Culture of Online Trading of Used Goods: Study of eBay Germany

One of the sessions at the Sustainable Consumption Conference was focused on the culture of second hand trading and in particular a study on the buyers and sellers using eBay Germany. This was particularly relevant for me considering that my PhD is based on second-hand retail culture. Online trading of second-hand goods on auction sites and online marketplaces can significantly increase the life span of a product, thus acting as a key means of sustainable consumption.

In the selected study the environmental impact of private online trading of used goods is quantified by a social-ecological approach with three core elements (some of which I will discuss here):

1. analysis of primary, secondary and tertiary environmental impacts on the layer of single products and society,

2. interviews with eBay users to broach the issue of trading of used goods, and

3. undertaking an environmental life cycle assessment (LCA).

Overall, it was found that buying and selling used goods online is rarely linked to ecological motives, but there are more pragmatic reasons for taking part in this type of exchange such as making space and generating income. To date, the positive environmental effects caused by online marketplaces are unintended side effects.  

‘Auction culture’, described by the researchers is a relatively new phenomenon which emerged from the year 2000 onwards. It (arguably) has begun to replace the dominant ‘throwaway society’ of the 1980s-90s and the ‘culture of accumulation’ 1950s-60s. Sales on eBay are approximately half new products and half used. The researchers conducted two online surveys of private sellers and interviews with different demographics.

They found a highly positive attitude towards conserving the environment but a low awareness of the positive relationship between online trading of used goods and environmental health. Women showed a higher level of environmentally friendly behaviour but there was no statistical difference in motives or attitudes in relation to age, education or income.

Five modes of consumption were identified:

  1. Price orientated used goods buyers (20%)
  2. Used goods sceptics (20%)
  3. Environmentally orientated buyers (22%)
  4. Online buyers (15%)
  5. Prosumers (23%)

You can read more about each type in the paper referenced at the end. ‘Prosumer’ is a term coined by Alvin W. Toffler in 1980 to describe consumers that have a strong orientation towards reselling. Prosumers will buy and sell regularly on eBay but not be professional traders.

I imagine that the results of this study are very typical to eBay users across the Western world and not confined just to eBay Germany. It is of no surprise that environmental motives are low on the list for eBay users however, if they are using eBay to trade used goods anyway, does it matter what their motives for such practice are? I think future studies are best focused on the consumers who are not currently trading in their used goods, because prolonging the lifecycle of all objects has to be a priority.

Further reading:

Blättel-Mink , B. et al. 2010. Contribution of Online Trading of Used Goods to Resource Efficiency: An Empirical Study of eBay Users. Sustainability, 2

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