AHA Interviews

Can software democratize sustainability?

Ari Alexander
AHA Interviews
Ari Alexander

AHA talks with Ari Alexander, Salesforce Sustainability Cloud

Ari was the go-to-market lead on Salesforce.org’s Philanthropy Cloud, a product that started as an internal tool to help manage the company’s volunteering and philanthropic activity. In 2019, he pivoted to help launch Sustainability Cloud, which helps businesses track and analyze their environmental data. Before joining Salesforce, Ari worked in the Obama administration, focusing on outreach to the NGO community and to international development organizations. Data and transparency have been the thread through it all. We recently caught up with him for his thoughts on technology’s role in fighting climate change.

Tell us a little bit about the origins of Salesforce Sustainability Cloud.

Ari: It sprang from our frustration with tracking our own carbon footprint. Our sustainability team was finding our internal process too slow and complex. So one of our analysts created an app on the Salesforce platform to make the process work better. And, lo and behold, so many things about our platform seemed almost purpose-built for streamlining a process like carbon accounting. The app’s ability to deliver faster, better, more accurate data kind of wowed our sustainability team. So we began showing it to trusted friends from other companies, asking, “What do you think?” and “Would this be appealing to you?” Then we took that feedback and turned it into a business case for our company to invest in and bring the full power of Salesforce behind it.

We went live in January. The product is out in the market being sold to customers all over the world. We’re learning a ton from their feedback, and we’re releasing new functionality every month. It’s been an incredible journey—definitely not slow and steady, more like a wild startup within a 50,000-person company.

You launched in January 2020, right before a lot of tumultuous events. What’s been your biggest surprise so far?

Ari: The biggest surprise is how broad the demand is and where it’s coming from. We assumed that sustainability teams at large companies would be our primary customers. But our sales folks have been able to take it much broader. They’re selling Sustainability Cloud to investor relations, to marketers, to CIOs and directors of IT who know and love Salesforce and see this as the next thing you can do on the platform. The entry point runs the gamut.

The value is having a source of truth that can serve as the starting place for your internal and your external conversations.

What does this broad demand tell you?

Ari: It tells us that sustainability is becoming a much broader concern inside companies than we thought. COVID-19 seems to be accelerating this trend. We’ve talked to a lot of the big consulting firms and research organizations that are seeing a huge uptick in inbound interest and inquiry around sustainability in the last three or four months, compared to the last three or four years. People from different areas of the same organization are looking for tools to solve the carbon problem and seeing opportunity. It’s no longer just the sustainability group pushing.

Where do you see the product adding the most value?

Ari: At the intersection of people and data. Take supply chain. Very few companies have direct access to carbon emissions data from hundreds, let alone thousands, of their suppliers. Most suppliers don’t have this data ready to go and therefore it’s not just a technology issue of linking it. You have to convince people to give it to you in the form you need and on a continual basis, and then you have to make it easy for them to do that. This is not primarily a technology problem, but rather a set of relationships and expectations between customers and vendors. Salesforce is the type of platform that is built to make it easy to connect those dots and have data flow. As more suppliers collect more data and start sharing it on the platform, interesting things start to happen.

What do companies gain from having faster and accurate carbon data?

Ari: The value is having a source of truth that can serve as the starting place for your internal and your external conversations. Once you measure something, you can manage it. We know that investors are looking for increasing transparency on this issue and more rigor. Investors want to know that it’s data-driven, that it’s third-party reviewed and that it’s designed to produce investor-grade data. That absolutely changes the conversation from something soft to something extremely hard. Something right there to look at, to stare you in the face and to go to your CFO with. Want to change how you’re doing sustainability reporting? Want to move away from annual reporting and toward quarterly or a 10-K proxy disclosure? You can do that. Having this data can also open up customer marketing opportunities where your products affect your customers’ footprint.

And when you have clear data, you can start to tell stories …

Ari: We just saw Allbirds label their carbon footprint on each pair of shoes they make—like calories on a nutrition label. We’re seeing that more and more with consumer goods companies saying, “From the salt that’s mined all the way to the package, here’s the carbon footprint of this bag of chips.” We’re going to see all these different manifestations of it. But it all has to start with data.

Good technology makes a lot of the friction frictionless.

How do you engage employees around carbon data?

Ari: By making it personal and relevant. How many people think about how accounting works at their company? Almost no one. How many people think about the environmental accounting that’s taking place on their behalf at their company? Almost no one. But if a manager gets a T&E report that helps them see, “Oh, this is my contribution to our budget going up or down. Now I understand my part in this budget.” Suddenly, accounting is speaking to a frontline manager. With environmental data, you have people seeing, “I got on this plane, I didn’t get on this plane, I got on this train, I took a car.” Those data points are reflected back to you in a tool you can click around in on your phone. It’s personal. And that’s powerful.

As sustainability becomes more of a value across society, across the business, we’re going to see users start to think about what sustainability means for the part of the business they control.

What’s the main challenge facing sustainability leads now?

Ari: Harnessing enthusiasm. People like me, we’re washing ashore to a sustainability team saying, “I’m here to help!” We’re coming in waves. The sustainability leader at a company is now in this new role of enlistment officer. They’re putting people to work based on all the expertise and all the things they’ve learned in the silo of sustainability to optimize all of the goodwill, all the work, all the expertise that exists across the company. The goal isn’t to get all those people to work for the sustainability VP. The goal is to have all of that skill and passion put to work across the business. That’s the grand vision. That’s how you know it’s working.

One of the longtime challenges facing sustainability has been getting past the complexity and jargon. Is software how we democratize sustainability in organizations?

Ari: It’s all about the interface. I don’t want people to have to go to Presidio to be able to do carbon accounting on Sustainability Cloud. I want just the opposite. Good technology makes a lot of the friction frictionless. I think about that all the time in the way the product’s designed: how we enable people with the product, how we offer free training about the product. We want as many people as possible to know how to do this. Design matters. We try to make things look and feel fun in all kinds of business operations. We make things easy to use, easy to change and easy to administer. That’s the thing. How do you apply all of that learning and thinking to a new problem that, oh, by the way, happens to be an existential crisis for everyone on the planet? It’s an amazing privilege to be able to work on bringing those things together.

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