How Shopping Could Help to Save the Planet – With eBay’s Amy Skoczlas Cole

Fresh off her talk at the New Models of Social Responsibility summit, Amy Skoczlas Cole, director of The eBay Green Team, took some time to answer my questions about creating a replicable program, optimizing employee engagement and saving the planet through shopping.

As the director of The eBay Green Team, Amy works to engage eBay’s 89 million users to buy sustainably and economically by reusing and repurposing products.  Prior to joining eBay, she co-founded Conservation International’s Environmental Leadership in Business to help companies align their interest in environmental responsibility and profit.  During this time, she spent three years in Rio de Janeiro engaging Brazilian companies in environmental responsibility. Amy has launched partnerships with Starbucks, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Intel, Office Depot, Aracruz Celulose, Fiji Water and Bank of America.

causecapitalism_AmySkoczlasColeAmy, you spent three years working with companies in Brazil to increase their environmental efforts. Are there differences in how South American and U.S. companies think about sustainability?

What astonishes me is that corporate responsibility is truly a global movement, without boundaries.  If you had told me, when I first started in this space in the mid 1990s, that 15 years later we’d see companies of all sizes, in all geographies, looking at how they can improve their environmental and social practices, I would have laughed.  There’s obviously a lot more work everyone can do, and different companies are in different places in the journey to embed sustainability into their core business strategies and business decision-making, but the momentum is clearly there.  In Brazil, I worked with a group called Instituto BioAtlantica, which was co-founded by some of the largest Brazilian companies, which shows awareness for this issues from the corporate sector.

What is your vision for the eBay Green Team in 10 years?

Ten years is a long time for a company that’s only 14 years old!  But our vision is clear.  We want the eBay Green Team to be a catalyst for bringing truly greener, smarter shopping into the mainstream–and for keeping it there.  In most cases, the greenest product is the one that already exists, but people don’t necessarily think about this today.  With a community of 89 million active users who trade $2,000 worth of goods on eBay every second, we have a unique opportunity and, as we see it, a responsibility.  Seemingly small actions really can add up to a big difference when taken together.  We’ve seen this firsthand with our employee Green Team, which was one of the inspirations for our larger initiative.  Together, those 2,300 eBay employees have driven greener thinking inside of eBay and have led us to some of our biggest environmental accomplishments, like having the largest private solar installation in our hometown of San Jose, California.

Do you see the Green Team as a model that other Fortune 500 companies can learn from and implement?

Certainly.  The most important part of the eBay Green Team is how deeply authentic it is to who we are as a company. It was created by our employees, inspired by our community of users and is in alignment with our overall business.  Tapping into the passion and ideas of your employees is a great place to start.  One resource for interested companies should be the “Making Your Impact at Work” guide that we partnered with Net Impact on.  The guide shares eBay’s employee engagement story along with those of several other great companies.

eBay’s Green Team was born from employee initiative. If a company’s sustainability efforts are driven from the top down, what can leadership do to involve employees in the company’s mission?

Make employees a part of the solution–from the beginning.  Value their opinion and nurture their desire to help the company succeed.  Don’t let big decisions get made in the C suite without consultation.  Inevitably, you’re going to need your employees to deliver on any big vision.  While major decisions certainly happen at the executive level, eBay’s sustainability efforts have been much more bottom-up and grassroots in nature.  We’re very much a values-based company, and our employee Green Team is a natural extension of that as the largest employee-based interest group in the company. What’s unique and exciting is that the eBay Green Team inspires employees to join projects on campus and to then take these interests and passions back to their communities and lives away from work.

It doesn’t have to be complicated to involve your employees. When we announced our three-year, 15% absolute carbon reduction goal we asked employees for their ideas for how to get there.  Since eBay is project to grow at a very healthy rate, it’s not an easy goal we’re setting.  We received over 600 ideas, all of them good ones, for cutting down on our corporate greenhouse gas emissions and operating more effectively.

For more than a decade you helped businesses become sustainable, and thereby more profitable. What are some primary takeaways from this work? Does it take a special type of business leader or company to succeed sustainably? Are there general best practices that you can share?

I’m convinced that there’s something to be gained by every company looking at sustainability.  What it takes, fundamentally, is a willingness to look at two things differently: your planning horizon and your audiences (aka stakeholders).  At an operational level, driving out inefficiency is just good business management.  Sometimes, as with eBay’s commitment to renewable energy, you have to be willing to look beyond next quarter to see the ROI or payback. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which operating more efficiently isn’t better for the bottom line.

Expanding your view on what audiences you serve (including employees, as survey after survey shows that a business’ commitment to sustainability is an important factor in recruiting and retaining top talent) also leads to similar conclusions.  What’s interesting is that in this time of economic downturn it seems more companies are asking themselves: What does it take to endure in the long term? The answers to this question inevitably lead to sustainability and better business decision-making.

What types of benefits do you look for when creating partnerships between businesses and non-profits?

Clear and shared interests and goals are a really important place to start.  For instance, with The Green Team’s most recent set of partners, The Uniform Project, PopTech and ecofabulous, we found that we shared a similar mission to help people think about using things that already exist in new ways that meet their needs.  While we’ve joined with three very different partners, we all share this worldview, as well as the perspective that the way to really ingrain this concept in society is to inspire and engage people in positive ways, rather than preaching to them.  We were able to bring this diverse group of partners together because we could rally around the single goal and concept that a greener lifestyle is really a trade up, not a trade off.  We all felt strongly that this consumer benefit had to be front and center in all that we did together.

Culture fit between partners is also important.  eBay’s a pretty fast moving company.  We don’t have time for a lot of bureaucracy so we need partners that can be as, or more nimble, than us.

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