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As Earth Day Nears, eBay Shows Its Green Side

In a new program centered on Earth Day, eBay is becoming the latest company to promote its green credentials.

EBay is now a green company?

An Ebay sign is shown at Ebay offices in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, July 20, 2005. The San Jose-based company said Wednesday that it earned $291.6 million, or 21 cents per share, for the three months ended in June, a 53 percent increase from $190.4 million, or 14 cents per share at the same time last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Paul Sakuma
An Ebay sign is shown at Ebay offices in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, July 20, 2005. The San Jose-based company said Wednesday that it earned $291.6 million, or 21 cents per share, for the three months ended in June, a 53 percent increase from $190.4 million, or 14 cents per share at the same time last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Yes, said Alan Marks, senior vice president for global communications at eBay. Its business model encourages reselling old items rather than throwing them out, and buying used merchandise rather than making new stuff reduces carbon emissions that go along with production.

“We never set out to be a green business,” Mr. Marks said. “We realized it’s intrinsic.”

EBay is rather late to the game in making claims about its environmentalism. Large corporations like General Electricand BP have run advertisements for years promoting their environmental efforts, for instance.

“Over the last couple of years, protecting the environment has become as American as apple pie and Derek Jeter,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the activist group Rainforest Action Network. “Every company wants to at least be seen as being friendly to the environment.”

Mr. Brune said he had mixed feelings about eBay’s claim for its green business model. “A lot of the things sold on eBay are new merchandise, and last time I checked the Postal Service still used fossil fuels for all of their planes and their trucks, so it’s not sustainable,” he said, referring to how eBay sellers ship items. “It’s fair to say that buying used goods on eBay is better for the environment, but let’s not get carried away and say this is the greenest thing since recycled paper.”

EBay is trumpeting its green claims on a new Web site, www.ebaygreenteam.com, and in inserts that will run in the April issues of Hearst magazines.

“Green Team” refers to an internal group at eBay that works on making the company environmentally efficient. EBay’s internal projects include its new building in San Jose, Calif., whose roof is covered by 3,248 solar panels. The company is using carbon offsets and other methods to be carbon neutral.

Andre de Fontaine, a fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change who helps businesses create programs addressing global warming, reviewed the Green Team site at the request of a reporter. He said eBay deserved credit for involving employees and the public, and for the new building. He recommended, however, that the company be clear about how high its emissions were, and how exactly its environmental measures reduced them.

The Web site encourages visitors to join the Green Team, and features discussion pages on how people can shop green, and tips on buying used and resource-saving goods.

Mr. Marks said that the point of the site was not just to dispense advice, but to persuade the eBay audience to change its behavior.

“We think we have a leadership role to play both in the industry and the broader world,” he said. “We think we have the ability to help start conversations.”

Asked what he meant by starting conversations, Mr. Marks said he was hoping for “robust online dialogue.” Offline, he said, the Green Team effort might include partnerships with nonprofit organizations to set long-term environmental goals, or local events for Green Team members.

EBay does not have traffic goals for the Web site, and unlike typical marketing campaigns, which are linked with sales targets, this program does not have sales goals connected to it, Mr. Marks said.

The company will be looking at the site’s success through April, he said, to see if it is “ building a community around this.”

Apart from the site, the way eBay is announcing its green credentials has troubled some environmentalists. A big part of eBay’s effort is a five-page insert in all 14 April editions of Hearst’s monthly magazines, timed to coincide with Earth Day.

But Hearst magazines do not use recycled paper.

John P. Loughlin, executive vice president and general manager for Hearst Magazines, said that was because “from what we have seen, the supply is less than predictable and stable.” He said that Hearst got more than 70 percent of its paper from sustainably managed forests.

But Frank Locantore, who runs a program called the Better Paper Project for the nonprofit Green America, which tries to persuade magazine publishers to use recycled paper, said Hearst’s argument was unconvincing.

While he said there was a somewhat limited supply of recycled magazine-quality paper, “what I talk to other large publishers about is, don’t switch your entire portfolio of magazines, pick the ones that make sense that are feasible right now.”

He listed other consumer magazines that use a high percentage of recycled paper: Inc., Fast Company, Shape, Outside and Every Day With Rachael Ray.

“These are the same claims that are being made by most magazines out there,” Mr. Locantore said. “I don’t have difficulty finding a recycled paper that will fit somebody’s needs.”

Mr. Marks said that eBay, as an e-commerce company, wanted an offline company to complement its reach, and that Hearst “shares our environmental values, both in its business practices and its commitment to promoting sustainable consumption conversations.”

The Hearst portion of the project represents the first time the publisher has done a customized insert across its entire magazine portfolio: Cosmopolitan; Country Living; Esquire; Good Housekeeping; Harper’s Bazaar; House Beautiful; Marie Claire; O, the Oprah Magazine; Popular Mechanics; Redbook; Seventeen; SmartMoney; Town & Country; and Veranda are all running the ad, entitled “30 Days of Green.” Content from the Hearst site the Daily Green, which includes news and advice about green living, will appear on the Green Team site.

Each magazine created two pages of green-themed content, and eBay contributed a page of green product selections.

Hearst has sold ads across multiple magazines before; in 2008, it sold 30 such projects, said Michael A. Clinton, the chief marketing officer and publishing director of Hearst Magazines. But to run an ad across all the magazines, he said, “we had to find an idea that was a ubiquitous idea, that was very much in the zeitgeist, that, regardless if you were a Good Housekeeping reader or a Veranda reader or a Town & Country reader, it made sense to you on the subject.”

The differences in the magazines’ coverage provide an amusing glimpse of how the magazines view their readers.

Cosmopolitan lists “Sexy Ways to Go Green,” including showering with your boyfriend, using all-natural lubricants and lounging naked on summer days instead of using air-conditioning.

At Good Housekeeping, the women have almost the same average income as the Cosmopolitan readers, $59,400, but they are almost 20 years older. Good Housekeeping’s contribution — “Recycling Made Simple” — would suggest that women lose interest in sex in those two decades, and gain an interest in separating their recyclables.

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