Can a Company Shrink While it Grows? eBay's EDF Climate Corps fellows bids on "yes."

By Gabrielle Maguire, 2011 EDF Climate Corps Fellow at eBay, MIB Candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

Joining eBay as an EDF Climate Corps fellow for its third year participating in the program, I knew finding fresh opportunities for energy efficiency would be an almost impossible challenge.

I started off my fellowship here by reading last year’s eBay fellow Megan Rast’s blog posts. And it’s safe to say that eBay is no stranger to the concept of energy efficiency. When Megan arrived at eBay last summer, the company had just opened its most efficient data center in Utah, Project Topaz.

Likewise, I recently learned of Project Mercury, another data center expansion intended to push the limits of efficiency possibilities that will be unveiled this summer. Thus, I’ve found myself asking the same question Megan asked when she started at eBay: Where is my value add?

After meeting with employees across the company to seek out lingering energy efficiency projects, my suspicions have been confirmed – the low-hanging fruit is long gone. Nonetheless an interesting project has emerged, addressing the many challenges eBay faces as a fast-growing Silicon Valley company.

eBay, like many of its counterparts in Silicon Valley, is actively working to create an energy strategy that couples its operational need to minimize energy costs with its employee-driven mission to be green. It is challenging itself (and me) with the question: How do you shrink while you grow?

eBay’s growing pains are reflective of many Internet companies who maintain the culture of their days as start-ups but operate as multinational corporations. As I drive my project forward, I’ve come up with a few takeaways off the bat:

Time is relative: At just 15 years old, eBay is still a young company. Things change incredibly quickly. It’s evolving at a pace that exceeds the fast-moving e-commerce industry, and projecting energy use in the long run is difficult. Hence, short-term energy decisions are often prioritized.

The entrepreneurial Silicon Valley mindset is a strength and a weakness: Organizational flexibility allows people to incubate new ideas and develop them into innovative business opportunities. This is how the eBay Green Team was formed with 40 volunteer employees. It has since grown into a team of 2,400 volunteer employees across 23 countries. But this flexibility sometimes comes at the expense of process and infrastructure. Some projects are left to languish when it’s unclear which business unit a project should belong to and from which budget it should be financed.

Employee passion for reducing eBay’s footprint is self-driven: At eBay, I see managers incorporating efficiency decisions into everything they do, often facing difficult conflicts between a project’s long-term needs and business process hurdles. Having efficiency measures more formalized into work-streams is a common desire.

My project is still developing, but it certainly involves further digging into these issues. The next question I’m asking myself is: Will my financial analysis provide the support eBay needs to overcome these hurdles?

I’ll report back next month – stay tuned.

This content is cross-posted on In Good Company: The Vault's CSR Blog.

EDF Climate Corps matches trained students from leading business schools with companies to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.