2. The number of e-books the average user is reading?
This is also an important figure required for the analysis, as it helps to estimate the effectiveness of the Kindle in replacing paper books. The author decided to use the estimation of Forrester, which is that each consumer purchases three e-books a month, or total of 36 e-books a year. She then explains: “..so by adopting Forrester’s rate of three e-books a month, we forecast that the average consumer would purchase 144 e-books in four years, potentially displacing 1,074 kg of CO2.”
Based on that number and the assumption that every 1.6 e-books purchased replace 1 paper book, she gets to the figure of 22.5 books a year which is the breakeven point – you read more on your Kindle and you’re making it officially a greener alternative.
But will users read so many e-books? I doubt. This number is related to the number of books readers read (unless your assumption is that readers will read much more when they switch to e-books which is not the case here) and the number of books read in average tell a different story.
According to the report 1 billion books are sold every year in the U.S. With a population of about 300 million people it means every person in the U.S. is reading about 3.3 books a year (including babies which actually have many books, sometimes more than the average adult..). So as you can see there’s some difference between 3.3 books per a person, which is based on real figures and the estimation of the report – 36 books per a person.
Now, it might be that Forrester’s estimation (36 books) is correct, but it relates only to the avid readers which are the early adopters of the Kindle devices. What can happen to this number of books when 14.5 million units of e-readers will be sold in 2012? the report explains “Forrester estimates that each consumer purchases three e-books a month but that the average will drop when lower e-reader prices entice casual readers. Alternately, average purchases could increase as more books become available in electronic forms.”
Still, is it OK to use the figure of 36 books per a year as the average number of books read by users? How many people you know who read 3 books every month? I decided to further check it and found a survey of AP in 2007 that found the following: “A quarter of US adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year and, excluding those who had not read any books at all, the usual number of books read was seven.”
Another source is the ‘Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry‘, which mentions that 3.1 billion books were sold in 2006, which is an average of about 10 books per a person.
So even if we take the higher alternative estimation of 10 books per a year, we get that instead of getting fully offset after the first year of use, a Kindle is getting offset only after 2.25 years of use.
The bottom line of the report is very clear:
The roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle is a clear winner against the potential savings: 1,074 kg of CO2 if replacing three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle DX. Less-frequent readers attracted by decreasing prices still can break even at 22.5 books over the life of the device.
So is the debate over? I’m afraid not. As much as the report contributes to clarify the debate on how green are e-readers, there are still some issues that need to be finalized as I showed here. I’m afraid that declaring the Kindle as a clear winner is still too early. The key to the podium is still in hands of Amazon – if they’ll provide us with their data on the Kindle’s footprint and maybe even life cycle analysis it would be then the right time to claim a winner.