Are Book Subscription Boxes Bad for the Environment?

Are Book Boxes Bad for the Environment?

Book subscription boxes only seem to have grown in popularity over the years. The basic premise is that subscribers sign up for one month or more and, each month, a surprise book is delivered to their door, along with a mystery assortment of bookish or themed merchandise: candles, stickers, bookmarks, tea, soap, magnets, mugs, pouches, pillowcases, etc. Some book boxes reveal their contents ahead of time, or let readers choose from a list of books, so that recipients can feel more confident that the box contains items they will use and enjoy. Other book boxes are all about the element of surprise.

The subscription box is a brilliant type of marketing because it combines the love of books not only with the thrill of surprise (that hope that something good will appear–the kind of feeling one gets from endlessly scrolling social media), but also with elements both of FOMO and elitism. That is, readers may subscribe to the boxes partly because they fear on missing out on exclusive items, but also maybe because buying the box signals to others that they are readers–that reading is an integral part of their identity, so much so that they are willing to spend money on limited edition bookish merchandise. All of this, of course, also ties into the consumerism that many in the bookish world lament–consumerism that results because people feel the need to buy a lot books (or book-related items) to showcase on their blogs or social media feeds, in order to look trendy and gain more followers. Tapping into the fears and desires of their target audience is what makes book subscription boxes so popular.

However, as conversations about environmentalism and conservation grow, the question arises of whether subscription boxes are potentially harming the environment. The boxes, after all, are filled with products that the recipients might not even want (since they are a surprise). And, even if the subscribers do enjoy some of the products, at some point, a person can indeed own too many candles, mugs, pillowcases, and other knickknacks. Recent news articles and books keep sounding the alarm that the world cannot recycle their way out of an environmental crisis–not when the United Nations reports that, “Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest β€” 79% β€” has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.” Much of what subscribers do not want in a box, if it cannot be regifted, will likely end up in a landfill. And that is not the only environmental cost; the energy and materials used to produce the unwanted, unneeded goods must be considered, as well.

As a result of increased awareness about the ineffectiveness of recycling initiatives, the conversation around reducing one’s environmental impact has moved towards suggesting that the best way to do so is simply to buy less. If a person does not need an item, they should not buy it. Subscription boxes are full of products not only that may not be needed, but also that may not be wanted. Yes, a new candle might be something one would enjoy, or a mug something one might need. But what if the candle is not a scent someone would have chosen, or what if they think the mug is ugly? The element of surprise–that feeling that draws people to purchase subscription boxes for the thrill–is also the element that means a lot of people are buying stuff they might not even like or use. And those products might just end up in a landfill, even with one’s best attempts to regift or donate.

Does this mean that people should give up on subscription boxes completely? Not necessarily. Buying something as a treat for one’s self or someone else can bring a moment of joy. And these boxes could also help inspire a love of reading for those who enjoy the anticipation around each box. But it is important, too, to be mindful about purchases and whether those purchases are really worth it. Will the products be enjoyed? Will they be used? If not, perhaps they are not worth buying.

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41 thoughts on “Are Book Subscription Boxes Bad for the Environment?

  1. Mint says:

    What an interesting topic for a discussion post!

    My general view is that environmental problems cannot be solved at the individual level, and I tend to be very skeptical of the ability for anti-consumption activism to make a real impact on environmental problems.

    Still, I think the message of carefully considering what you buy and the impact of what you buy isn’t a bad one. It’s more sustainable and it’ll help you save money in the long-term too. The surprise and my own personal pickiness is a big reason why I don’t buy book subscription boxes.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think it’s true that companies are by far the biggest polluters. It’s really horrifying to see, for example, the mountains of clothing in landfills that come from fast fashion because the company didn’t sell the items or because they want to artificially create “scarcity.” I do think it’s easy to look at that and think, “Well, why should I bother bring my reusable tote bags to the grocery store?” On the other hand, I think if EVERY individual were more environmentally conscious, it would make a difference. If I personally don’t use a straw, that doesn’t really mean anything. If every single person on the planet stopped using single-use straws for the rest of their lives (barring people who need them for medical reasons, etc.), I can see it making an impact, even if it’s not as great companies changing their habits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        Yeah, I definitely agree that companies need to stop creating waste. And they need to stop acting like it’s the role of consumers to make them stop creating waste. Many companies aren’t very transparent about their impact on the environment, so saying, “But there was no public outcry about what we do, so it’s okay!” is disingenuous. But I also think there is some value on an individual level in being more conscious of what we buy. If a lot of people make little changes, it could add up!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. JamieAdStories says:

    I think as long as the items have recyclable elements it should be fine. Also as long as they are not flown around on planes as these are the most impactful non-environmental means of travel.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think the issue is, as Krysta points out, that the vast majority of things that are recyclable are never actually recycled. Even if I, for example, put a plastic yogurt container in my recycling can at home and watch the recycling truck pick it up and haul it away, there is a significant chance it will not be recycled; the city will bring my yogurt can to a landfill instead. Some cities don’t even bother trying to recycle things and just bring the truck to the landfill immediately. Others sort of try to recycle, but if they decide that the load is “contaminated” by something, they just throw all the items in a landfill instead of trying to sort out what can still be recycled. Hence environmentalism’s new emphasis on reducing what one uses in the first place, rather than recycling.

