Renee Morin, eBay chief sustainability officer

Seeds of Change interview: eBay chief sustainability officer on Love Island, re-commerce, and renewables

A series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives, and much more.

Monday (13 March) marks the grand finale of hit ITV show Love Island’s ninth series, which eBay has sponsored and provided the wardrobe for since it began in January.

The online marketplace became official fashion sponsor in place of I Saw it First, which in turn had taken the role from Missguided, marking a concerted effort by the production team to disassociate itself with fast fashion largely for environmental reasons.

The eBay partnership also entails promoting the benefits of pre-loved fashion, which is viewed as more eco-friendly than the ‘throwaway’ culture associated with fast fashion. Many of the items Love Island contestants wear on screen are second-hand garments from a show wardrobe, shaped by eBay and its fashion gurus.

As this Love Island series got under way, all contestants wore pre-loved items from eBay. Second-hand items from Prada, Reiss, and Diesel made an appearance on screen, and that style of wardrobe has been a feature of recent weeks as it was in series eight in 2022 when the eBay tie-up began.

According to eBay UK, there were 1,600% more searches for ‘pre-loved clothes’ on its website between the announcement of the Love Island partnership last May and the start of series nine.

The Love Island sponsorship works because the pre-loved theme “resonates” with the largely Generation Z and millennial audience, according to eBay’s chief sustainability officer (CSO), Renee Morin.

“Pre-loved is less expensive than buying the brand-new version,” Morin explains to Green Retail World.

“It allows people to find a unique items to differentiate themselves from friends. At the same time, by buying pre-loved you’re doing good for the planet by avoiding carbon emissions and keeping things out of landfill.”

Renee Morin, eBay's sustainability boss

In the last few years as demand for second-hand fashion has escalated and the stigma attached with buying clothing that’s already been worn has faded, eBay has latched on to the trend and talked up its credentials as a pre-loved “pioneer”. The earlier days of eBay were about bidding for a bargain, and even though that is still the case, the sustainability message now stands out in the company’s messaging.

“It’s a new way to speak to our consumers and get our message out to customers,” says Morin, albeit she argues that eBay was a pre-loved pioneer and can rightly attach that title to its marketing communication.

“The first item on eBay was a broken laser pointer. Reuse, refurbish, and resell was what eBay was founded on – it’s always been part of our history and our business model. What we’re seeing now is younger generations gravitate more towards re-commerce.”

Re-commerce resonates

Morin has statistics to back up her claims, with eBay’s third annual Recommerce Report published at the end of February uncovering some intriguing trends.

The study, which included a survey of 11,064 consumer-to-consumer sellers and 7,459 buyers across the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and Japan, found 93% of sellers said sustainability was important to them.

Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012 and the youngest generation eBay surveyed, were found to be significantly more likely to turn to re-commerce for extra cash. Additionally, they were deemed to be more attuned to the value of re-commerce as it relates to environmental sustainability.

While financial benefits was top of the list of motivations for eBay sellers, sustainability reasons are an increasing driver for selling pre-owned goods. Some 19% said it was a motivation compared to 16% in 2020.

“We see the trend as here to stay – the younger generation gravitate to it,” notes Morin, who has also overseen work alongside consultancy Anthesis Group to calculate the sustainability benefit of buying a second-hand item.

Anthesis has teams of lifecycle assessment experts – a role familiar to Morin from her time at consultancy PRé Sustainability between 2011 and 2015 – and they helped map out a methodology to support eBay’s claims.

Central to re-commerce’s green credentials is the idea of “displacement”, whereby purchasing pre-loved items stops new products being made and therefore saves carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and production. The methodology was explained by eBay in full last year, but continues to evolve and be applied to assess additional product categories sold on the marketplace – and that will be reflected in this year’s Impact Report, due in May.

“We want to make sure we’re being as transparent as possible with the how we calculate avoided emissions and the avoided landfill and incineration, as well as the positive economic impact,” Morin notes.

