Growing a Global Forest: Ant Financial, Alipay, and the Ant Forest

Ant Forest, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project under Alipay, was born in 2016 as a virtual platform and network embedded within the Alipay ecosystem. Ant Forest encouraged users to reduce their carbon footprint and plant trees for conservation efforts in Inner Mongolia and across China.


Corresponding with a time of burgeoning concern with air pollution and an increasing focus on China’s place in the global effort for sustainable development, Ant Forest exploded in popularity across the country. Ant Forest addressed environmental issues by creating a form of philanthropic co-investment in the natural world. Within the gaming environment, Ant Forest users recorded reductions in their carbon footprint arising from small changes to their daily routines and behaviour changes that generated rewards called energy points.


Ray Chan, Vice President of Ant Financial, commented, “We think our biggest achievement lies in changing so many Chinese people’s lifestyles, and improving their understanding of desertification and climate change. We may live in modern cities, and pay less attention to the environment, but we still face haze, sandstorms, or water shortage problems. Yet we don’t know how to solve these problems alone; it’s unrealistic for most of us to fly to the deserts and plant trees… Through internet and mobile, we now link more than 300 million people with these environmental problems, helping them realise their personal low-carbon behaviour can directly improve the environment.”


Di Xu, Head of Social Good Department of Ant Financial and founder and Team Leader of Ant Forest, elaborated: “Originally, we set out to devise a ‘carbon account’ for Alipay users, to encourage people to pay attention to environmental protection and adopt low-carbon activities on a daily basis, like taking the bus or walking to work instead of driving. But after early discussions, we realised that the idea of a ‘carbon account’ was too abstract for most users, and that the market was not mature enough for carbon trading. So, we resolved to change direction, to create something more fun.”


Ant Forest reached 200 million users in February 2017, and social media was lit up with stories of users’ experiences of changing lives and forming connections within the “closed loop” of the Ant Forest’s real-world tree planting. White collar workers celebrated new productivity after weeks of waking up early to collect energy points; they found they had more time in the day to tackle their jobs. In universities, young people were also using the platform to show affection. An admirer might water another student’s tree for a year, and on the anniversary of the first interaction, propose lunch.


Through the course of its meteoric growth, the Ant Forest platform, its community, and its team had gone through significant evolution and learning. Now, as its parent company Ant Financial and its flagship Alipay brand sought to expand, the Ant Forest team needed to introspect on its own entry onto a global stage.


This case is written by Ryan Merrill, Doctoral Research Fellow in Sustainability and Innovation; Hannah Chang, Associate Professor of Marketing; Liang Hao, Assistant Professor of Finance and DBS Sustainability Fellow; Lan Yang, a current PhD student with SMU specialising in Strategic Management & Organisation; and Adina Wong from The Centre for Management Practice (CMP) at SMU. Set in January 2019, when Di Xu, the team leader of Ant Forest, was reviewing the strategy for Ant Forest, the case discusses the general value of CSR as a corporate strategy and identifies features of a service offering, both short- and long-term, which attracts and retains users. The case also considers the issue of portability of a solution to new geographies.


To read the case in full, please visit the CMP website by clicking here.