“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.
So, 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.
Visit the GreenTeam website and you’ll find facts like “Americans create 4.5 lbs of garbage per day on average–that’s twice the level we created 30 years ago” and news of eBay’s partnership with Recycle Bank, an innovative recycling rewards program. It’s hard to imagine any other big company reminding people that “five plants would be required were everyone to adopt the lifestyle and consumption habits of the average North American.”
So what should we make of eBay’s sudden embrace of all things green? Well, first, let’s understand how and why eBay is going “green.” Unlike, say, Seventh Generation or Tesla Motors, eBay wasn’t created to solve an environmental problem. Nor did the company change its practices because of a reputational crisis, as Nike and Wal-Mart did.
You can think of eBay as inadvertently green, like Apple’s iTunes or Amazon’s Kindle. While Steve Jobs didn’t creat iTunes to eliminate CD packaging and Jeff Bezos doesn’t sell Kindles to save trees, they have had that effect. eBay, similarly, is an alternative to buying new stuff.
Its sustainability efforts started at the bottom. In 2007, the story goes, about 40 people got together over lunch in the company cafeteria. Before long, people were talking about eBay’s carbon footprint and persuading the procurement team to buy solar panels for the roof. (In 2008, PayPal, a division of eBay, turned on a 650kW solar installation at its headquarters. That’s the largest commercial installation in San Jose, California.) Amy joined in January 2008 to help lead the Green Team and the grass-roots efforts got a big push when John Donahoe became eBay’s CEO in March, 2008.”He intuitively understood eBay as the world’s largest recycler,” she says.
Since then, a couple of interesting things have happened. First, eBay got its internal act together. Last September, eBay announced that it would reduce its corporate greenhouse gas emissions by 15% over a 2008 baseline.
Last year, too, the company invited customers to join its Green team. About 125,000 people have signed up, and some have come up with constructive ideas. “We’ve got what we think is the first ever corporate-sponsored community garden, on our campus in Omaha, Nebraska,” Amy says.
Now the company is communicating the environmental benefits of buying used stuff. It hired an environmental consulting firm called Cooler to calculate the impact of buying used, as opposed to new, products. Amy emailed me an example the other day:
Buying a pre-owned smart phone on eBay saves 94% of the carbon associated with going to the mall and buying a new one. That’s like not driving 186 miles, or over 880 hours of laptop use.
Point taken. If you have to buy, better to buy used than new. If eBay can get consumers to reconsider the need for another trip to the mall, that’s good. “Part of shifting consumer’s mindsets means saying that used doesn’t mind cruddy,” Amy says. “Used can mean getting a DeLonghi expresso maker that you otherwise couldn’t afford.” Better yet would be to consider whether you need an expresso machine at all.