“The more used or refurbished goods we keep in circulation as part of a circular economy, fewer brand-new products need to be made. So, you save emissions just by participating in re-commerce.”

Everything in commerce leaves a footprint of some kind, of course, but Morin and the eBay team make a strong argument for re-commerce’s environmental credentials when compared to buying new items.

Renewable energy goal in sight

While re-commerce’s perceived association with greener consumerism is the outward-facing message at eBay, internally the big carbon reduction goal comes in the form of switching to renewable energy to power its operations.

“Regarding the emissions produced from data centres, offices and own facilities – we have an aggressive goal approved by Science Based Targets initiative to reduce emissions by 90% by 2030,” says Morin.

That is from a 2019 baseline and – according to the CSO – “that activity is tied to a 100% renewable energy goal by 2025”. The company is hovering around 95% renewable energy across its own operations. Ongoing work to increase this is tied in with reducing electricity consumption in general.

Meanwhile, Scope 3 emissions is a difficult area to tackle, admits Morin – but that is a widely held retail industry view. Morin says eBay, which does not own its own fleet of delivery vehicles has a transportation footprint that “dwarves tenfold its scope one and two emissions”.

“The challenge is we don’t have direct control,” she explains.

“We have carriers around the world we work with moving product from seller to buyer, so we need to understand what that footprint looks like and we are engaging with them to understand what their climate goals are so we can address ours.”

Morin adds: “eCommerce doesn’t come without shipping and we want to make sure it’s as low carbon as possible. [Making significant improvements in this area] is going to take some time but it’s one we’re really serious about and we’re focused on.”

Top-down, bottom-up green focus

Murray Lambell, who leads eBay UK’s business as general manager, has become increasingly vocal about environmental welfare in his public statements, in line with the marketplace ramping up its pre-loved pioneer message globally.

In November, he described Black Friday in its current guise as “broken”. It was a comment reflecting on how Black Friday has become an extended period of rampant consumerism when people often buy goods they don’t need or want. At the same time, some fashion retailers offer special deals selling clothes for under £1, which does not sit right with environmentalists or, indeed, seem particularly ethical.

“For shoppers it creates a frenzy, with a ‘buying for buying sake’ mentality,” he noted, adding: “Our hope is to inspire the nation to think differently when they’re doing their Christmas or Black Friday shopping.”

Lambell said that buying one or two pre-loved or refurbished items represents a “positive step that allows products to take on a new life by keeping them out of landfill”, echoing the message of Morin and the wider eBay brand.

Indeed, Morin describes Lambell’s work in the UK as “fantastic”, adding that Oliver Klinck, managing director of eBay’s German business “is also a great supporter” of eBay’s sustainability drive.

“We have a fantastic CEO and CFO that want to put ESG and sustainability updates in each of our quarterly earnings,” Morin continues.

“It’s a top-down and bottom-up approach, and since I’ve been here [she joined in 2018 and took the CSO role in 2020] I’m pleased to see an increased amount of knowledge and understanding of what eBay is doing to operate sustainability and what it offers consumers such as re-commerce.”

eBay logo
Pre-loved pioneer – that’s what eBay is calling itself these days

Talking more broadly about business and society’s increasing momentum around the green agenda and the push to reduce environmental footprints, she is optimistic.

“More companies and more consumers care about these issues and there’s lots of tech developed and new start-ups appearing every day to help improve and achieve a low carbon society. There’s a lot of hard work to be done but, for sure, we’re on the right path.”

With last season’s Love Island final attracting a total of 3.4 million viewers across ITV2 and ITV Hub, at the end of a series that generated over 250 million streams, eBay’s sponsorship team appear to be moving in the correct direction too.

But more importantly for wider society, that prominent marketing of re-commerce which normalises second-hand shopping looks to be a step forward for the environment.

At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Renee Morin, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

[Image credit: eBay]

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