Greening eBay

So I’m unloading a few bits of old junk on eBay. One item is a spare battery for a defunct Powerbook and I get an enquiry from an Australian buyer: how much to ship the thing to Oz? I guess this illustrates the bizarre, nicely Gibsonian nature of the eBay economy. How can it possibly be economic for me to package and ship a used battery to the other side of the planet? Amazingly, it is. For the buyer it’ll be cheaper than getting a new one from a local supplier and, of course, buying something from an eBay seller with a good feedback rating (even one on the other side of the planet) is safer than buying it from somebody you found in the Yellow Pages.

So, item by item, eBayers are reordering the bottom end of the global marketplace – trading, building relationships, growing businesses, ignoring national borders (and, while they’re at it, bypassing national tax regimes).

This kind of casual globalisation may be cool but it’s hardly green. Single items, shipped by environmentally costly means (jet planes, mostly) with no regard for economies of scale or for negative externalities like damage to the environment or even for basic economics: eBay sellers usually aren’t counting the cost of their own time in listing and shipping goods, for instance – this is hobby capitalism. It might also go some way to explaining why the fastest growing airlines in the world are the ones with no windows.

So, eBay is an out-of-control environmental catastrophe and the bigger it gets the worse it gets, on a more-or-less linear scale (no economies of scale here, remember). Here’s the plan, then: eBay sellers sign up to add a ‘Carbon Neutral Trader’ button to their listings. eBay takes an extra tuppence in the pound (including some profit – this needs to be a real business) from your transaction and uses it to plant trees. Of course, there are computers involved, so there’s nothing to stop this being really quite sophisticated: sellers will opt in or out of the scheme transaction-by-transaction and the carbon deduction for each transaction will vary based on distance and shipping method: an inland postal delivery will be cheap, a round-the-world jet flight expensive, a personal pick-up free.

Buyers will participate too: just as you can now filter search results for listings from sellers who accept Paypal or who live in your area, you’ll be able to search solely for carbon neutral sellers. Your ‘carbon score’ will be listed alongside your feedback rating (I can see a little ‘magic tree’ symbol). The pressure to build your carbon score will grow as the scheme grows. The colour of your magic tree will change as you plant more trees. Super Sellers will pay for hundreds or thousands of trees. eBay will plant millions and, at the firm’s current rate of growth, the ‘eBay forest’ will probably save the planet.

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  1. I’ve never been quite convinced by this carbon neutrality thing of planting trees to offset, for example, plane flights. It doesn’t seem like a particularly long-term solution: we can’t just go on planting more and more trees as the number of flights increases, and what happens to all that “locked-up” carbon when the tree dies?

    I’d like someone to tell me I’m wrong, but it always sounds more like a way to ease a conscience rather than save a world.

  2. I know the theory’s being challenged all over the place but I think the underlying idea of reengineering business (in this case person-to-person trade) to recognise externalities like environmental damage would be a good thing. I guess the thing to do would be to make sure you’re providing a flexible enough ‘Environmental API’ so that better and more effective methods can be plugged in later (sequestration, for instance).

    Ebay is a good place to try this because, just as the company currently enables millions of smaller enterprises by allowing them access to resources and assets they couldn’t ordinarily afford, they could also enable countless small businesses access to green technologies and business models.

  3. This eBay offsetting plan is very ingenious, and while offsetting is not a long term solution, it for sure helps a little for the moment – have a look at The Guardian’s partnership with Climate Care for decent example of offsetting in practice.

    Offsetting can be a stop-gap until we get fusion power working in 2050, have masses of cheap electricity and can hence use hydrogen in our cars and planes. Now I’m dreaming…

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