Ebay: Internet Provides Retailers a Lean, Green Route to Success

by Rebecca Smith Hurd on April 7, 2011
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The death of mom-and-pop shops has been greatly exaggerated. Although some have blamed online shopping for their ostensible demise, the internet is actually restoring opportunities for independent retailers. That’s the argument being made by Ebay and Cooler in a report about how small virtual sellers are key to the nation’s economic and environmental revival. It’s easy to counter that of course they would say that. After all, Ebay is the world’s largest online marketplace for used goods, and Cooler is a consulting firm that strives to turn every purchase into a global-warming solution. Yet the two companies make a fairly convincing argument in their report.

“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,” the report says. “By redefining the retail experience — eliminating the bricks-and-mortar store and parts of its underlying supply chain — the smallest [operations] have introduced new approaches and notable climate-related savings into the retail equation.”

What’s more: “Conversations with several Ebay sellers reveal some of the choices that make them extra-green, and how most of those choices came from the desire for extra margin per sale. Using creative ways to solve cost issues led to green philosophies that in turn led to more sales and more profit.”

In other words, in addition to producing tangible environmental benefits, the online model gives entrepreneurs advantages in the marketplace. It often takes a lot less money to get — and keep — a virtual store up and running than a physical one, and enables sellers to reach potential buyers nationwide (or worldwide, as the case may be).

Meanwhile, Ebay itself has emerged as an industry leader in sustainable business. In 2007, a group of 40 employees started the company’s Green Team to make the company’s operations environmentally friendly. Their grassroots effort has since grown to include nearly 2,500 employees in more than 20 different nations who support local green causes in their communities and support sustainable business practices within Ebay. In 2009, the company invited its buyers and sellers to participate, and that number rapidly multiplied. The Green Team today comprises 225,000-plus members.

The Green Team is the driving force behind programs such as Instant Sale, which aims to reduce electronic waste by encouraging the recycling of mobile devices on a massive scale. (Ebay has some 90 million active users.) With Instant Sale, Ebay users can offer up unwanted cell phones, PDAs, or other gadgets to Ebay’s network of resellers that deal in used and refurbished electronics. Users provide their device’s make and model, plus a few details about its condition. When they receive and accept a cash offer, Ebay supplies a free shipping label, and funds are transferred to their Paypal account, typically within a week.

“Our hope is for the program to not only bring electronics recycling to the mainstream, but put cash in the pockets of Ebay buyers and sellers, and help to streamline the selling experience for them,” the Green Team says on its blog.

The company is also pilot-testing the Ebay Box, a durable shipping vessel that’s designed for repeated reuse. The cardboard boxes, available in three sizes, are made of 100 percent recycled materials. Ebay estimates that if every box gets reused at least five times, the product will save nearly 4,000 trees, 2.4 million gallons of water, and enough energy to power 49 homes for a year. (For another way to green your mail and save money, check out this writer’s recent post on ecoEnvelopes.)

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