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Turning the desert into a forest together

Ant Group

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 12. Responsible Consumption and Production 13. Climate Action 15. Life on Land 17. Partnerships for the Goals

Overview

Ant Forest is an environmental initiative launched by Ant Group to encourage users to reduce carbon emissions in their daily lives. It is designed to help people to develop low-carbon consumption habits in the long term. In Ant Forest, users' low-carbon activities are recorded in their “carbon account” and those activities are converted into “green energy” points within the platform. These activities can include riding a shared bike, working online, and making an electronic payment, which can reduce resource consumption and carbon emissions. Alipay gathers data from different apps to calculate the points. Once they accumulate a certain amount of points, users can choose to plant an actual tree in some of the driest areas in China. Ant Forest funds the planting, while local governments, professional institutions as well as local farmers will plant the trees in cooperation. Ant Forest has become China’s largest private sector tree-planting initiative. In 2019, it received the "Champions of the Earth" award, the United Nations' highest environmental honor, for its significant contributions to the environment.

Authors

Zili Tao

Zili Tao

Ningxuan Tong

Ningxuan Tong

Chengye Sun

Chengye Sun

Hanyu Wang

Hanyu Wang

Chunyi Sun

Chunyi Sun

School

University of Nottingham Ningbo China

University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Professor

'Alim Beveridge

'Alim Beveridge

Innovation

In 2016, Ant Group formed a team to develop this innovative green initiative. The team planned to launch Ant Forest as an interactive mini-game to make contributing to sustainability accessible to everyone. To raise money and start this project, the team had to find partners and funders. One of the founders of this project, Bai Xue, tried to seek partnerships with some green organizations and institutions. As she said, "It sounds crazy. Just imagine someone coming up to you and telling you they need millions or tens of millions of trees to work on a large project, but she can't give you anything now." Luckily, another member of the team successfully found a partner, the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, an environmental NGO focused on controlling sandstorms in China. Bai Xue then began to contact international organizations and authorities, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to form partnerships.

Besides looking for partners, Bai Xue also actively communicated with users and started to gain knowledge about various trees and environmental protection. For example, as she said, “users need to accumulate 17.9 kg of “green energy” to exchange for a saxaul tree because that's the amount of carbon dioxide that this kind of tree can absorb in its lifetime.” The saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) is a very resilient plant thanks to its strong root system and characteristics such as drought resistance, high temperature resistance, salt-alkali resistance, wind erosion resistance and cold resistance. It is known as the “desert defender”, and it is widely distributed in desert and semi-desert areas, with great ecological benefits. The tree acts as a windbreaker, and the roots of a single tree can fix up to 10 tons of soil, preventing sandstorms, contamination of the atmosphere, desertification and erosion. To ensure the project's goals are met, the Ant Group team continuously pays close attention to the entire planting process and its outcomes. According to the interviewee, Sam Zhao, ”Our group will monitor the planting process. For example, we will regularly assign some of our members to check whether the tree has been planted or not.”

Importantly, the replicability of the Ant Forest initiative has already been shown. The Philippines has suffered severe deforestation in recent years, which led to the launch of an initiative very similar to Ant Forest, called GCash Forest, in July 2019.

Turning the desert into a forest together

Inspiration

In the summer of 2016, Ant Group held an internal meeting to discuss the development and implementation of a green financial strategy to encourage users to live and consume in a more green and environmentally friendly way. Green finance is defined as economic activity that supports projects in fields such as environmental protection and energy conservation, including investment and financing activities in areas such as clean energy, green transportation, and green buildings. At that time, green finance was still a niche concept that was not well known and accepted by the public. A virtual volunteer team composed of members from six different departments was formed to discuss product design and development. They drew inspiration from the concept of "planting trees" and proposed the "planting trees on mobile phones" plan to achieve the goal of green finance. The original solution of Ant Forest was to calculate and record a user's "green energy" through low-carbon behavior, thereby generating virtual energy for the growth of trees in the Ant Forest. Every time users would plant a tree in the virtual world, they could also plant a real tree in real life. After continuous iteration, the program was finally confirmed as an interactive game on Alipay. It was hoped that many users would participate in green environmental protection if presented with a low threshold to participation.

