Sustainability Stars: Salesforce's Patrick Flynn

How the decarbonization of the world will be bigger than the digital transition

By Marsha J. Vande Berg

(Marsha J. Vande Berg is CEO of MJVGlobal Insights, serving as an educational resource to corporate and investment executives about sustainability, governance and political economies. As CEO of Pacific Pension and Investment Institute, she worked closely with global pension executives, particularly in the Asia Pacific. A Stanford Distinguished Careers Fellow, she teaches, writes for international publications and is a frequent forum and webinar speaker. Reach her on LinkedIn or Twitter.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Patrick Flynn is so much more than his title: Vice President for Sustainability at Salesforce.com (CRM), where he leads strategic execution of the global software giant’s drive to align its business to climate science. That includes reaching its 100% renewable energy goal in 2022, and in the process, advancing the commitment by businesses worldwide to a sustainable future. 

A self-described “change agent,” Flynn is one in an emerging set of 21st century professionals, primarily millennials, who are combining their advocacy for the environment with their role and purpose in the corporate world. 

What’s more, Flynn is laser-focused when it comes to ensuring Salesforce’s decision-makers deal holistically across all operations for stakeholders — including the environment. He also is intent on putting the influence of Salesforce as a global citizen to work to encourage other businesses to help bring climate change to heel. 

And he appears to be succeeding. Salesforce was recognized as this year’s Best Policy Influencer in the RE100 Leadership Awards 2020 by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP.

It will not suffice for Salesforce, or any other company, to think just about its own carbon footprint, Flynn said in a cameo video posted on his LinkedIn page after the announcement of the award. “Only through catalyzing global systemic change can we hope to create impact at a scale that planet earth will notice, and successfully achieve a 1.5-degree future,” in line with goals set as part of the 2015 Paris Accord. 

Flynn’s statement is both plea and assertion. The message is also unmistakable. He is setting Salesforce’s sights on the entire corporate ecosystem and where possible applying Salesforce technology and influence. 

Recognizing the challenges of cost, time and capacity to thread a path through the often-confusing panoply of disclosure standards and ratings, the $232 billion company now makes its proprietary Sustainability Cloud available to businesses worldwide. This means companies both large and small can undertake their respective sustainability journeys with systematic guidance and in keeping with widely accepted disclosure frameworks of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). 

The superpower of customer relations software developed its proprietary cloud initially to build out its own sustainability strategy to track, analyze and report to shareholders and other stakeholders on the impact of millions of data bits that translate into the company’s carbon footprint. That same cloud now is available to Salesforce clients worldwide. 

Clearly, the idiosyncratic cloud puts in place a mutually beneficial opportunity for Salesforce to provide yet another service it deems critical to clients — at a nominal fee. However, the larger, more important benefit, Flynn says, is the opportunity to engage the corporate world more widely and in the process, change minds and behaviors in favor of the planet’s protection. 

His advocacy is likewise directed at governments and those agencies with authority and powers to contribute to a global sustainability effort. Salesforce does this through one-on-one engagement in locations where the company has a presence, publishing opinion pieces and adding its name as signatory to influential, pro-environment avowals. 

A case in point is Salesforce’ contribution to a CEO-led petition with UN backing that is directed at governments and urges them to incorporate climate change in their Covid-19 economic recovery plans. “If we don’t speak up and work with governments to be bold and to create sustainability for all, we will have already lost,” Flynn said in his LinkedIn post. 

Flynn began his career as a mechanical engineer working on the design of sustainable construction of residential and commercial real estate. He joined Salesforce in 2015, and in short order stepped into the ranks of a still relatively small but growing group of sustainability officers in the corporate world as well as in investment and finance. 

It’s clear this select set of professionals share a conviction when it comes to climate change, which Flynn unflinchingly describes as: “…the biggest, most important and  most complex challenge humanity has ever faced.” 

Read more from a recent Callaway Climate Insights interview with Flynn:

Question: How do you define sustainability and why did it capture your attention?

Answer: Broadly speaking, sustainability is the pursuit of a future in which environmental, social and economic objectives are achieved in balance. For me personally, like many others, the environmental challenges — particularly the climate emergency — is what captured my attention. While designing building systems, I noticed breakdowns, decisions made to maximize short-term profit for the few at the expense of value created long-term for the many. Simple things like specifying equipment that just barely met code requirements, to reduce up-front costs to the developer, even when the more efficient option would have saved money for tenants over the long term. Having seen this systemic failure, I felt compelled to commit my career to fixing things for the better. 

Q: What would you like others to take away from your story? 

A: This is an all-hands-on-deck climate emergency. As the UN puts it, in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change we need “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” No small feat. But within that statement is hope. We need to change everything, so that means we need absolutely everyone. Nobody is on the outside. Nobody is unprepared. Use your skills, your voice, your community in your own way and take action. 

Q: Can you explain sustainability’s value proposition for companies worldwide?

A: Climate change is going to cause the decarbonization of every industry —  transportation, energy, agriculture, manufacturing, construction and on and on. Investors and insurers will have to evolve how they assess opportunities and risks. This decarbonization transition will be bigger, faster and more universal than the digital transition. For those companies that take action, the benefits show up in all aspects of the business: the ability to attract and retain top talent, building customer relationships based on shared values, reducing operational costs, mitigating long-term risk and identifying long-term opportunity. 

Q: What still must change for the movement is to succeed? 

A: With climate, success is a function of time. As Bill McKibben says, ‘winning slowly is the same as losing.’ I don’t doubt that at some point we will find the collective will to tackle climate change in earnest. The costs of inaction will become too big and too apparent to too many. So at the end of the day, it’s only about accelerating action to happen sooner, more broadly and faster. That means we need you. Your brilliance, your voice, your vote for bold action now