With all this talk about the “triple bottom line,” I have found very few companies who have actually achieved such a thing. Better World Books is one of the few. And I had the privilege of interviewing co-founder Xavier Helgesen to get the scoop. Triple bottom line refers to an organization which considers its impact in terms of people, planet, and profit – or social, environmental, and financial returns.
Better World Books is a for-profit online bookstore founded in 2002 by college students looking to support themselves upon graduation. Better World Books is a B Corporation, meaning it is responsible to not only shareholders but to stakeholders for creating social and environmental as well as economic value.
The company gathers inventory through library and school book drives and shares its revenues with hand-selected literacy and education programs as well as libraries world-wide.
People: Supporting Literacy Initiatives Around the World
To date, Better World Books raised over $5 million for its non-profit partners and libraries. About 7% of revenues are channeled directly back to these programs, which include Room To Read and Books For Africa. Xavier Helgesen explained: “People will buy about $20 billion worth of books in the US alone this year. And if we can channel just part of that money to funding literacy programs, we can make a huge dent in the fact that 1 out of 7 people in the world cannot read.”
Not only do these programs receive a portion of revenues, but a new program will provide stock options for Better World Books’ partners, “so they are actually going to begin…to receive an equity stake in the company…so not only are they getting checks from us in the short term based on funds raised, but in the long term, they will actually own a part of the company,” Helgesen told me.
Why the focus on reading education? “Literacy can be a very abstract thing. It can actually be somewhat hard to raise money around but it is the foundation of anything else; it is foundation of self-sufficiency, it is the foundation of entrepreneurship, it is the foundation of education, so that is why we focus on it and it makes a lot of sense too that a book company would fund literacy,” Helgesen said.
Each book drive funds a certain literacy program, “and when [books] are sold to a customer, we then channel part of the sale price back to Books for Africa or whatever the organization was that we collected the books for in the first place.” Helgesen explains, “The idea we came up with was that you could organize book drives for causes because we thought people would give their books if the cause was compelling and if we were transparent about how much of the money was shared back to the cause when we sold the books.”
Planet: Saving Used Books From the Landfill
Better World Books’ methods create environmental value as well as social, saving over 8,200 tons of books from the landfill to date. “Environmentally, we are a company based upon reuse… So we do sell new books but our business model is really based around collecting books that someone does not want and finding someone who does want them, [and] using the profit generated through that to help fund literacy programs,” Helgesen said.
Better World Books’ operations shade green as well. Thanks to a sustainability coordinator, the central warehouse in Indiana is equipped with a garden and soon to be shuttle service for employees. Shipping is a costly and carbon intensive part of the business, so Helgesen explained that they focus on reducing that impact. As books are collected and shipped to Indiana, there are 20 consolidation points around the country where books are gathered for more efficient shipping in trucks or freight-trains. “On our outbound shipping we work with local postal services rather than a UPS or a FedEx because there is a lot less intensity to it and a lower cost…[from] a postal worker walking door to door everyday as opposed to a UPS truck double parking outside the place and running in, dropping off a package and then driving to the next location.”
Profit: A Self-Sustaining Business Model
Not only does Better World provide outstanding social and environmental value, they do so sustainably, brining in $21 million in revenue in 2007. In 2008, pre-Christmas December revenue was up 194% from 2007. Most importantly for the business’ viability, Better World Books delivers more value at a lower price than competitors. As far as I’m concerned, there is absolutely no reason not to use Better World Books instead of Amazon or another competitor, except if for some reason you can’t find what you want there.
“You get cheap books and then on top of that it is like icing on the cake that you have the social and environmental piece.” Customers are treated to the following: A deep discount as the books are mostly used, a complementary chocolate bar with each book order, free shipping in the US, and a hilarious delivery confirmation email. Marketing has been mainly word of mouth for the company and Helgesen told me. “We are fortunate because the vast majority of people say absolutely 10 out of 10 ‘I would recommend you to a friend,’ and a lot of people even tell us they already have, so that is a big part of getting the Better World message out.”
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