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Why Salesforce Cleaned Up Its Carbon Footprint 33 Years Sooner Than Promised

The company pledged to offset all its emissions by 2050. Turns out it was easier than anticipated.

Why Salesforce Cleaned Up Its Carbon Footprint 33 Years Sooner Than Promised
“Our approach to thinking about this mission is avoid, reduce, mitigate.” [Source Images: peangdao/iStock, Softulka/iStock]

Along with the nifty products and services that companies love to tout as their main output, what most businesses are really great at is generating greenhouse gasses from carbon emissions. Not surprisingly, the journal Science reported in August that company processes have to date supplied two-thirds of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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After all, offices, manufacturing plants, and computers require electricity a lot of electricity. Shipping things around the country in trucks or overseas on boats or planes takes gas. Toss in the fact before any product many of the raw materials are being sourced from a global supply chain, and you get a damaging amount of emissions. Those numbers are a big problem for some socially responsible business owners, who have been working to change it. But it turns out, it’s a solvable problem.

“Everything we do is really in the context of living our values right every day.” [Source Images: peangdao/iStock, Softulka/iStock]
In February 2015, the B Team, a nonprofit group of business and foundation leaders cofounded by Richard Branson that counts CEOs from Salesforce, Unilever, and the United Nation Foundation among its members, set forth an agreement dubbed “Net-Zero by 2050.” Ten major companies have since signed up, agreeing to find ways to offset their own harmful emissions completely in order keep the earth’s temperature from rising beyond the 2-degrees celsius threshold, which scientists predict may cause catastrophic environmental shifts.

The truth is that NZ2050 sounds pretty lofty, but is imminently doable. It doesn’t take three and a half decades to go fund major reforestation programs or wind farms, both of which offer readily available carbon offset credits in exchange for financing. There’s also the matter of the fine print: The pledge’s commitment only covers those greenhouse gasses that companies directly emit, allowing tech giants off the hook a bit. Most would just have to account for the electricity within their offices and data centers, ignoring supply chain fallout from, say, mining the materials for servers, not to mention manufacturing and shipping them to server farms. They could also avoid dealing with all that energy use from customers powering up devices and running programs on them.

Salesforce, for instance, took a look at the final guidelines and decided to not just meet them, but exceed them, investing in a way that creates a carbon-neutral cloud and in environmental projects that have a social and economic impact in the developing world, one of the places expected to be hardest hit by climate change. The company hit that mark this month, 33 years ahead of the deadline, although they won’t disclose how much it cost.

“Everything we do is really in the context of living our values right every day and integrating the work that we do around philanthropy so that it makes sense in the community and it makes sense in our business,” says Suzanne DiBianca, who became the company’s chief philanthropy officer and executive vice president of corporate relations in 2016 to ensure such holistic thinking. Salesforce decided to try to meet their benchmark immediately because they view carbon emissions as an environmental justice issue. Investing now as opposed to later means having a larger impact that associated inequalities of their fixes address.

Salesforce has also strategically invested in wind farms in Texas and West Virginia, places where the rural economy is failing and more people are in need of jobs. [Source Images: peangdao/iStock, Softulka/iStock]
To that end, the group has invested in two socially-driven organizations that provide the offsets needed to hit the pledge. The first, Proyecto Mirador works in Honduras to replace and recycle inefficient wood-burning stoves with new ones that require less fuel and improve the air quality in rural houses. (The group was already a Salesforce client). So far, the project has installed more than 130,000 stoves curbing at least 1 million tons of carbon emissions. The second is called India Solar Water Heating, which provides businesses with water storage tanks that can be efficiently heated for a dependable hot water supply that also takes pressure off overtaxed (and blackout-prone) energy grids. Both hire local workers to boost the local economy.

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Salesforce has also strategically invested in wind farms by signing agreements with operations in Texas and West Virginia, places where the rural economy is failing and more people are in need of jobs. Eventually, the group would like to expand these kinds of operations in a way that provides more jobs in many markets where the company operates, while helping those same places run entirely on locally-made renewable energy.

None of that would be possible without addressing exactly how the company consumes energy, too. One fix: The company has developed what it dubs “multi-tenant architecture” to host separate client information together on the same server, which it claims is 50 times more efficient than standard designs, which silo client intel on separate servers. (They share more about the theory here.)

“Our approach to thinking about this mission is avoid, reduce, mitigate,” says Patrick Flynn, Salesforce’s senior director of sustainability. And, of course, to prove well ahead of time how others can be equally successful. “The challenge of tackling global inequality and climate change it’s going to require innovation on a scale that we’ve never seen.”

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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