Start Today #3: Books, Boxes & the Web
This is the third dispatch in a series about our efforts to reduce the ecological footprint of the bookshop and café. We speak with Gersende, who runs the bookshop’s website, to discuss the steps she has taken to find a more ecologically friendly way of running our online store.
Morning Gersende! Thanks for sitting down with us. I know that finding solutions to reduce our waste and raising environmental awareness are issues close to your heart. Let’s start with the basics: what measures have you put in place to create a more sustainable approach towards the online ordering process?
Gersende: Hello! Our first step was to contact the publishers we work with and ask them to stop packaging the books we receive in plastic. Our distributors started to use recycled cardboard boxes instead of plastic cushioning to protect books during transit. From there, our book receivers began to save these cardboard boxes for us to reuse as shipping boxes for online orders. It’s a fun arts-and-crafts approach to packaging—cutting down boxes to the right size and piecing them back together. On our online store, customers have the option to choose recycled packaging and it’s encouraging to see more and more people opting for a greener consumer experience. It’s an old cliché, but every little effort makes a difference and the cumulative effect is very noticeable in small businesses like ours.
That’s promising—it’s interesting to think of it as an arts-and-crafts exercise.
Gersende: It is—I also hunt around the bookshop for other materials that I can give a second life to. For example, I print all our online orders on scrap paper. At the end of the month, the pile of reused paper is impressive! Our head book buyer also receives a lot of new releases in padded envelopes which are ideal to reuse as packaging for our S&Co tote bags. It’s satisfying to work towards minimising the bookshop’s waste and I enjoy the creativity of a ‘make-do and mend’ approach.
You mentioned that it was encouraging to see more customers opting for a sustainable approach to their shopping. Does this feel like a cultural shift?
Gersende: Yes, absolutely. Over the last few years I’ve found that recycling and reusing has become a general attitude where it was once an optional stance. Here in the shop it’s easy to see the proliferation of books about climate change like Naomi Klein’s urgent collection of essays On Fire, or books about how to cut down on waste such as The Little Book of Going Green by Harriet Dyer or How to Live Plastic Free from the Marine Conservation Society. From words to work, a consciousness has spread through the bookshop, spearheaded by a few fervent environmental warriors on our team.
And when it comes to our customers, is there a way to nudge them in the right direction?
Gersende: As much as I can, I try to promote our ‘Pick Up In-Store’ option. We are in a new paradigm in which superhuman efficiency is not only demanded but expected. It is a culture of next-day delivery, and yet we ought to ask ourselves about the social and environmental damage that is the hidden cost of such luxuries.
Not to mention that there is a lot to be gained from less efficient approaches!
Gersende: Exactly! Personally, I believe we have reached a tipping point in the dematerialization of human experience. I love walking to my local grocery store, taking the time to look, choose and chat. Any journey is full of surprises and encounters and you give yourself a chance to be grounded in your community.
We are having this conversation with clients on the shop floor all the time. Nowadays, you can always get something cheaper and faster, but it takes the poetry out of life! Sometimes efficiency is anathema to poetry.
Gersende: I couldn’t agree more. The Raven Bookstore’s pamphlet we’ve shared amongst the team is very honest about the impact of our consumption choices and what it means for independent businesses. We often remember and treasure the memory of buying a book in an independent bookshop. Who cherishes the memory of online shopping and hitting a plastic key?
Especially when at the heart of what we are doing there are books. Isn’t that what the good books have taught us? Pay attention. Slow down. Leave yourself open to chance. Immerse yourself in the bustle and spontaneity of city life. And at the same time the alternative is starting to feel more and more like dystopian fiction.
Gersende: When it comes to the digital, the more I know about it, the more I move away from it. All these apps, social media and online services use and stock a substantial amount of data on servers that consume such a huge amount of energy, not to mention the data harvesting and online profiling to serve dubious commercial or political purposes. Edward Snowden and Christopher Wylie have opened that can of worms. We now know that we have to do some serious thinking about what we are willing to tolerate.
It’s funny—we know you come from a tech background. How has your relationship to it evolved across the breadth of your career?
Gersende: When I worked for a big tech company, I realised my mind was starting to work like my inbox. That was when I went back to books, paper, hand-writing in notebooks. I also decided to use digital technology only when it had an express purpose—things like booking a carpool or checking opening hours for example. For the last year or so, I’ve experimented with systematically deleting my emails: I keep only those few that need attention until the solution is found. For the rest, I go and check in with my colleagues or phone them directly: this results in improved efficiency and a decluttered mental space.
Plus you get to have a nice interaction with one of us!
Browse Gersende’s bookshelf: Live Lightly
Our curated book selection on Our Digital Age