A crisis of values - Salesforce and Unit4 put down roots in forestry to tackle the climate change crisis

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 24, 2021
Forestry focus comes as economists call for firms to be judged on their climate impact, not financial performance.


Growing trees isn’t an activity normally associated with technology companies, but this month, two enterprise software leaders have planted the seeds of change. Why the interest in forests? It’s part of corporate sustainability efforts - more trees equals less harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, more biodiversity and better support for local economies.

Unit4 has launched the Customer Forest, a program to finance small agroforestry projects aimed at bringing environmental and social benefits for local communities.

For every customer Unit4 signs up, the firm will plant a tree in Africa, South America or Asia in partnership with Treedom. So far, 1,000 trees have been planted in countries including Colombia, Kenya, Nepal and Tanzania.

Customers can pick and name their tree, and view photos, coordinates and diary updates through the Treedom interactive portal. Michelle MacCarthy, Global VP of Customer Success at Unit4, explains:

We’re doing this for every Unit4 customer, whether they’re newly onboarded or they’ve been with us for years, partly because we believe it’s the right thing to do to help fulfil our CSR commitments, and partly because it’s an opportunity for us all to do good together.

Our Customer Forest is part of our broader set of commitments to embed sustainability throughout our operations – with a goal of reducing our carbon footprint. It’s one of three of the virtual forests we’re building with Treedom. Together, these three forests already total 3,900 trees and have removed a total of 734,670 KG of CO2 from our planet’s atmosphere.”

Salesforce, meanwhile, has signed up to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org mission to grow one trillion trees by 2030. Earlier this month, Salesforce announced it has funded over 10 million trees across 22 different areas since joining the scheme last January, part of its broader target to conserve, restore and grow 100 million trees by 2030.

As part of its commitment, Salesforce is working with Natural Capital Partners to support two projects in Scotland - the reforestation of a native woodland, which will help the local farm diversify its business as well as supporting biodiversity, and converting marginal farmland in Tweedsmuir to permanent woodland by planting over 14,000 trees across 9.5 hectares.

The firm has also funded mangrove restoration in Madagascar, restored degraded farmland in Australia and replanted forests devastated by the California wildfires.

Max Scher, Head of Clean Energy & Carbon Programs at ‎Salesforce, says the company is on track to hit its 100 million trees by 2030 milestone, adding:

It was a year of a lot of learning and we’re very happy to have made so much progress in a short period of time. One of the things we learned is that counting trees is only obviously one part of what we're really trying to accomplish, which is a much broader global restoration of our ecosystems, which of course is going to take a lot longer.

Climate thinking

Salesforce’s forestry project is part of a much broader climate action strategy at the firm, which has set itself multiple targets touching on all areas of the environment. These include working with 60% of its suppliers to set emission reduction targets; delivering a carbon neutral cloud to customers; reaching 100% renewable energy for global operations by 2022; and launching the Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, a carbon accounting product that gives organizations a 360-degree view of their environmental impact. As Scher notes:

We’re one of the more overly committed companies out there when it comes to the climate action targets and the campaigns that we've signed on to.

For firms at a much earlier stage in their climate action journey, Scher recommends using the 1.5 degrees goal as a starting point – limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels - rather than looking at the different campaigns around:

Then the question is what can every company do in support of that global goal? If I was to try and package it all together, when we think about climate action, we think about putting our full power towards it because that's the moment we're in unfortunately as a society. That’s what it’s going to take. And for us, that means thinking about our technology, how it's used and what it can deliver for people.

One of the specific tech areas Salesforce is focused on is electricity consumption in its global data centers and offices, as a large portion of its operational emissions stem from here. Hence, the first commitment the firm set in 2013 was towards 100% renewable energy. This will see the firm purchasing renewable energy and certificates equivalent to the amount of power used in its global operations every year, explains Scher:

It's not the same as powering our offices and data centers around the clock with renewable energy, which requires shifting entire grids and regions and geographies, and quite a lot of policy advocacy and a lot more complexity, but it's an important piece of the puzzle.

Domino effect

Salesforce is hoping to encourage other firms to follow its lead on climate action, something that could be achieved by having conversations with its suppliers about climate change being a priority, argues Scher:

A critical trend in the corporate climate action community is when you're seeing the first movers on climate action start to realize they're only as sustainable as the least sustainable supplier in their supply chain. If we want to reach our de-carbonization goals for our value chain, it's critical that we start engaging those suppliers.

As more and more companies start to adopt those types of commitments, we're on the cusp of what I hope is a really profound network effect where companies engage their suppliers and those suppliers engage their suppliers. And we see hopefully a boom of robust corporate climate action.

Disclosure demands 

One of the challenges facing this domino-effect scenario is that not all companies view climate change as something they need to take action on - rather it’s an issue for governments or the United Nations or scientists to solve. That view doesn’t hold much weight with Scher:

The reality is, these are large global challenges that we're trying to tackle, and it will really take everyone. It would be fantastic if we had global policy on some of these issues and we were on track for our climate goals, but the reality is we're not. And so there's a lot that we as individuals should be doing, and we as companies should be doing to try and get us back on track.

For Salesforce, this includes starting to report sustainability metrics in its 10-K report along with financial disclosures. The firm is a champion of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which it sees as an important way to showcase climate action to its financial shareholders.

Firms taking this type of action now to forge a link between environmental impact and business success could find themselves well-placed to satisfy changing performance metrics in the not-too-distant future. There is growing momentum around making measures like the TCFD and Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosure mandatory for companies.

Delivering the UK Natural History Museum’s Annual Science Lecture, Mark Carney, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance and former Governor of the Bank of England, said that compared to financial reporting with well-defined standards of governance, sustainability reporting is newer - but it’s evolving rapidly:

Disclosure gives stakeholders information they need to judge the alignment between commercial objectives of a company and the needs of our biosphere. Part of what we can do as individuals is express those directions of where we want the economy, our society, our ecosystem to go. When you have that mass, then the best will get out in front and the worst will get left behind, and they will be punished and deservedly so.

Kate Raworth, Economist at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, is also calling for a shift away from measuring success solely based on financial targets to incorporate sustainability and climate change metrics. Speaking at the Natural History Museum event, she noted:

Industry and finance is still pitched around the idea that it can get double-digit returns for financial investors while doing some reduction on carbon emissions and some reduction on material use. Actually this should be flipped.

This is an era in which we should be delivering double-digit cuts in carbon emissions year on year, double-digit cuts in resource use year on year, and the financial investors get the returns that are the result of that commitment to creating industry that's compatible with life.  Why can finance still expect to get its 15% while the earth is dying? Surely this is a time for finance to be transformed, to be in service to the living world.

For his part, Carney agreed there needs to be an overhaul of our value system to place the environment at the heart of it:

Why do markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland. Measures of GDP take into account only that which is priced in the market and so much of what climate change destroys – species, habitat, ways of life, natural beauty - is not formally valued. So this is a crisis of values.[We need] new markets to fund those who contribute to climate solutions and to shun those who cause climate problems.

My take

We may be some way off the objectives laid out by Carney and Raworth, but the indications are all there that this is the way society is shifting. Companies like Salesforce and Unit4, which are already underway with their eco-efforts, will no doubt find it easier to meet any of these shifts when they do occur.

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