On every package, ThriftBooks also provides how2reycle.info, so each customer is informed of how they can locally recycle the plastic and paper packaging in feasible ways. Equally as important, the company is making major strides in challenging the deeply rooted affordability barriers to knowledge, upholding a platform that prioritizes accessibility, community, and social justice in all that they do.
ThriftBooks Headquarters is located in Seattle, but they majorly operate within eight different centers in the U.S. that purchase, evaluate, and distribute used books. These sites are located in large urban areas like Chicago and Dallas for more localized, low-transport distribution. In the efforts to curb emissions and transportation costs, they also make sure each truck ships books in bulk. Every week 150 trucks collect and unload books from their partners and charities to the eight sites to be sorted and repurposed. In these processing centers, teams of sorters, inventory specialists, shelvers, and shippers work together to assess the value and condition of each book to be sold. One feature that sets ThriftBooks apart from other retailers is they employ artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning tools in ways that still support and resist the displacement of their employees. AI helps the company instantaneously sort, transport, and evaluate each book for its product competitiveness and price value. This enables the workers to attend to the more intellectual details of the job as opposed to the more labor-intensive processes of hand-grading millions of titles a day. Despite the robust materials associated with increasing robotics, conveyors, and material handling operations, AI has helped the company reduce waste and improve consumer access to quality books.
ThriftBooks is run by CEO, Mike Ward, who values organizing the company with social equity and sustainability at the forefront of all decisions. Unlike other online booksellers, like Amazon, which is known for its unethical treatment of workers, poor environmental measures, and unclear supply chain, ThriftBooks promotes accountability and outreach. Through their ThriftBooks Cares and Friends of Library Groups initiatives, they partner with local libraries, Title 1 schools, prison libraries, international literacy programs, and nonprofit organizations to donate millions of books and funds to in-need, underserved communities. In terms of employee equity, they provide vast benefits with each employee entitled to medical plans, paid holidays, travel reimbursements, and of course, free books. With the recent implementation of AI, the company also allocates time and resources toward training efforts to help their employees gain the necessary skills to work with the robotics, thus reducing the risks of employee displacement.
Overall, ThriftBooks streamlines sustainable secondhand purchases, extending the lifecycles of millions of quality books and supporting accessible paths to knowledge for all. Approaching such a worthwhile environmental feat while still enabling a process that is equally-beneficial for their workers and consumers, the company proves how both sustainability and social equity can be achieved without sacrifice.