The TH Interview: Robert Chatwani, eBay's Greenest Rising Star
He's an eBay employee with a passion for people and the planet. And when he took his dream of enhancing the global market for people and planet-positive products to eBay executives they quickly recognized it's potential. Now he's engineered a unique collaboration between World of Good, Inc. and eBay that seems destined to bring a virtual marketplace and community for people and planet-positive products to the masses.
So read on to check out what this innovative entrepreneur has to say about changing the way the world of eBay looks at commerce.
Treehugger: What brought yourself and eBay to the world of people and planet-positive products?
Robert Chatwani: Well, I've been at eBay 5 years, and 3 years ago I started experimenting with a small group to take handcrafted artisan products from India and then channel the profits back to the artists who created them. So we came from a place where this small team wanted to do good by leveraging the eBay platform. And we had a lot of interest in taking this model to the next level. And so we had a lot of conversations with folks in the fair trade industry and came to be fascinated by the fact that there were a large number of wonderful industry groups around the world, but realized the missing component is large scale demand. So we're looking to create a profitable business that can thrive but also have a strong social impact in the process. And through those conversations we were able to build the relationship with World of Good, Inc.
TH: Tell us a bit about how this partnership between eBay and World of Good, Inc. actually functions.
RC: Well, we're two separate companies forming a partnership to build the largest marketplace for people and planet-positive products on earth that helps consumers make smarter decisions and affect positive change through the purchasing decisions they make. World of Good's core model is to bring fair trade and ethically sourced products into the marketplace, and eBay is global in a real sense as well so we felt the marriage between both business models had tremendous potential. We've found that when you collaborate with industry experts you get a lot of great ideas, specifically about how to formulate a community and a marketplace through deep industry collaboration. And secondly, the relationships we've been able to build by partnering with World of Good have been tremendous.
TH: And you're creating this new online community as part of it. Tell us a bit about the community itself.
RC: Part of the partnership is to create a community, which is really the first phase working towards our global marketplace for people and planet positive products. At its core we believe an increasing number of consumers are aware of the impact they have when they make a purchasing decision. So the first phase of creating a community to cultivate dialogue around social impact and commerce was really important, and we felt that creating a vehicle through blogs, questions and answers, and various articles was a nice forum to enable people to interact with each other. It's not just the idea of buying, but sharing values and ideals and understanding the impact we're all having on people and the planet.
For example, there's a great thread currently running about Valentines Day and making your Valentine's Day fair trade with a couple of great examples of buying fair trade products. Essentially, the idea of doing chocolates in a more informed way is what it's all about.
TH: How do you see the current economic concerns in the U.S. impacting your customer base when products which are ethically sourced and planet friendly can often cost a bit more to purchase?
RC: We think that fundamentally our consumers are interested in understanding the story behind their product. They're essentially asking themselves, "If I'm going to make a decision to buy something, what's the impact of that actual decision?" Because any time I decide to spend my dollar it's having an effect whether I realize it or not. But the socially conscious consumer is still a practical consumer, and so I think that in an environment like a multi-seller marketplace sellers will have to respond to price but that's not the primary focus for buyers who engage with us.
TH: What's unique about this particular collaboration that empowers consumers?
RC: Well there are lots of places people can go to find out about the impact of their shopping choices and the things that they buy. But one of the things that get us excited about the community is our ability to enable consumers to find out specifically how their purchase impacts people and the planet via the concept of a trust provider. Every product will have an affiliation with a third party that validates social good by the producer, seller or product itself. So we're not only cultivating a dialogue with consumers but bridging the gap between sellers, buyers, and these trust providers. Sort of a multifaceted dialogue and relationship is really the core of the value proposition and what consumers get particularly passionate about.
TH: And what impact will this have by getting ordinary eBay buyers and sellers involved who are not already in that marketplace?
RC: When we look at the potential impact we want to create it's early for us, so it's difficult to give any numbers on what we specifically will achieve. The principle is that last year there was roughly 60 billion dollars in core trading volume on eBay, so there is an incredible amount of demand, and bringing new types of consumers to this type of product means we have the potential to shift their purchasing habits. Often there are substitute products that perhaps are the same price, but we're saying "Here's all of the social impact that goes with it." And long term we'll be tracking social impact metrics as well.
TH: How do you see this opportunity fitting with what existing eBay customers are already looking for?
RC: We did some qualitative research last year, and what we found is that consumers on eBay are looking for more info about the story behind the product. It's tough because of the large volume of listings, but research shows that with knowledge there is a clear willingness to pay a price premium for items of quality. And if they know it will have a positive impact there is a tendency for higher sell-through rates as well. They also want a mechanism for more information surrounding the transaction. We're saying, "Don't only come to buy but also to learn." And that idea of providing a well-rounded shopping experience is what even existing eBay users are looking for.
TH: Robert, is there anything else you'd like to add about this exciting new venture you're clearly so passionate about?
RC: Well, we're a small start-up team within a very large organization, but the team behind the marketplace is a group of very passionate individuals. And we're essentially leveraging the reach of eBay with a very innovative early-stage company and bringing these two things together to create a market that never existed before. We certainly hope that passion will channel through to consumers. And there's not a lot of precedence out there for what we're doing but that's what's exciting about it. We want to bring the areas of impact your purchase has on people and the planet to the forefront of the decision making process as opposed to something you think about after the transaction.
You can access the beta version of this new online community via worldofgood.com.