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Eco-alternative to Amazon funds literacy programs

Better World Books shares proceeds with literacy groups and adds a couple of cents to the cost of each book to buy carbon offsets.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read

F. Xavier Helgesen had big dreams to build Web sites after graduating from Notre Dame in 2001 with an MIS degree, but then the dot-com industry crashed.

Instead he co-founded a company in 2002 that sells books otherwise destined for the landfill, sends some of the proceeds to literacy groups, and uses carbon-neutral shipping.

F. Xavier Helgesen in front of the warehouse of Better World Books, which funds literacy programs and uses eco-practices. Better World Books

Better World Books collects books from university bookstores and libraries and resells them, donating 7.5 percent of the price of the book to nonprofit literacy groups--Books for Africa, Room to Read, World Fund, and National Center for Family Literacy. Some of the books are shipped directly to Africa.

The Web site boasts 1.8 million used books and 500,000 new books, everything from 17th century tomes to popular fiction.

So far, the company has raised $3.5 million for libraries and literacy programs, donated 570,000 books, and kept more than 5,000 tons of books from being thrown away, Helgesen says.

The company also offers carbon-neutral shipping, adding 2 cents to 5 cents onto the cost of each book to buy credits to offset the carbon used in the distribution. More than 700 tons of carbon have been offset, according to Helgesen.

Customers get free shipping and pay only $2.97 for international shipments. The discount is possible because Better World Books sorts the mail before passing it off to the postal service, he says.

Better World Books also reclaims metal shelving from libraries that remodel--so far 680,000 pounds--using it to store its books on in its Mishawaka, Ind., warehouse.

How else does the company try to compete with Amazon.com and others? By commissioning software development that dynamically prices books and lists them on multiple marketplaces simultaneously. And then there are the custom book carts and work stations employees use in the warehouse that feature a Lazy Susan welded on top where a monitor sits and a thin Linux-based client connected to a wireless network. The carts run off a marine deep-sea battery.

"It was always in my mind to try to find a career where the better the business, the more it would benefit society and the environment," says Helgesen.