      As for planes, it’s hard to say, but a lot of boxes ship internationally, so they might have to ship someone’s box from the US to Europe, and the box creators order items to put in the boxes from a wide variety of artists, who may live in different countries, so I’d say it’s pretty likely that some item in the box was on a plane at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    This is interesting. I’m always tempted get a book box for myself but then I feel they are too pricey and in the money of one box I can get 4 or 5 books from Amazon. I know box contains other things and I would like them but at the same time I feel books are more important than other bookish things. At the end, I keep saying to myself I will get them in future when I don’t have to think about price and just enjoy it.

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  4. Rosie Amber says:

    Subscription boxes have never appealed to me because of all those ‘extras’. The book may interest me but rarely anything else. I’m rarely enthusiastic about book swag either. I think you’ve made some great points here. 79% of waste going into landfill etc is very shocking, we are killing the planet.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I’m at the point where I am actively trying to NOT pick up any more swag. I get a free T-shirt? Nope! Take it back! I don’t need 60 T-shirts!

      Like

  5. dinipandareads says:

    Great discussion post topic! I’ve only ever had one subscription box at a time (first OC and now Illumicrate) and while over the years I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the merchandise they get, I’ve always (luckily) ended up using the items that I receive. I guess it does make a diff being subbed to one box so I don’t get an abundance of items each month. If there are items I don’t like I usually find a friend/family member who’s more than willing to use it instead. Being international does mean that it’s more expensive (it’s very much a privilege, I know) but it’s also not easy to come across bookish merch in Indonesia, so I always enjoy receiving a bunch of items in one box! 😊

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think it makes sense to make purchases that we enjoy! And that’s the criteria I try to use for myself. Just being mindful of what I am buying and if I actually want it, or it just looked good for the few minutes it was staring at me in its shiny package at the story.

      Like

  6. Janette says:

    What a great discussion post. I haven’t ever had a subscription like this and one reason is that I don’t want to acquire any more ‘stuff’. I do believe that we need to buy less. If there is less demand for things then companies will manufacture less and that’s when it starts to have an impact.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it seems companies keep suggesting that consumers have to pressure them to change. If we all withhold our money from companies that we think are making a negative impact on the environment, I would hope they would consider that pressure! I am trying to buy less, too, to encourage companies to stop producing stuff we don’t need. But, of course, I’m just one person!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. vee_bookish says:

    “Buying something as a treat”

    This is another problem that relates back to FOMO. You can’t just buy a box as a treat – you have to sit on a waiting list for months before you get a chance to sign up, which adds to the pressure of not cancelling, because you’ll lose your spot and have to go back on the wait list if you do. It’s hard to know if a super rare book or item will be coming up – I had to scour depop for days to get the Illumicrate edition of Little Thieves!

    Like

  8. Emma @ Turn Another Page says:

    These are exactly the reasons why I don’t commit to subscription boxes anymore, and on the rare occasion I do order one now, I go for A Box of Stories (a UK based service) because it only contains books (4 in total) and books that are at risk of being destroyed because they’ve not had the same marketing hype. It’s the most sustainable one I’ve found and I don’t think the price is that bad either.

    Like

  9. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I have bought a couple book boxes, but I definitely try to determine ahead of time whether there is a book in the box I want and items in the box I want.

    I agree that people who subscribe long-term often seem to end up with a sizable quantity of items they don’t want. I frequently see people on Twitter, for example, trying to sell 25 candles or a boxful of art prints and buttons . . . and it often seems as if no one else wants the items either. They certainly don’t want to buy the items for whatever people are asking.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it makes sense to me to get a box on occasion or to try to get a box you think you’d particularly enjoy. I know some people who switch subscriptions to different boxes because they’re tired of accumulating too much stuff they can’t use. So maybe they subscribe to a makeup box for a year and then, when they have way too much mascara, they switch to a coffee box or something.

      Like

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        I’ve read similar things about makeup boxes and how people suddenly realized they had a whole cabinet of things they weren’t using. Like, one person can only use so much mascara, and if you find a brand you like, it makes sense to just stick with it.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, the person I know with the makeup box gave up on it pretty quickly because she was getting too much of the same product, but also colors that didn’t suit her and products she didn’t even normally use.

