Will Consumers Reward Going Green?
by Raz Godelnik
Do most book consumers care about the environment? Definitely. Do they prefer buying books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper because of that? It depends.
Eco-conscious book consumers need to deal with the same issues that green consumers in general deal with, but they also have special dilemmas. Imagine, for example, a book reader who would love to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and who finds out that this great book is not printed on eco-friendly paper. Will the reader decide not to buy it and wait to get a copy in the local library? I doubt it.
A book is not a vegetable, a toothpaste, or a car. Book buyers can’t just choose a “green” book over a “regular” one and still get their needs met, only with some green added value. Each and every book is a unique product with distinctive features, which makes greening book purchases more difficult than greening almost anything else.
Fortunately, green books are also differentiated from other green products by positive features. For example, price. Consumers usually need to pay a premium to buy eco-friendly products, and that can become a significant obstacle. Studies show that only 5 to 10 percent of American consumers are willing to pay more for green items. With books, they probably don’t have to. The 200 books featured in our Green Books Campaign this past November were printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper, and their prices were similar if not identical to the prices of comparable books not printed that way.
Making It Hard
No study has yet tried to identify “green” behavior among book consumers. One survey, conducted in 2006, did find that more than 80 percent of consumers were willing to pay more for books printed on recycled paper, but I don’t think that reflects current consumers’ behavior, partly because price is no longer an issue in most cases and partly because there’s always a huge gap between what consumers say they are willing to do and what they actually do when it comes to green products.
We do know from talking to readers, bookstore owners, authors, and publishers that readers are interested in taking green positive actions. Yes, they will buy some books no matter what paper they’re printed on, but they may make green-based decisions too, sometimes while buying a book as a gift or on impulse (a survey conducted for Random House by Zogby International in 2008 found that 77 percent of book buyers make an additional unplanned book purchase when they go into a bookstore to get a specific book).
Of course, consumers need to know which books are eco-friendly if they are to choose those titles, and finding out can be a real obstacle. Some consumers are not aware of the environmental impacts of the book industry. Some are not familiar with alternatives such as FSC-certified paper. And some believe that sustainable paper alternatives are irrelevant because e-books are the real green alternative (but see “Is E-Reading Really Greener?” from the August 2010 issue). In fact, judging by discussions with bookstores owners, the issue of e-books vs. physical books is usually the first thing that comes into readers’ minds when the topic is “green.”
To help educate book consumers, our recent Green Books Campaign involved 200 bloggers simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books from 56 publishers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom that were printed on environmentally friendly paper. Organizations such as Green Press Initiative and Canopy are also working to educate book consumers, and so are many publishers. But in general, there’s a lot more work to be done.
When publishers print books on eco-friendly paper, they don’t tend to emphasize that on the book and on their Web sites, so consumers have to dig into the books to see whether the paper is eco-friendly. In some cases, publishers don’t even put this information in the book, which means consumers have no way to find out.
Online purchasing environments also make it hard for consumers to learn about the “greenness” of a book. Currently, Indigo is the only major book retailer that provides an easy online way to see which books are printed on eco-friendly paper. It’s integrated into Indigo’s advanced search options (chapters.indigo.ca/home/advancedSearch), and it’s very easy to use.
Making It Tempting
One of the basic rules of green marketing, according to green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman, is to avoid tradeoffs and, if that’s not possible, to make sure the cost to consumers of the green attribute doesn’t outweigh benefits.
Let’s look for a moment at the current equation. The cost is very clear—consumers need to search for information about the paper a book is printed on and then to choose certain books and avoid others because of the paper. The benefits are supporting the environment, protecting forests, helping fight climate change, and so on.
Are these benefits enough to persuade consumers to go to the trouble of finding and choosing green books? The answer is usually no. For most consumers, benefits must be more than good feelings about saving the planet. They must be things such as discounts on green books, or special deals like buy two green books and get a third free.
Another way to change the equation is by reducing costs: make information about the paper easy to find so the buying process becomes more user-friendly and less of a hassle for consumers who would like to support green products.
Making It Pay
Why bother? Because this is a business opportunity. Any publisher that is printing books on eco-friendly paper and not making sure that book consumers know it is probably losing potential buyers who appreciate commitment to the environment, and probably also losing a valuable part of the publishing company’s brand.
Along with indications we have from other markets, common sense says that many book buyers are willing—possibly eager—to go green. I estimate that about 20 percent are apt to consider the environment when making book purchases. With easy-to-use information and benefits that adequately reward green action, the potential they represent could be fully realized.
Raz Godelnik, who teaches a course titled Sustainability and Green Business at the University of Delaware’s Business School, is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working with publishers, authors, bookstores, and book lovers worldwide to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. For more information, go to ecolibris.net.