eBay: Our merchants are good for the Earth

The auction giant releases the results of a report about the environmental benefits of its small-seller business model. Is it legit or just some image-boosting?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

Silicon Valley corporations are known for touting their arrays of environmentally friendly internal initiatives, but eBay is taking it a step further by sponsoring a report that explains how its entire business model may promote sustainability and energy efficiency.

The report, which CEO John Donahoe will present Tuesday at a Washington, D.C., event, was conducted in partnership with a company called Cooler. The report found that "without the need for an actual store--or chains of them--the peer-to-peer retailer saves everything from the carbon cost of making bricks and other building materials to the ongoing costs of heating, lighting, and otherwise maintaining a retail space."

This, of course, is a positive pitch for eBay, which relies on a network of--you guessed it--small online sellers and is constantly looking to increase its buyer base in the midst of tighter competition in e-commerce. It's also an announcement that paints eBay's small-scale merchants as heirs apparent to mom-and-pop establishments of yore, making it a move that may also appeal to the ethos of a community with which eBay sometimes finds itself at odds.

"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," the report states. "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."

The results themselves are relatively self-explanatory; the report also delves into numbers calculating the carbon footprint of operating a brick-and-mortar store. "Seventy percent of retail operations' carbon footprint goes to electricity generation and the operations of external buildings, including warehouses and the buildings of vendors," the report states.

In June 2008, eBay announced via its "Green Team" blog that Cooler would be its partner in "the world's first comprehensive analysis of the global warming benefits of online trading, payments, and communications." eBay worked with Cooler on a promotion in April of this year to distribute a Facebook app that quizzes users on the environmental benefits of recycled and reused products.

eBay could do a lot more to accompany the study results, like further promote the fact that you can restrict your search to local sellers through its "Items Near Me" prompt, currently buried in a litany of Advanced Search options; or by devising some kind of certification to flag sellers who abide by a set of sustainability guidelines with regard to shipping, packaging, and other small-business principles.

This month, the company posted a Green Team blog entry unveiling what it calls "the eBay Box," an employee-submitted design for a reusable cardboard box targeted to frequent eBay sellers, and also highlighted an application developed to find energy-efficient cars to buy on eBay.