Since the launch of Ant Forest in 2016, Ant Forest has continuously increased public commitment to ecological protection through product positioning and new features. It has added new gaming activities and user interactions such as watering, stores, etc., triggering an upsurge in planting trees. Only three months after its launch, Ant Forest had reached 60 million users, and in less than five months it had accumulated more than 200 million users. On the eve of the G20 summit, the Administrator of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) came to China for the first time and personally experienced Ant Forest on the Alipay platform. He mentioned that this model is unprecedented in the world.

Overall impact

Ant Forest helps people to develop a green and low-carbon lifestyle. The initial idea of walking more and using more public transportation and subsequent development, such as recycling electronic devices, has influenced people's life profoundly. The habit of collecting “green energy” reminds people to live more sustainably. Ant Forest regularly updates the variety of trees available for planting and protected areas where they can be planted. It motivates local people in those remote areas to participate in the reconstruction of ecosystems and provides more job opportunities.

Business benefit

The primary business benefit of Ant Forest is that it has brought a tremendous amount of traffic to Alipay, Ant Group's flagship e-commerce platform. As Sam Zhao said, “The highest traffic peak of Alipay is not at any other time of the day but 7 a.m. This is when the user opens Ant Forest to collect energy. In the first six months of the launch of Ant Forest, Alipay's servers were often under a lot of pressure because of the large traffic of Ant Forest, so we extended the energy collection time by one hour.”

“Ant Forest will certainly bring a lot of users and daily activity to Alipay and Ant Group, and it is sustainable.” The tremendous traffic Ant Forest brought derived from both the attraction of new users and the retention of existing users. In 2014, with the success of the project of grabbing WeChat Lucky Money, the biggest competitor of Alipay, WeChat Money, had made breakthroughs and penetration into the field of small transactions, challenging Alipay's monopoly and catching a batch of new users. To respond to this threat, Alipay formulated a social strategy to attract new users, and Ant Forest is an integral part of it. For instance, to grow the "family tree", "love tree" or "friend tree", the original users drive people in their social circle to become new users of Alipay.

As for user retention, Ant Forest uses gamification to enhance user engagement. The intention to help protect the environment is the initial attraction for users of Ant Forest. After that, users will be motivated and kept engaged by the mechanism of collecting energy every day, which, otherwise, will be stolen by others. Besides, the energy ranking list adds a competitive dimension to Ant Forest, encouraging users to collect more energy. When users enjoy this kind of social activity with a sense of entertainment and competition, they become unwittingly more invested in Alipay. Therefore, with these mechanisms, the user retention difficulties of Alipay are well addressed.

In addition to increasing traffic and enlarging user volume, Ant Forest helps to build linkage to other Alipay businesses and drives the growth of these product lines. Although Alipay is a comprehensive platform for online and offline life, its core function is still payments. To create energy in Ant Forest, the users need to use the payment channels or platforms of Alipay. For example, to encourage public transportation, if users pay with Alipay's electronic transportation code when taking the subway or bus, green energy will be created. Online ticket purchases and payment of living expenses through Alipay are also included in this energy system. These online payment developments also encourage SDG 9 (Industry, innovation & infrastructure) and SDG 11(Sustainable cities and communities) as they promote the upgrade of digital services and the development of digital communities. In total, Ant Forest uses "green energy" to interconnect Alipay's various payment platforms and systems, allowing these businesses to expand.

Last but not least, Ant Forest is a highly praised project for its environmental protection, which has established a positive brand image for Alipay. Prizes and awards, such as the UN Champions of the Earth award, have made Alipay known to the world, boosted Ant Group’s image and helped it expand its overseas business. Such a brand with a high sense of social responsibility also makes people more willing to use its products and pay for them.

