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How Dumpster Diving Can Be A New Business Metric

Picture a librarian hauling a heavy box of books out the back door of the library and down an alley under the cover of night.  After fifty feet or so, she stops and takes a sheepish look over her shoulder. Certain that she is alone, she sighs, lifts the box - and heaves it into a dumpster. With her head hung low, she returns to the library for another box, and repeats the process.

You're probably thinking: no way.  Librarians don't trash books.
But the truth is some have to, for want of a better option to handle their discards.  And no one is more troubled by it than the librarians themselves.

As a company whose core mission is to keep books in the use cycle, you can only imagine how stunned we were to hear librarians tell their dark secret.

But here's what we learned: librarians regularly need to make room for updated editions, yet struggle to find an easy and comprehensive way to move out old stock. They often do not have recycling contracts, and no environmentally responsible outlet for getting rid of their used books.

Some libraries have terrific Friends groups that sell some of the material, and some books can be donated, but often much remains.  Some libraries just don't have the resources to sell, donate, and find recyclers for these materials. Hence the late night dumpster runs.  

As we began to hear to this story again and again, it dawned on us: we had a major opportunity on our hands. Let me explain.

Better World Books collects discarded books destined for the trash, and resells them online, contributing a portion of all revenue to the organization that sent us the book in the first place, as well as one of our five non-profit literacy partners.

New metric:  The more used books we collect, the more we help the environment, the more empower our literacy partners and, of course, the more we boost our bottom line.

Before we heard the dumpster drama, our book acquisition strategy lay solely with college book drives - campus groups would host drives to raise money for their organizations and a good cause, while we gathered products to sell online. A solid model - and a scalable one for sure - but we wanted our impact to be even bigger.  We needed to find even more sources of unwanted books.

It was at the American Library Association conference that we first heard librarians admit they were sneaking out to the dumpster to throw books in the trash.  They just didn't have an outlet for the books they took out of circulation.

They saw that we had an ideal platform for selling those books to generate revenue for the library.  Suddenly, we were popular folks at that conference, and a major strategic decision for our business was born.

We gave it a shot and it worked. Encouraged, we brought the program to a library in our community. The program was off to a great start. 

Today our partnerships with libraries represent one of the most seamlessly win-win-win social impact business models out there.  It's a complete sustainability play - the outcome is better for libraries, the environment, our literacy partners, and our bottom line.

Today the library business is 250% the size of our campus book drive business, and continues to grow rapidly. We serve over 3,000 library systems in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Ireland, and to date, have raised over $4.5 million for libraries through our triple-bottom line business model.

Partnering with libraries is a decision that changed our business by an order of magnitude.  Ask any librarian we work with - and they'll tell you it sure beats the dumpster.


What new sources of value exist to boost your bottom line?  How do your social-sector or government partners integrate in your supply chain for creating new value?  Share your innovations below – and we will summarize them in Friday’s edition.


library discards

when there was a books-a-million in my hometown they sold library discards - none from our local library. our local friends of the library has a twice-yearly sale which consists of both discards and contributions. of course books have to be cleared out from libraries. libraries do not have infinite space. people have to clean out closets when new clothes are bought; librarians have to get rid of older books or books that have not been checked out in quite a while.

Thank you, Better World Books

Thank you, Better World Books & all library partners!! I love this!!!

Unimpressed by his colleagues boring MBAs, Chris is the Better World Books’ token philosopher and hails from the nonprofit world. He received a BA in philosophy at St. John’s University in Minnesota and a MA in continental philosophy at… [Read more about Chris Johnson]

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