          Like

  10. Bargain Sleuth Book Reviews says:

    Great discussion topic! I’m one of those that has tried subscription boxes for not just books, but for other products as well, and every time I have, the excess packaging is one of the things that put me off. I am
    slowly getting rid of the books I’ve accumulated over the course of a lifetime and buying the ebooks or audiobooks of my favorites. Same thing with new releases: I buy the ebook or audiobook because it’s more environmentally friendly AND keeps the clutter out of my house.

    Like

  11. whatcathyreadnext says:

    I agree with you that the extras that come in subscription boxes are often wasteful. Apologies if you’ve covered this before in other discussion posts but there is an argument that physical books themselves don’t help the environment because of the inputs – paper, ink – and energy required to produce them. Perhaps ebooks or audiobooks are the most environmentally friendly option. Not so pretty on the shelves, I grant you. I wonder if there subscription “boxes” that include virtual treats such as vouchers alongside digital copies of books?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s actually a really good point! I haven’t delved into the specifics of ebooks vs. physical books in terms of environmental impact. But the reality is that pretty much everything does have an impact of some sort, and it can get very confusing trying to sort out what the best option is. I think that’s in part why much advice has moved to focusing on the “Reduce” part of the “Reduce, reuse, reycycle” mantra. Reducing consumption is seemingly the most effective way to lessen our impact. Maybe for books “reuse” can be part of that cycle, too–buying secondhand or using the library, when possible. But, of course, that also has an impact on the book market. Many people want to buy new in order to support authors they enjoy. There’s apparently a pro and a con to everything.

      Like

  12. Emily @frappesandfiction says:

    wow thank you for writing this post! I have never used a book subscription box because I prefer to read ebooks and go to the library– the consumerism in the book community has always seemed a bit obnoxious to me, and that’s why I don’t really post on bookstagram anymore (I ain’t buying all those books lol)
    However I never really thought about the environmental impact. I’ve never been someone who thought too much about the environment– it’s embarrassing to admit, but I was always the “oh one plastic straw can’t possibly hurt the planet” kind of person. But recently, I have been learning about the sheer amount of trash that is produced every day and where it goes and I have been *horrified*– I’m trying to do more research on how I can improve my habits.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I always thought, like most people I assume, that recycling and donating to thrift shops was good enough. Then a few years ago it came out that the U.S. isn’t able to ship our recycles overseas anymore and a lot of it ends up in landfills or being incinerated. And then I read an article (which I tried to locate a few days ago and couldn’t) that claimed a lot of what we donate to secondhand shops might be going to landfills and not being sold. So now the conversation has moved from “recycle” to “reduce” and “reuse.”

      It’s a hard shift to make because everything’s been about recycling for years and just tossing stuff in a green or blue bin was easy! Rethinking consumerism is hard!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Emily @frappesandfiction says:

        I just never really thought about stuff– I knew that there was a lot of pollution and etc caused by consumerism but I thought the media was exaggerating it like they exaggerate lots of things for views– but then I learned stuff like the fact that a lot of clothing companies BURN millions of dollars worth of their unsold clothes and I just can’t even comprehend how stupid and wasteful that is. I don’t buy very many clothes, but now I only want to shop at thrift stores. Really I just think a lot of people fall into the trap of “social loafing” like I did: “oh, I’m just one person, let other people fix it”

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          That’s true! Especially when it seems like so much waste comes from companies and we need regulations and it’s easy to hope someone else looks into that for the rest of us.

          Like

  13. Jewish Young Professional "JYP" says:

    I’ve heard of beauty subscription boxes and food subscription boxes and styling boxes for clothes/accessories, but this is the first I’ve heard of a book subscription box. I’ve never been into subscription boxes because there are too many things that I wouldn’t be interested in.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      It seems like there is a subscription box for just about everything! But I agree. I haven’t ordered one so far because I am worried I wouldn’t like the stuff inside. And I don’t want to spend money on items I’m not sure I’d be enthusiastic about.

      Like

  14. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I think that in general, overconsumption is bad for the environment (e.g. buying print books instead of borrowing them from the library if you’re only going to read the book once). But at the same time, the author benefits from the sales and marketing, as well as any small shop owners supplying the non-book items.

    It’s hard to strike a balance, I think…

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s the dilemma! There’s a pro and a con to everything! We do need people to buy books to support authors, of course. But then, I don’t want to buy stuff I won’t use. So I usually try to compromise where, if I buy a book, I pass it on if I can’t see myself rereading it. It’s so tricky to figure out the impact we have on everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. kamifurr says:

    This is exactly why I chose the subscription box that I did. It only comes with a book, and I get to choose one out of five books to be sent to me. I know what I’m getting, and I like that it doesn’t come with a bunch of swag that will end up in the garbage.

    Like

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