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.”

Next page: PR spin, or a new generation of reporting?