Optimise resource yields by circulating products, components, and materials at the highest utility at all times

Sound familiar? Whilst it might not roll off the tongue, it’s a core principle of the circular economy, and basically, means that we should keep products and materials in use where possible. It makes sense if you think about it: if you take something like a car, suit or blender and grind it down to its raw materials, you lose the extra energy, labour, and materials that were used in creating that finished product. So by keeping something in use through activities such as re-use and remanufacturing, businesses can open up real opportunities to create revenue whilst saving resources and energy, and contributing to an economy that works.

Since 1995, eBay has been a platform that connects sellers to buyers to enable re-use. However, it’s come a long way from those humble beginnings as an auction website for used goods. Alongside the second-hand furniture and pre-owned clothes, you’re likely to find yourself viewing one of the many brand new items available, which make up around 80% of the 1 billion live listings on the platform. So has eBay become just another online retailer for new stuff, or can the tech giant still help keep products in use for longer and help accelerate the shift to a circular economy? Circulate spoke to Chris Librie, Head of eBay’s Global Impact and Giving to find out.

Circulate: When did eBay’s circular economy journey start, and what are the current goals or aims of eBay’s circular economy activity?

Chris Librie: eBay has been driving the circular economy long before the concept ever reached the forefront of e-commerce and business. Over two decades ago, our first transaction was a broken laser pointer that our founder, Pierre Omidyar, sold to someone in order to give it a new life. eBay was founded on the very principles of a circular economy, connecting people around the world and giving each item renewed life and value.

But more than our history, the circular economy is also eBay’s future. While today, 80% of items are new on the site, eBay is still one of the largest peer-to-peer marketplaces in the world, with over 1.1 billion items listed, and thousands of sellers relying on us for their livelihood.

By 2020, our goal is to create $2.5 billion in positive economic impact and avoid 2.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions through people selling their preowned electronics and apparel on eBay. In 2016 alone, we saved 108,000 tonnes of carbon emissions through the sale of pre-owned clothing, in only the US and UK markets.

What are some eBay activities or practices that you’re most proud of when it comes to the circular economy?

When selling on eBay, sellers can elect to donate a portion of their sale to charity – anywhere from 10 – 100% – through our eBay for Charity programme. And eBay does not charge any fees on charitable sales – so all the funds flow to the charity. For example, if a seller lists a dress from last season’s fashion line, he or she can opt-in to donate a share of its proceeds to UNICEF.

This serves philanthropic purposes, but charitable organisations are great facilitators of the circular economy on eBay, too. Many charitable organisations receive gifts of used merchandise, which they then sell on eBay to raise funds, and this is made easier because eBay doesn’t charge any fees on charitable sales. Major charities like Goodwill, the American Cancer Society and British Heart Foundation benefit in this way. So, two of our Global Impact pillars – circular economy and eBay for Charity often work in concert with each other.

We are extremely proud of this integration, and as more sellers opt-in to donate, eBay’s mission to create economic opportunity for all will continue to flourish.

Have you got a favourite circular economy case study or story that involves eBay?

One of my favourite eBay seller stories is that of Angie Cardona Nelson, owner of eWaste Direct. When looking for home furniture at an auction, Angie and her husband stumbled upon an entire office-worth of used electronics. Shortly afterwards, they found themselves creating a business that diverts electronic waste from landfills by recycling and refurbishing used electronics across the US. eWaste Direct was founded nine years ago on Earth Day and now, through eBay, it is a full-time sustainable business with global reach.

To-date, eWaste Direct has diverted over seven million pounds of e-waste from landfills. By selling reused electronics, Angie and her husband are extending the life of products that would have otherwise been discarded. eWaste Direct is just one example of the power of eBay’s marketplace and its potential to do good.

So eBay can play a role in relocating things like clothes, furniture or computers – but doesn’t it get to a point where a lot of ‘stuff’ is circulating that nobody really wants or needs?

In today’s climate of mass consumerism, eBay continues to encourage people around the world to give their old and unused goods new life and value. By doing so, eBay, along with several other major tech companies, is guiding a behaviour change that prioritises access over ownership – a trend that we’ve seen resonate with the Millennial generation. In the future, we hope that this change in mindset will result in an entirely new approach to commodities, in which an item is designed to have multiple lives.

Image: Africa Studio / stock.adobe.com

How do brands engage with reuse on eBay? Is part of the challenge encouraging brands to see eBay as an opportunity, not a threat?

