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Griffin on Tech: Can Salesforce deliver on its green dream?

Peter Griffin, Editor. 23 September 2022, 12:24 pm

The first big tech conference held in San Francisco since the pandemic served as a bit of a proxy for where the tech sector find itself following the pandemic.

A sell-out event with 40,000 attendees, Dreamforce 2022, the 20th-anniversary conference of sales and customer software giant Salesforce, had the optimistic theme of “A new day”. It’s time to get back to business, co-CEO Marc Benioff told us in his keynote address. But he urged us to do so in a sustainable way.

There were keynotes from climate change campaigner Al Gore and conservationist Jane Goodall. Saleforce launched a new marketplace for buying carbon credits and pushed its Net Zero Cloud, which lets companies track their emissions and set goals to reduce them.

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The Moscone Center was back in action for Dreamforce 2022

This was a conference free of the usual swag - pens, bottles and tote bags, which were dispensed with as part of the sustainability drive. Beef and pork were off the menu at the food stands, saving 10 million gallons of water, according to Salesforce.

The company’s own brand was shrouded everywhere in trees - real trees which Salesforce will put in the ground in support of the World Economic Forum’s goal of planting one trillion trees. Benioff switched midway through his opening address hyping up new products to give us a mini-lecture on the carbon cycle and the warming and acidification of our oceans.

Dreamforce, with its cute cartoon mascots, “trailhead rangers” and folksy camp-like sets, which extend to the company’s massive HQ dominating the San Francisco skyline, does its best to subvert the corporate tech vibe.

Corporate juggernaut

But there’s no doubt about it, Salesforce is now a corporate juggernaut. It reported US$7.72 billion in revenue in the three months to June 30, up 22% year on year. It has added 30,000 staff over the last couple of years (it now has around 190 in New Zealand), much of them elsewhere arriving via the acquisitions of Slack, Mulesoft and Tableau. It has over 17 million “trailblazers”, people in the Salesforce ecosystem who are regularly upskilling on the company’s products. It’s a masterful example of corporate branding.

Benioff boasted that the way Salesforce revenue is tracking, it is now effectively the largest enterprise application maker in the world. That’s the sort of growth story that would impress Benioff’s mentor, Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

In the halls of the Moscone convention centre, experts advised sales and marketing managers on how to maximise their own revenues and hold onto customers in the face of red-hot inflation and a faltering economy.

But how does that tremendous growth story reconcile with Salesforce’s relatively recent embrace of sustainability as a company value? A strong argument was made this week at Dreamforce that the smart digitisation of sales, marketing and customer relationship functions allows Salesforce customers to operate more efficiently and productively, lowering emissions in the process. Greater visibility into data and AI-driven insights can reveal ways to cut down on energy and packaging use. 

But can Benioff and his co-CEO Bret Taylor, the creator of Google Maps and Facebook’s Like button, continue to pursue Salesforce’s rapid growth while living up to their sustainability narrative? It’s a question that needs to be asked of every Silicon Valley tech executive who embodies what the media and technology academic and author Douglas Rushkoff calls The Mindset.

Survival of the richest?

“The Mindset prefers straight lines, linear progress, and infinite expansion over the ebbs and flows of the real world,” Rushkoff writes in his new book Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires

“We need a solution that fixes the environment and allows capitalism to grow,” he told me when I interviewed him recently. That’s how most tech billionaires he talks to think like.

“But it's like saying I want a cure for my cancer that still lets the cancer take over more of my body. It doesn't work,” says Rushkoff. 

It doesn’t add up in the face of accelerating climate change, environmental degradation and rising inequality, he argues. His solution? A more “circular economy” that isn’t built on growth. Do less, consume less, travel less, buy local. If we don’t do it now, we’ll probably have to anyway, when the mayhem of the climate crisis really kicks in.

“We are not up against the limits of our physical reality, but the limits of our digital balance sheets,” Rushkoff concludes.

Dreamforce had its fair share of marketing hype ("customer magic"?!), some incredible technology and the usual sprinkling of celebrity (I particularly loved Bono’s eccentric Q&A with Benioff).

But the bigger question I left San Francisco with was whether this charismatic billionaire founder, Marc Benioff, can really harness his company’s considerable technical, financial and human resources to realise his vision for green capitalism. The window is closing for him and his powerful corporate peers to lead the way in bringing about the change the planet desperately needs.

Peter Griffin attended Dreamforce 2022 as a guest of Salesforce.


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