Moving Sustainability Forward at eBay

By Pamela Babcock Nov 2, 2012

NEW YORK—Organizational silos can challenge sustainability initiatives, but an effort to promote energy efficiency and sustainability at eBay Inc.’s data centers demonstrates how building relationships, trust and collaboration can move sustainability projects forward.

In May 2012, eBay officials and external partners successfully challenged a Utah law that prohibited nonutility energy consumers from buying and transmitting power directly from renewable energy developers. The effort was a collaboration among eBay’s Green division—the company’s sustainability arm—data center, public policy teams and an external industry group.

The project demonstrates how a company can “have a vision of a strategic imperative” and turn trust into relationships that facilitate collaboration beyond business units and across organizational silos, said Ted Howes, director of consumer products for Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a San Francisco-based global consulting and research firm, to attendees Oct. 25, 2012, at the BSR Conference here.

Some of the best sustainability projects begin by “understanding the unmet needs of those people who you work with,” Howes said. “If you have an idea and you wonder how to percolate it in your organization, find out how to translate it into the needs of the business.”

Reducing Environmental Footprint

The online marketplace provider’s rapid growth has brought “exceptional challenges,” explained Lori Duvall, global director of eBay’s Green initiatives. The company, which also owns and operates PayPal, is heavily dependent on data centers, which account for 55 percent to 60 percent of its electricity consumption and “carbon [footprint],” said Duvall, who is based at eBay’s San Jose headquarters.

The company faces continual pressure to add more data centers and to make them as efficient as possible. In the past, decisions where to place them were driven largely by security—such as not in the path of a major airport where a plane might crash and cripple operations—and by cost, Duvall said. “You get pushed to put your data centers in places where frankly the power is not particularly carbon-friendly…what we face is we have to find cleaner ways to power these data centers.”

There was a major drawback for eBay and other companies looking to do business in the state while reducing their environmental footprint: Utah generates about 94 percent of its electricity from coal, according to the conference speakers.

Duvall reached out to Jeremy Rodriguez, distinguished engineer of data center services for eBay. Duvall, who has a background in environmental analysis, sustainable business strategy and technology, spoke the language of the data center and quickly understood the team’s needs.

“It was awesome to find a partner in the business,” Rodriguez recalled.

More Challenges

Since 2007, eBay has worked to “green” its operations, and in 2010, it opened Topaz, a LEED Gold-certified data center in South Jordan, Utah. Soon, it faced a major hurdle in its quest to use clean energy:Existing legislation in Utah, where most of its major data centers were located, made it unlawful for nonutility consumers to buy and transmit power directly from renewable energy developers.

“In our mind, it was unacceptable to not have an option for renewables,’” Rodriguez recalled. The company realized that if it wanted to improve sustainability in Utah, it had to change the law.

The company worked closely with David London, eBay’s senior director of U.S. government relations, to identify additional partners and to formulate a plan to address the challenge.

Next Steps

There were other challenges: Utah has a very powerful electric utility, the state’s governor was running for re-election in 2010 and the state had a short, 60-day, legislative session, London said.

But the company also had a strong ally. Dean Nelson, eBay’s senior director of global data center strategy, architecture and operations, is founder of Data Center Pulse, a group of more than 1,000 global data center owners, operators and users, that had already begun working to promote renewable energy.

Working closely with Data Center Pulse and other partners, eBay helped to educate policymakers and the state’s power company, and found support from Republican State Sen. Mark Madsen. New legislation to override the existing law was unanimously approved and signed into law May 21, 2012.

Duvall said that because of support from eBay CEO John Donahoe and eBay’s communications team, “everybody’s gotten much more educated and so the conversation [about similar sustainability issues] can be much more sophisticated, a lot more quickly now.”

She hopes the initiative will serve as a model for the data industry and other sustainability efforts.

“We want to be out there telling people how this went and hope that they can also be championing these causes in places where we are not,” Duvall said.

Tools You Can Use

Speakers offered these lessons for sustainability initiatives.

Aligning department objectives is “the secret sauce.” Sustainability leaders need to spend time learning what other organizational teams are doing before they can be considered a trusted advisor. “You have to understand what your business is about to really be effective in doing sustainability programs,” Duvall said.

Bring others into the fold. The company’s finance and corporate communication teams also were key. Finance understood costs, and corporate communications helped translate the message for internal and external audiences, London said.

Find an executive champion. Having an executive champion from each of eBay’s business units was key to overturning the Utah law. “To do this sort of ad hoc with the three of us and the other groups is great. But if we didn’t have the support from up top, it would have been a lot tougher to get done,” London said.

Make it not just a business case, but also a people case. Link sustainability to your organization’s core values and competencies. Once people inside eBay realized sustainability was one of the company’s core competencies, “it was a lot easier to get buy-in from other folks,” London noted.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to peer groups. Smaller organizations may be challenged when considering similar sustainability efforts. “Maybe hearing the message from a larger company or a peer company will help change the minds of the individuals within your organization,” Rodriguez said.

Education is key. London said the biggest obstacle was changing the mindset of state policymakers and utility company officials. Among other things, he said the company emphasized that the issue was about jobs and economic development, as opposed to being just “a green issue.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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