Something unique to eBay is that we partner closely with brands – both in terms of helping their inventory reach a wider audience and also with respect to combating issues like fraud and counterfeits. For instance, with our Verified Rights Owner (VeRo) programme we protect sellers’ IP rights and ensure legal compliance for selling.

Most recently, we launched eBay Authenticate, a programme designed to boost consumer confidence, especially for higher-end transactions. The new service is designed to support our buyers and sellers, by easing our buyers’ concerns with high-valued items online while ensuring our sellers receive top dollar for their items. eBay is always looking for ways to deepen its relationships with brands, forging partnerships that create equal opportunity for everyone.

But a lot of brands see reuse as cannibalising new sales – how would you convince them otherwise? 

This is really a question of value-creation. At the moment, the linear economy encourages goods to be seen as disposable, which leads to more goods being produced at the lowest possible cost. In the future, goods will be designed to last and be reused, which may cost more, but will be better for the planet. Brands will derive value from these longer-lasting, higher-priced goods.

When working closely with established brands, how does eBay maintain diversity? Aren’t the countless small buyers and sellers part of what makes a marketplace like eBay so vibrant, rather than a few big brands holding on to all the value?

Diversity is critical to eBay’s business. Last year, we rolled out our first Diversity and Inclusion report as an independent company, and a large piece of our strategy involves not only our workforce, but also our marketplace. We’re being more deliberate to ensure that the diverse perspectives and needs of our tens of millions of global buyers and sellers are included in how we engage them. We’re always working to elevate voices that may be otherwise overshadowed – these voices are what make eBay so unique and showcase how the platform consistently empowers entrepreneurs all over the world.

This diversity also promotes activity at different levels in the economy. There are millions of sellers around the world who earn all, or a portion of, their income from selling on eBay. They range from small, individual sellers to medium and larger-sized businesses who employ others. We’re proud of eBay’s ability to empower people and create economic opportunity in this way. And you’re right that the diversity of our seller community brings great strength to the platform. It means you can find unique items all the time on eBay.

The circular economy encourages a shift to ‘performance models’ or ‘product as service’ – if manufacturers adopt these at scale, wouldn’t it diminish eBay’s role in the circular economy?

Actually, we think it could enhance eBay’s role because we’re a marketplace for trading. People will always need to trade goods and services, and eBay enables trade to take place fairly and transparently.

As well as enabling reuse, eBay sells a lot of new stuff – some say around 80% – how can the two interact?

At eBay, we help people find their version of perfect – whether that’s new, nearly new or everything in between. Our ability to span the spectrum is what makes eBay unique.

A great example of this is a parent who is shopping for a smartphone. For themselves, they might be looking for a brand new model in the latest colour; however, they could be shopping for their middle school child who tends to lose things and might not be quite as responsible. In which case, the parent might look at a refurbished model from last year at a great value. Being able to offer items across a spectrum of value is a major competitive advantage for eBay – and it enables our buyers to find their perfect every time.

We would love to increase the sales of previously owned items on eBay, and believe we will by encouraging people to sell what they don’t need or use. However, we recognise that we’re working hard to change consumer behaviour in a what is predominantly a linear, throwaway economy.

With that in mind, what needs to change to make re-use more mainstream? 

Consumers need to see the latent value in their unused or underused possessions, and those products need to be designed for greater longevity. This will potentially increase their original purchase cost, but the benefit would be a lower lifetime cost of ownership. Overall, it means moving away from a linear, throwaway economic model to one that embraces reuse and circularity.

eBay are in a great position to pioneer new activities that change the way we use products. What’s the next big step?

eBay is constantly finding new and innovative ways to adapt its platform for both buyers and sellers. Right now, we’re investing a lot in artificial intelligence and machine learning to enable even more frictionless selling – connecting buyers with the perfect item and sellers with a successful sale.

Imagine a world in which users can snap a picture of something they see someone wearing on the street or a bowl they find in their friend’s kitchen, and instantly finding a matching listing on eBay. Searching with photos can uplevel our shopping – without having to pick and choose the right words, buyers can immediately find exactly what they’re looking for, and sellers can ensure their inventory is being surfaced to the right folks. This is just one example of how eBay is pioneering new behaviours in e-commerce.

Another idea is to view eBay as a place where you can manage your personal inventory of things. Some items you may want to keep, some you may be willing to sell. eBay can help value your inventory – since we know the going price for many of the items in your home – and enable you to sell the items you don’t need in our marketplace. It’s a great way to contribute to a more circular economy.

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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