These commercial benefits will likely grow in the near future, as Ant Group plans to scale them up by expanding the concept of “carbon accounts” to allow carbon trading. In other words, in the future, carbon trading markets may facilitate carbon trading between individual users.

Social and environmental benefit

As for the environmental impacts of Ant Forest, this program has two principal achievements: it has encouraged 500 million people to live a more low-carbon lifestyle, while the accumulated “green energy” points collected by users has been converted into 220 million trees planted in desert areas. This has helped with the control of soil erosion and desertification, and the establishment of nature reserves. For example, the sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) planted with funding from Ant Forest is able to prevent desertification, soil and water erosion, and improve the soil to make it more fertile. For its innovative approach and the positive model role it has been for tackling global climate change, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently named Ant Forest a “Momentum for Change Lighthouse Activity”. This shows how Ant Forest contributes to SDG 13 (Climate Action).

Furthermore, Ant Forest has built conservation areas in nine places. For example, on May 20, 2019, it established a nature reserve in Deqin County, Yunnan Province, an essential habitat for rare and endangered wild animals such as Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, iguanas, and rock sheep. This reserve covers more than 60 million square meters, and was established to reduce poaching, protect biodiversity, and promote harmonious development between humans and nature. This project was completed through users’ green energy collection on January 12, 2020, and finalized by the Baima Xueshan Community Condominium Association of Deqin County. The establishment of wildlife preserves is a way to promote SDG 15 (Life on Land).

Concerning social impact, interviewee Sam Zhao said, “Ant Forest has changed people's mindset, making a number of young people start to pay attention to ecological governance and environmental protection in China. Simultaneously, it makes people take real actions to reduce the burden on the earth and gradually make these a part of their daily habits.” In practice, in September 2019, Starbucks collaborated with Ant Forest to launch a project that allowed users to choose an "eco-friendly cup", bring it to a store and use it instead of a disposable paper cup. In return, users gained 30 grams of “green energy”. According to data collected by Ant Group, 650,000 people participated in the environmental protection program during the first month, and by May 2020, the total carbon emission reduction reached 51 tons. This shows how Ant Forest also contributes to SDG 12 (Sustainable consumption and production).

Finally, Ant Forest has cooperated with the Office of National Greening Committee and China Green Foundation to reduce poverty and create jobs. Ant Forest and the two organizations signed a strategic cooperation agreement, through which the Ant Forest tree planting model was formally incorporated into the national compulsory tree planting system. This reflects SDG 17 (Partnership for the Goals). Through this partnership, local farmers and herders were employed to plant and preserve trees, producing nearly one million jobs in Gansu and Inner Mongolia and increasing labor income by more than 100 million yuan. For instance, farmers have raised themselves out of poverty by growing mature sea buckthorn plants with the support of Ant Forest. Guo Runhu, aged 64, and Chen Simei, aged 57, live in Laoniupo village in Qingshuihe county. The couple earned 30,000 RMB by picking sea buckthorn, which has allowed them to leave behind their previous life of poverty. The sum, which Guo described as "the biggest money I've ever made in my life," was eight times what the couple earned in an entire year from farming. In this way, Ant Forest also supports SDG 1 (No Poverty).

Interview

Sam Zhao, Product manager

Photo of interviewee

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Ant Group

Ant Group

Hangzhou, Multiple, CN

Business Website: https://www.antgroup.com

Year Founded: 2004

Number of Employees: 5001 to 10000

Ant Group, the parent company of Alipay, the world's most advanced platform for financial technology, was established in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China in 2014. Currently, the company has a total of 16,660 employees and 271,558 million RMB in total assets. Ant Group is dedicated to promoting the transformation of the global financial services industry through technological innovation, whereby it cooperates with partners to deliver inclusive, sustainable services for small and micro businesses and customers. Its businesses include Alipay, Yu' ebao, Zhaocaibao, Ant Forest, Ant Huabei, and Zhima Credit, among others.