How eBay Harnesses Users & Employees to Make Shopping Greener

How eBay Harnesses Users & Employees to Make Shopping Greener

If there's one, top-level truth about the state of green business, it's that no matter how much innovation companies are doing to reduce their impacts or improve the greenness of their products, it's that most individuals are not willing to pay more for a sustainable product.

So it's perhaps fitting that eBay was one of the companies on stage this morning at the third and final GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco. CEO John Donahoe took the stage this morning to discuss how a company that was not founded with green in mind has benefited from the green passions of its employees and users.

"[eBay founder] Pierre Omidyar did not found it as a green company, but as a way to connect buyers and sellers," Donahoe said. "And the story of eBay is the story of empowering a community and watching the community take the company in places no one would have guessed."

We've covered some of those innovations extensively on GreenBiz.com: First was the Cradle to Cradle-certified shipping box -- the first of its kind, developed in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service. Then came the 100 percent reusable shipping box. Next up: Instant Sale for used electronics, which aims to make it easier to keep gadgets out of landfills. And eBay also recently partnered with clothing maker Patagonia to encourage people to buy less, and buy used.

The connective tissue among all these projects is that they were generated by eBay's community of users, whether employees or users of the website.

"We had a green team come up organically in eBay," Donahoe said. "And now 2,400 people are part of it, and they're coming up with things that can make us more sustainable in our business model."

The partnership with Patagonia came from an eBay employee meeting a Patagonia employee at a business conference; the idea to install Bloom Energy fuel cell boxes on the company's campus was similarly employee-generated -- and now eBay gets 16 percent of its campus' energy use from renewables, thanks to the Bloom boxes.

eBay has benefited from the enthusiasm of its community of buyers and sellers -- Donahoe boasts 300,000 members of the Green.eBay.com site, and counts them all among members of his green team. And Donahoe said sellers and buyers are regularly sharing best practices for minimizing the impacts of shipping products purchased online.

Some of the ideas to come out of those suggestions include the Cradle to Cradle box, as well as the reusable shipping box.

"We view our job to enable [these discussions]," Donahoe said, "to make it as easy as possible to engage in idea generation and sharing, then we back ideas."

Donahoe extolled the benefits of having such a loose-knit green team, both internally and externally, and said he wouldn't dream of changing how it was structured.

"The worst thing I could do would be to make it official -- I think it'd lose its energy," he said. "People are more engaged when they own something. When our community thinks it's their idea, they bring energy and enthusiasm to it."

He added later: "I think the role of senior management is to enable them, to empower them, to let them self-organize and self-navigate, and when they come back with good ideas, encourage them."

Donahoe said that many of their best ideas, both internal and external to eBay, came from younger people, and how the younger generations' beliefs hint at where sustainability is headed. He shared an example from the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week, where he attended the sustainability track at the gathering of global economic leaders.

Partway through the event, Donahoe said, "this 25-year-old Japanese woman, she said, 'In my generation, I don't like to be called a consumer. I don't feel like I consumer; I use things -- I'm a user."

The shift in language from consumption to use is one that underscores how eBay approaches sustainability, in part through enabling second -- or third, or fourth -- lives from products that may have been intended to have just one.

And while Donahoe recounted some of eBay's many successes, he also made it clear that he knows the company has a long way to go to make truly world-changing impacts.

"I'm not saying we're great, I wear a lot of humility when we talk about green," he said. "I enjoy this journey, [the eBay green team members] know I care, and the green team is recruiting others, encouraging each other."

Photo CC-licensed by eBay.