Growing A Global Forest

Growing A Global Forest

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 15 February, 2022

In brief

  • Alipay's Ant Forest demonstrates how technology supports widespread individual efforts to combat climate change. However, the initial efforts proved too abstract for many users, which led the development team to gamify the tool through a reward mechanism of energy points.
  • The hedonic treadmill theory suggests people’s happiness with an experience fades over time. 1) Achievement, 2) Authenticity and 3) Attachment are the three critical drivers for engagement to keep Ant Forest flourishing.
  • The team needed to improve the available product offerings to maintain users' interest in Ant Forest and its growth. In addition, the act required coming up with new ways for users to accumulate points and spend them differently. As a result, Ant Forest has become a key pillar in Alipay's customer appeal and helped improve Ant Financial's brand equity.

Imagine if you could make sustainable living interesting and fun, and more importantly, ensure that efforts to go green are truly tangible.

For Alibaba Group’s Ant Financial (renamed as “Ant Group" in 2020), its corporate social responsibility (CSR) project, Ant Forest, is the real deal.

So how did a China fintech company pave the way in gamifying green behaviour?

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A team from Singapore Management University, comprising Ryan Merrill, Associate Professor Hannah H. Chang, Associate Professor Liang Hao, Lan Yang and Adina Wong, discussed its success in a paper titled, Growing A Global Forest: Ant Financial, Alipay and the Ant Forest, which was awarded the Financial Times Responsible Business Education Awards 2022. SMU is the only Singaporean university to be acknowledged at this category of the Awards, which recognises the best teaching cases published in the past three years with sustainability and climate change as key learning objectives.

What Is Ant Forest?

For the uninitiated, the Ant Forest is a CSR project under Alipay, and is part of Ant Financial, whose parent company is Alibaba Group. It was introduced in 2016 as a virtual platform and network embedded within the Alipay ecosystem.

The initiative was started to encourage Chinese citizens to pay attention to environmental protection and adopt low-carbon activities to reduce their carbon footprint by setting up a “carbon account”. This also came about during a time of burgeoning concern with air pollution and an increasing focus on China’s place in the global effort for sustainable development.

However, the initial efforts of a carbon account proved to be too abstract for many users, which led the development team to gamify the tool through a reward mechanism of energy points, which would not only be easier to understand, but also be more fun in capturing the people’s interest.

The result: A virtual platform where users could earn energy points that could be used to plant and care for trees in a virtual garden, which in turn, would lead to the planting of actual trees upon the maturity of the digital trees in the encroaching deserts of Inner Mongolia.

As people embark on more sustainable living activities, carbon emissions fall within the cities, while at the same time, their efforts also help plant more trees where needed to improve air and water quality, and reduce soil erosion.

By doing so, Ant Forest’s commitment to the real-world impact created a “closed-loop” in the heart of the user experience, which according to Di Xu, head of Social Good Department at Ant Financial and founder and team leader of Ant Forest, is a critical element of the platform’s success.

In 2018, Ant Forest planted 55.5 million trees, reducing approximately 3 million tons of carbon emissions. And by January 2019, Ant Forest registered near 400 million users, doing their bit for the planet.

3 Key Drivers For Enhanced User Engagement

But like any app, the biggest obstacle lies in keeping its users interested and coming back. After all, the novelty and excitement of using the Ant Forest platform can eventually wear off. The paper’s authors shared that this natural phenomenon is known as the theory of the hedonic treadmill, whereby people’s happiness with an experience fades over time.

Thus, to keep Ant Forest flourishing, three key drivers for engagement were identified – Achievement, Authenticity and Attachment, to keep users keen.

#1 Achievement

Without a doubt, the app has a fairly broad appeal to various demographic groups as Alipay is used by both the young and old. This meant that Ant Forest had to appeal to a wide range of people.

Created to help users pay attention to their behaviours that would be conducive to environmental protection, the main gamification feature of the app placed emphasis on gaining rewards.

According to the authors, this tapped into a user’s sense of achievement. By gaining rewards, it motivated users in their goal pursuit, thus offering both intrinsic and extrinsic benefits. The energy points earned through their daily sustainable living activities allowed users not only to grow more digital trees in their virtual gardens, but also make them feel good and take psychological ownership in knowing that they were helping the environment at the same time.  

In short, Ant Forest allowed users to participate and make an impact through their daily actions, no matter large or small.

