Inside eBay's opening bid on transparency

Inside eBay's opening bid on transparency

eBay has just issued its first sustainability report, or something to that effect — the company isn’t sure what, exactly, to call it. Like many other technology companies, it has chosen to do its own thing in its own way.

The online commerce company yesterday launched a website containing a set of goals under three categories: Creating Economic Opportunity, Enabling Greener Commerce and Powering Giving. It’s a forward-looking document, focusing on broad goals as well as specific three-year commitments, using 2012 as a baseline.

For example, by 2015, the company says it will:

  • Help more than 10,000 low-income entrepreneurs achieve increased financial returns.
  • Expand access to goods and services for more than 5 million people living in poverty.
  • Source at least 8 percent of eBay Inc.’s energy use from cleaner sources.
  • Realize 10 percent growth in number of users that engage with its “greener commerce” programs.
  • Double the number of customers that take action on behalf of a charity through the company’s giving programs and platforms.
  • Double the total value of funds generated for charitable organizations through eBay’s programs and platforms.
  • Double the number of charities that benefit from eBay’s giving programs and platforms.

In addition, the company said it will achieve a 10 percent reduction in carbon per transaction during 2013, “while incorporating environmental criteria into all global shipping vendor contracts.”

The complete set of commitments can be found in a downloadable “social innovation book.”

It’s an impressive document, with social and environmental benefits that hew closely to eBay’s core business goals: promoting commerce among individuals and small businesses, facilitating payments and generally supporting entrepreneurism and economic opportunity. Like many companies these days, eBay’s commitments are strategic in that they further the company’s interests through philanthropy, employee volunteerism and operational efficiencies.

In creating the website and accompany document, eBay has followed the path of other big consumer-facing tech companies, notably Facebook, Google and Apple. Each has chosen what most companies would consider non-traditional sustainability reports, foregoing traditional data-intensive formats. There’s no lengthy list of emissions or waste products, no comprehensive carbon footprint or corporate energy use figures, among other things you’d expect to find in a traditional sustainability or CSR report.

Instead, it skews toward storytelling.

“We wanted to tell the story our way, but we also recognize the responsibility that comes with being transparent, understanding what stakeholders expect of us and the responsibilities of being a global company,” Lauren Moore, eBay’s Head of Global Social Innovation, told me last week. “We don't fit the model of most of our neighbors and colleagues, and so there wasn't a model out there of a report that we said, ‘This is what we can emulate and try to do.’ We felt like we had to figure that out on our own.”

The end product, says Moore, “is much more about a future-looking vision and goal-setting to help drive us in a consistent direction and keep us on target for where we want to go.”

The report was the culmination of a yearlong analysis of the company's strategic program, Moore told me. “At the very end of the process, we landed on creating opportunity for people and looking at market-based solutions and technology-driven solutions. That’s what we would do.”

eBay’s report emphasizes impacts — that is, what difference the company is actually making. As such, you won’t find mention of water use or impacts, and only cursory discussions of e-waste disposal. Climate change and carbon emissions come up several times, but only in the context of company actions that are making a positive impact. You won’t find year-over-year comparisons; there’s little, if anything, about challenges or struggles the company is facing in addressing its environmental and social impacts.

Is it PR spin, or a new generation of reporting, one that puts a premium on positive stories over reams of metrics?

Says Moore: “We feel like there are some interesting conversations under way that some of the stakeholder groups are helping us have, to say, ‘What are the big ideas here? How do we think about the future?’ And focus in on the people-changing habits versus just the specific programs that might be creating some positive impact.”

I pointed out that the report glosses over or omits the “do-less-bad” data that most companies report — the incremental eco-efficiency improvements that companies tend to make on an ongoing basis.

“We could argue till we're blue in the face about whether water impacts should have made this list,” says Annie Lescroart, eBay’s Senior Manager, Global Stakeholder Engagement. “Hopefully, we will get some feedback, and maybe that's something that we should be focused on and be thinking about in the future. We probably will get some scrutiny on the do-less-bad stuff and what is or isn't included. But for the first year, we wanted to tackle the biggest offender, which is energy.”

Moore and Lescroart point out that the inspiration for this came from CEO John Donahoe. “His interest is how you leverage the business model for good,” explains Moore. “It doesn't mean we don't care about the checkboxes and where the bad is, but the idea is that we have an opportunity because of our unusual business model, and because of our growth and our vision, to change the way people think. And changing behavior and making sure that that's also part of our story.”

Like many other companies I talk to — both tech and non-tech — eBay’s principal audience for this report aren’t activists, customers or media, but employees. “What's really interesting is how many employees anecdotally say to us that these values-based impacts that eBay creates is why they joined the company in the first place,” says Moore. “But they might not know the full story; they don't know what's currently under way.” And the more that employees know, the more they want to get involved. “It has this amazing effect of people wanting to be involved in their day-to-day work and leveraging the business well beyond anything we could ever think of.”

It will be interesting to see the reader reaction outside the company — whether eBay’s efforts to be more transparent in the social and environmental outcomes of its operations are seen as an adequate expression of the company’s operations and impacts, or as a fig leaf that covers up critical parts of the picture.

If eBay’s exercise succeeds, it just might lead other companies to rethink their reports: whether data-dense documents provide the insight it takes to be seen as a leader, or whether what most stakeholders really want are positive stories of corporate change.