Companies looking to reign in their contributions to climate change will soon have a new way to track just how much pollution they’re putting into the atmosphere. Today, customer relationship management company Salesforce unveiled Sustainability Cloud, software that helps businesses track and analyze their environmental data. The announcement has been cautiously welcomed by environmental groups optimistic that Salesforce’s huge reach might make companies more willing to take a second look at their environmental footprint.
Other software tools are available that offer similar services. But Salesforce has a huge size advantage over its competitors. Over 150,000 businesses and organizations, including big names like Amazon Web Services, Adidas, and Farmers Insurance, rely on Salesforce for its tech and customer relations services. The hope is that some of those companies might find carbon accounting more attractive and accessible if the tools used to track it come from an already recognized and trusted source.
“It could represent a possibility to kind of spread the gospel, you know, reach a larger audience and empower them to track that type of information,” says Wiley Barbour, a senior project director at the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides training on greenhouse gas accounting and auditing. “The question would be, how many of those companies and entities that use Salesforce have not thought about doing a greenhouse gas inventory, haven’t thought about what their footprint is?” Barbour says.
Barbour tells The Verge that in his work consulting with other companies on their carbon accounting, he’s often surprised to find how many big actors rely on lower-tech solutions like spreadsheets. “I’m always struck by how many really, really large companies are still just cranking away [at] gigantic spreadsheets,” he says. “I’ve been in these spreadsheets with 30,000 rows of electricity data and fuel consumption data.”
Salesforce’s Sustainability Cloud stems from the system it developed to track its own carbon footprint. Its emissions have grown each fiscal year between 2017 and 2019, from 149,000 to 244,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for its data centers. The company attributes the increased emissions to its growth, and has pledged to reach 100 percent renewable energy usage by 2022. It says it reached net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through the use of offsets in 2017.
“We were really looking at getting our environmental data in not only excellent shape, but in a way that we could make it investor grade and be very transparent about it. We built a system internally to manage all of our carbon accounting issues, and are now turning that on for customers,” Suzanne DiBianca, chief impact officer at Salesforce, tells The Verge. “We’re just bringing the full power of Salesforce to the climate issue.”
Sustainability Cloud streamlines the process of measuring things like energy usage and travel and can help convert that information into how much planet-warming carbon emissions the company generated. The product will be available to existing and new customers in December of this year. But the company has made a beta version available to 10 of its clients, including e-signature company DocuSign.
Prior to using Sustainability Cloud, DocuSign, like others, relied on spreadsheets to crunch their environmental numbers. Salesforce’s new system offers a more user-friendly way to get some key take-aways from that data. “A huge part of the power of this app is in being able to observe and manage trends over time,” Amy Skeeters-Behrens, executive director of DocuSign IMPACT, the company’s global philanthropic initiative, tells The Verge, saying that the app has already identified some areas where the company could reduce its environmental footprint.
The sheer size of Salesforce and its potential reach could also spark another fundamental shift in how the private sector measures its carbon. If enough customers start using it, it could lead to a more standardized way for measuring impact. If companies are all measuring their environmental impact in a more comparable way, Barbour says that whatever number a company comes up with, “it would represent the same environmental good or bad that another company’s calculations did.”
But the new tool’s mainstream appeal could come with challenges. There’s a reason why many companies choose to stick with spreadsheets or use their own specialized carbon accounting programs — they’re easier to customize to a particular industry or field if they stay in-house. “Company attributes need to be taken into account to ensure that everything’s accurate and up to date with best practices and consistent with standards,” Nicole Labutong, a managing consultant with the firm Navigant tells The Verge. Labutong helps companies reduce their adverse environmental impacts.
Cost is also a concern. “Sustainability departments are resource constrained, even for large companies,” Labutong says. Salesforce has yet to set a price on its new tool, but it’s likely to cost companies more than what they’re spending on spreadsheets.
Barbour also cautions that success may not come easily for Salesforce. He has seen other software come and go, and seen the companies who used them revert back to the spreadsheets they’re comfortable with. Big polluters, particularly those who are mandated to watch their emissions, already often have their own systems for measuring how much crap they’re belting out into the atmosphere. Salesforce has the potential to reach a new audience of climate-concerned companies who volunteer to monitor their impact on the planet. But, like any product, success will hinge on demand.
Daniel Hill, manager of Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program, however, isn’t too worried about that. “There’s just a lot of companies really stepping up on making voluntary commitments,” he says, adding that “with that increase in goal setting, there’s this natural need and demand for more services and tools.”