overall rating:



Frances Osborne
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t’s relatively well-known that Amazon is not a particularly ethical place to buy books. If you want to avoid Amazon, you may consider buying books from Waterstones - the UK’s largest bookseller - online or in one of their stores. Because I don’t like Amazon so much, I really wanted to give a higher rating to a common alternative. But their current statements don’t justify this. When researching their ethics, I was particularly struck by how little information there was about sustainability issues. Perhaps it was buried by search results for books about these topics, but Waterstones also only had a few statements in their About and Policies webpages. They have a few statements about modern slavery, electronics recycling, gender pay gaps and tax compliance. However, these are largely legal requirements and the gender pay gap has not been reported for three years. They have also partnered with charities to promote reading and make it accessible. At the same time, Waterstones booksellers (the staff in their stores) have called for higher pay multiple times in recent years, and booksellers also criticised a delayed response to COVID-19 in early 2020. Overall, I found the lack of transparency and information concerning. Waterstones could do more to address their impact, socially and environmentally, as it’s currently very unclear. With books about sustainability often in their storefronts, Waterstones should try to embody these principles more. I recognise that Waterstones is one of the most widely accessible stores, and is often the only bookstore in many places. If you have other options, I would not recommend Waterstones, especially not over a library.

Please note that while I consider their supply chain policies, this review focuses on their product as the ‘service of selling books’ not the books themselves, or the cafes that are in their stores.

What it's made of:


Waterstones service is based around their online app, website and over 280 stores across the UK. In recent years, their brand image is of a more upmarket store, where booksellers can provide good recommendations and tailor the stock to their customers. I could not find any information about carbon neutrality in their stores, their offices, or servers for their online operations. From my experience, I know a lot of stores are in older buildings in the centre of towns. With buildings contributing to a lot of the UK’s carbon emissions, these stores could be a major source of carbon emissions. Because there’s no accessible information on this, I can only guess how Waterstones are responding to climate change. In their stores, they primarily sell books and do not sell e-readers. Waterstones also sell gifts, games, stationery, tote bags and reading accessories like bookmarks. Their Modern Slavery statement states that much of this is from UK based suppliers, so is less likely to be produced under unethical conditions for workers. Overall, Waterstones could be more transparent about how they ensure ethical practice in their supply chains and the impacts of their storefronts, virtual or brick-and-mortar.

How it's made:


Waterstones’ delivery logistics are managed by Unipart. One beneficial activity of Unipart’s work has been better forecasting of trends to reduce the number of books held in inventory. This reduces the amount of space needed for storing books, thereby reducing warehouse environmental impacts and waste produced from unsold books. This is important as waste can have negative health impacts for communities living nearby and because the decomposition of a book could be twice as many carbon emissions as its production. Another social issue is about their workers. In 2019, over a thousand authors and Waterstones booksellers signed petitions asking for the staff in stores to be paid a living wage. A living wage is an estimate of an hourly rate that would cover the costs of living. Waterstones responded by pointing out their progressive pay scale, and that raising the wages of the lowest-paid workers would require increasing everyone’s wages- something that they could not afford financially. Last year, Waterstones staff were furloughed during the pandemic. The furlough scheme meant that staff were paid 80% of their normal wages, which the UK government for. A petition emerged again from staff, asking for the furlough amount to be topped up to minimum wage. Again, Waterstones responded with how it was not financially responsible. As time progresses, Waterstones moves further from its economic struggles in the 2000s and more high street UK shops are paying their staff living wages. This makes their responses feel a bit hollow to me. Many booksellers working in Waterstones are hired there because they have expertise- they know a lot about books, some of them have degrees related to literature, and they are particularly good at customer service. I think anyone should be paid well, but the jobs in Waterstones are clearly skilled work. It would be useful to know how many staff members earn less than a living wage and how long it takes to move up the progressive pay scale. Currently, their processes are making sustainable moves in logistics, particularly around efficiency. But I am not sure this is enough alone, and the people providing their service don’t seem to be paid enough. 

Who makes it:


Despite these pay issues, Waterstones is also commended for their staff relations. They do allow more autonomy for store managers than many retailers. Each month Waterstones selects books they want all stores to have, but the managers have the ability to tailor these books and select others for local audiences. This means Waterstones often stocks books for local tastes, and run their stores accordingly. For a bookstore, empowering local managers can foster the stores as community spaces as well as places for purchases. Concerning equity, its website has a Gender pay gap statement from 2018. The mean pay gap for hourly pay was 11%. Most of this came from more men being in the executive, as shown by their other statistics. I think this kind of pay gap takes time to resolve, and it could have improved since then. However, there has been no report since 2018. This continues Waterstones lack of transparency about their ethics. There is also no statements around other aspects of inclusivity for staff. I did not find any easily accessible statements about race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, gender identity, or other characteristics that workplaces can discriminate against. There is a lack of transparency again, and for that reason, I can’t score their services highly.