Books for a Better Tomorrow

World literacy dropped from just under 40 percent to 15 percent between 1970 and 2010. As nonprofits around the world battle the growing epidemic, Better World Books is a social enterprise that is seeking to eradicate the problem of global illiteracy. Every book bought on BetterWorldBooks.com funds a global literacy program like Books for Africa, Room to Read, Worldfund and Invisible Children. Funds go toward building schools and libraries, creating innovative online learning tools, funding scholarships in the developing world and a variety of other ways. John Uja is the vice president of marketing for Better World Books. Here, he discusses the growing problem of illiteracy and how Better World Books is aligning with nonprofit forces to combat it.

How does the issue of literacy affect other aspects of an individual’s life?

Imagine not being able to fill out a job application because you can’t read it. Or not being able to understand the directions on your prescription medication. How would you survive and earn a living? Literacy is deeply tied to quality of life and the opportunities an individual has. It is the foundation of other education—you can’t progress in other formal education without being able to read. As such, literacy is a key step on the pathway out of poverty for millions of people around the world.

One of the tenets of BWB is recycling books. How can you see the rise in e-books and e-readers changing the face of recycling in the book world?

Near term, e-books and e-readers will drive up the amount of paper book recycling as people discard their physical books in favor of e-readers. Longer term, it will be interesting to see how e-readers are handled in the recycling stream as they contain plastics and some toxic materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

What’s the difference between doing social good and social enterprise, as a company? How has BWB sought to bridge that gap as you’ve grown into a major company?

Well, doing social good is, broadly speaking, going out and making a positive difference in the world. Social enterprise is a particular way of organizing to achieve that goal. Implicit in your question is whether the “social” conflicts with the “enterprise,” and there’s no question it can be a balancing act. The business is more complex because every decision includes asking how it impacts the mission, and because you have to be very strong operationally when you are contributing a significant portion of your revenues to social good. We’ve bridged the gap successfully because of the way we are set up—scaling the business by definition produces more social good—there’s no conflict of interest, in fact, just the opposite—the mission enables us to scale the business, and growing the business produces more positive social and environmental impact.

How do you combat negativity from people who say that social enterprise is greedy?

Consumers are rightly skeptical of business’s impact claims—there is a lot of green-washing out there. That is why we chose to become a B-Corporation, a certification with a high bar for social and environmental impact that requires passing a rigorous questionnaire, changing corporate by-laws to say the company will balance the needs of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and undergoing regular audits. The other thing I point out is that it is better to do well by doing good than to pursue pure profit as most corporations do. Capitalism is a powerful force for change in our world—if we can harness that force to address the needs of society and the planet, we can make a real difference.

Because we commit to and follow through on our social and environmental bottom lines, people trust us to do the right thing with the books they share with us. Our mission has directly contributed to our ability to acquire the books we sell because people know the sale supports literacy and creates a re-use opportunity—which is even better than recycling, of course. It also helps us to acquire and keep customers who buy books from us. There is a large and growing group of socially conscious consumers out there who want to vote with their dollars by shopping retailers who align with their values. Our mission aligns us perfectly with those consumers.

What’s ahead in the upcoming year for BWB?

We’ll be rolling out our Better World Book Drop Box program nationally, which is a major initiative for us. We’ve been piloting the program successfully in Atlanta and Northern Indiana where we have hundreds of drop boxes in place providing people an easy outlet for their unwanted books. Where we don’t have a drop box, people can still donate books by getting a free mailing label at BetterWorldBooks.com/donate. We’ve also been making some big improvements to BetterWorldBooks.com, and there are more changes in store there, so we’re very excited to be evolving the site into a world-class shopping experience.

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