Here’s an example of environmentalism-as-show-offy activity: this outfit called Eco-Libris will sell you paper offsets for the books you buy. For $1, they’ll arrange to have someone plant a tree on your behalf; they suggest buying a tree for each book you own.
They sent me this flattering e-mail asking me to feature them on my site, and I thought I’d oblige.
Reading a lot is part of my job. I have a lot of books, and I’ve divested myself of plenty more when I’ve moved house a couple of times in the last five years. But even so, all told, I’d guesstimate I’ve taken down maybe 10 trees in my entire book-reading career. Call it 20, just to be on the safe side. (Newspapers are a different story, although newsprint is highly recyclable and anyway newspaper offsets aren’t what Eco-Libris is selling.) There’s no way you make a profit selling $20 worth of offsets to somebody like me, though — you have to take it up a notch, and invite people to buy a $1 whole-tree offset for every single book they buy, which would take my paper bill into the thousands of dollars.
How do you disengage the cost of paper offsets from the amount of paper prospective customers actually own? By offering something a bit different from a promise to replace the paper consumed by one book. To buy a whole tree to balance off the paper in one book, I need it to make me feel green, to believe I’m doing something super-good for the planet, and it’s even better if you give me a way to show off that I’m doing so.
That opportunity to show off comes in the form of a sticker. From Eco-Libris’s Blogspot blog:
As the ex-libris was an elegant way to show the identity of the book owner and her (or his) appreciation of the book, we hope to see Eco-Libris stickers become the new way book owners present their identity, saying: hey, i love this book, but i also care about the environment. i am trying to live more sustainably. That’s who i am!
Eco-Libris appears to me to be mostly a marketing organization: their key function is to convince you that books are environmentally harmful and that you need to do something about it. You give them money, they give some of the money to actual tree-planters, and you get mailed a sticker to put in a book or wear on your face or otherwise place wherever you think it’ll do the most good:
The Eco-Libris sticker, which is made from recycled paper, is designed for you to put on the cover of the books you balance out, to show your commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources. We hope you show off these books and inspire your family, friends and colleagues to take responsibility for their books as well.
Presumably by making a secure online purchase from Eco-Libris’s extremely convenient website.
For an extra warm green feeling, Eco-Libris’s “planting partners” work in deforested parts of Africa and Central America. Mind you, there most of the tree-cutting is to clear land for agriculture — not particularly to feed the North American and European publishing industry’s hunger for wood pulp. Albeit some of the stuff does end up on the market, but that’s not why the trees get cut down.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s astonishingly detailed statistics database reveals that Latin America and the Caribbean, where two of Eco-Libris’s three planting partners work, exported about 7.7 million tonnes of pulp for paper in 2005 (having produced about 17 million tonnes). Meanwhile, Canada produced about 25 million tonnes and the United States 53 million tonnes, most of it for domestic consumption. If we’re really trying to offset the paper used in books, it’s not Malawi and Guatemala where the work needs to get done.
“There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it,” the company quotes Bertrand Russell in one of many loosely book-related lines across the tops of the pages on its website. Boasting is definitely key here, for all concerned.
In the end, I’m certainly not saying not to buy in. More trees in deforested placed? Good thing. Stickers advertising care for the environment? Can’t really be bad. But for my taste and wallet, there’s too much room between the intrinsic value of what Eco-Libris sells and the price it’s asking.