Guess who’s coming to Brainstorm Green?

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference is more than just talk.

Ann Hand, the ceo of green-building startup Project Frog, recently told me that she met venture capitalist Chuck McDermott at the first Brainstorm Green in 2008. That helped lead to her current job. [See my blogpost, Project Frog’s Ann Hand: Disrupting construction ]

At Brainstorm Green 2010, Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor, got to talking with Scott Griffith, the ceo of Zipcar. That helped bring about a Ford partnership with Zipcar to get Ford cars onto college campuses.

Later, Ford and Zipcar together invested in Wheelz, a car-sharing startup whose ceo, Jeff Miller, spoke last year at Brainstorm Green. [See my blogpost, Car sharing, revving up]

Brainstorm Green is about making the connections that help drive market solutions to environmental problems. The people and the issues have changed over the years but the theme has remained constant: How can corporate America help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

With some interesting tweaks to our format, a new and improved Brainstorm Green will be back in 2013. Dates are April 29-May 1, and we’ll be back at the spectacular Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA. Our programming partners will be Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

We’ve been recruiting CEO-level speakers for a couple of months now, and have generated an enthusiastic response. Ted Turner, the legendary enterpreneur, environmentalist and philanthropist, has agreed to join us, and if you’ve never heard Ted speak, you’re in for a treat. [See my blogpost: Ted Turner: Telling it like it is] Ted is always entertaining but, more important, he’s nearly always right, whether the topic is global warming, nuclear disarmament or raising bison for his Ted’sMontana Grill restaurant chain.

Another headliner will be the big-thinking, green-minded (pun intended)  investor Jeremy Grantham, whose GMO asset management firm manages about $100 billion. “Global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future,” Grantham wrote in a letter to his investors a couple of years ago. If you don’t know much about him, read this excellent profile from The New York Times Magazine. He’s a fascinating guy who, like Ted, has been ahead of the curve more often than not. [click to continue…]

E-commerce: Good for the planet?

I’m not much of a shopper, but when I buy stuff, I prefer to do it online. I don’t like shopping malls, driving in traffic, crowded stores or dealing with “customer service” people. I do enjoy getting packages at home.

Now, it turns out, there may be another reason to shop online: E-commerce is a way to help  fight climate change.

So, at least, says eBay and a carbon-footprint consulting firm called Cooler, in a report due out today. (I’ll post a link to the report when it goes public.)  In particular, the report argues, eBay’s business of enabling peer-to-peer selling and small retailers generates significant environmental value. You’d expect eBay to say that, of course, but there’s logic behind the claim. The report says:

By minimizing infrastructure, reducing the need for warehousing, and maximizing transportation efficiency, small online retailers
have created a climate-friendly way to buy and sell. All-electronic, with no need for everything from mannequins to signage to giant rooftop air conditioning units, they have dematerialized considerable parts of the retail process.

John Donahoe

This morning, I’ll be moderating a discussion about the study at the National Press Club with John Donahoe, eBay’s president and CEO; Michel Gelobter, the founder of Cooler and author of the white paper; and Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. [Disclosure: eBay is paying me to host the event.] This Washington showcase for Donahoe, to which environmental leaders have been invited, is the latest effort by eBay’s  to position itself as an environmentally-friendly company, largely because it sells used products. [See my blogpost Why eBay is a green giant and this Greenbiz interview with Donahoe.] To its credit, eBay is also a founding member of BICEP, a coalition of companies pushing for climate change regulation.

I have to admit that I was skeptical about eBay’s claim that e-commerce is climate-friendly when I heard about it from Amy Skoczlas Cole, who leads eBay’s Green Team. After all, aren’t big retailers like Wal-Mart renowned for their efficiency, their logistics, their fine-tuned global supply chains? The economies of scale and all that? Well, yes, but peer-to-peer retailers–the small businesses supported by eBay–tend to be pretty efficient, too, because they have to be. (The last time I bought a book online from a small store, it came in a previously-used box.) These small e-tailers operate out of their own homes and garages. They don’t need big parking lots of warehouses. They ship by delivery services like UPS, FedEx and the post office which move goods around a lot more efficiently than suburban shoppers do when they drive to and from a big-box store.

They’re also a force in the economy. In 2009, the report says, peer-to-peer online sales operations generated more than $31 billion in sales and despite the recession, their revenues grew, as did their market share of all online sales, to about 20.9%.  Using admittedly rough estimates, the report says:

Compared to a single big box retail store grossing $100 million per year, the day-to-day operations of $100 million in sales through Web-based peer-to-peer marketplaces generate approximately 1,400 tons fewer CO2-equivalent emissions per year.

Three types are savings are significant, the report argues:

1. Without the need for stores, or chains of them, peer-to-peer retailing saves everything from the carbon cost of making bricks and cements to the everyday costs of heating and lighting retail spaces, not to mention the giant neon signs outside big box stores.

2. Warehousing in garages and spare rooms can eliminate big warehouses that eat up land and consume energy

3. Home deliver is more efficient than people driving mostly empty cars around.

I’ll be interested to learn more during today’s discussion. Did Cooler take the energy costs of operating the data centers than run the Internet, as well as individual home computers into account? How much of eBay’s business comes from the mom-and-pop retailers, and how much from big companies that operate warehouses and manage global supply chains? And, while the big box model has its obvious problems, shouldn’t “green” consumers at least consider supporting retailers like Walmart and Best Buy that use their clout to promote environmentally-friendly practices. (See Walmart, bully for good and Best Buy wants your electronic junk at fortune.com.) Will peer-to-peer sellers recycle phones as Sprint does, or support sustainable forestry practices as Staples does?

None of this is simple. I love the fact that eBay sells used stuff–that’s almost surely better than buying new–and I’ll remain a fan of Internet shopping. But let’s not forget that when it comes to saving the planet, the best buying decision we can make is not to buy at all.

Why eBay is a green giant

“These are J. Crew pants,” Amy Skoczlas Cole tells me, pointing at the gray slacks she’s wearing. “I bought them on eBay. A season old, worn once by the seller is what she told me. I’m not going to tell you what I paid for them, but I got a great deal.”

This is called walking the talk. Amy is head of  the eBay Green Team and a lifelong environmentalist, who spent nearly 15 years at Conservation International before joining the Silicon Valley e-commerce giant.

eBayGreenTeamSo, I asked her, did you buy the used pants because you work at eBay or because you are an environmentalist?

Neither, it turns out.  “I bought them,” she replied, “because I wanted a great deal on J. Crew pants.”

eBay, it turns out, is a unique position to do what other big companies and even big environmental groups cannot: It can urge people to consume less.

This is important because, despite what the sellers of compact fluorescent bulbs, stainless steel water bottles, bamboo bed sheets, and eco-friendly dish sponges will tell you, I’ve never believed we could shop our way to a greener planet. To the contrary: Buying more stuff depletes natural resources and generates carbon emissions, pollution and waste. Conventional consumption is a problem, not a solution. (See Wanted: A Cultural Revolution.)

But shopping on eBay, arguably, is different. One mantra of environmentalism is reduce, reuse and recycle. And no one–not even Goodwill or the Salvation Army–does more to promote reuse than eBay. EBay sells $2,000 worth of  junk previously-owned merchandise per second, Amy tells me. “Barely used is as good as new” is how the company puts it in commercials like this one. Or, as she says: “The greenest product is the one that already exists.”

“Our single minded mission is to build a movement in society to use what already exists,” Amy says. “Very few companies can stand up and say to consumers, let’s use what exists in the world today.”

Interestingly, eBay has begun to explore the idea of “sustainable consumption” — if that’s not an oxymoron. [click to continue…]