#2 Authenticity

To keep users invested in the cause, Ant Forest needed to offer tangible rewards and outcomes. Through collaborating with different partners, such as the leading Chinese conservation group, SEE Foundation, Ant Forest was able to make the rewards more concrete and realistic by ensuring that real-world tree planting operations were transparent. This, said the authors, provided users with a robust sense of ownership.

But this was just the first step. To enhance user engagement, Ant Forest partnered with satellite company Jiage to take aerial photos of the desert areas before and after tree planting. This satellite monitoring allowed the replacement of early signages that were put up initially to mark the trees, and was able to give users powerful visual contrasts of how the project was growing over the months and years.

Next, the collaboration with Gaode, a popular map app, allowed the team to position the exact location of the Ant Forest plantations on online maps. In addition, the partnership with agricultural technology, Jifei, led to the installation of robotic scarecrows among the planted trees, which in turn allowed users to see the happenings of the area, including animals walking among the forests and admiration of the trees growing in real-time, through photos taken by the scarecrows every 15 minutes.

These moves increased the authenticity and realism of the project, which bolstered its appeal to users and improved user engagement on the app.  It was through this fortification of trust that contributed to the meteoritic growth and success of Ant Forest, said the authors.

#3 Attachment

At its heart, the app was built to promote social interaction frequently. To increase engagement, the team developed functions that allowed users to invite family and friends onto the platform. Through the building of this virtual community, users could visit one another’s virtual gardens to water plants or even compete to gain even more energy points, and use these virtual interactions to support behavioural change in the real world.

The paper also discussed that these attachments formed have even resulted in many stories of users’ experiences and how the app has changed their lives. For instance, a man from Fujian started collecting energy points while his wife was pregnant, and on the day of his baby’s birth, he successfully planted his tree. To date, he has visited the actual tree and vowed to share his story with his child to teach him about protecting the Earth. Another user who used to weigh 135kg successfully shed 35kg from walking every day to collect energy points. Other stories also included a university student who secretly watered his crush’s tree for a year before asking her out on a date.

Finding New Ways To Ensure User Retention  

To keep users interested in Ant Forest and its expansion, the team had to enrich the product offerings available. This meant finding new ways for users to earn points and different options for spending them, such as the introduction of new tree species – Haloxylon in 2016, Salix in 2017 and Huabang in 2018, for users to plant.

And to ensure Ant Forest’s credibility, the team hired dedicated project managers to manage the expanding work with the SEE Foundation, including the opening of new partnerships. This meant that for each NGO partner, Ant Forest would organise the number of trees in anticipation of the planting season.

In addition, Ant Forest also began working with the China Green Foundation (CGF) to increase the planting of trees outside Inner Mongolia and all across China through the supplementation of CGF’s budget. By doing so, the team was able to coordinate planting and stay ahead of user demand.

According to the authors, these new partnerships proved crucial in helping the team and Ant Forest keep up with the ever-increasing demands from the fast-growing Ant Forest user base.

But it didn’t stop there. As user demands continued to exceed expectations, the team also looked to other partnerships, which resulted in collaborations with two leading conservation organisations – YangHu Conservation in 2017 and GuanBa Conservation in 2018, that would allow users to spend energy points to “adopt” five square metres of forest to protect.

Another additional boost to user activity was the inclusion of Ant Forest in Alipay’s Five Fortune Cards (wu fu) Collection campaign that happened during the Lunar New Year celebrations. By encouraging users to water a friend’s tree, they could earn points to collect one of the five Fortune Cards.

All these, from introducing new tree species to supporting land conservation, together with increased virtual social interactions, have contributed to help sustain users’ behavioural changes alongside their commitment to the app, improving user retention, said the authors.

Improving Brand Equity And Building Business Values

While Ant Forest started as a non-profit initiative, its popularity has also helped build and fortify Alipay and Ant Financial’s business value among the Chinese people. In fact, as of May 2018, Ant Financial was considered to be the highest valued fintech company in the world, with a valuation of US$150 billion.

Through the increase in its user base, Ant Forest could be seen as an important complementary product within Alipay. According to the paper, this lifestyle app, along with its gaming and social interaction value, has become a key pillar in Alipay’s customer appeal, especially in attracting and retaining users within the Alipay ecosystem.

In addition, Ant Forest has also helped improve Ant Financial’s brand equity. The project has enabled the team to secure an adequate footprint for intellectual property associated with Ant Forest through the setting up of the platform and the implementation of tree planting. This could be seen via the registration of several patents as well as the creation of data processing methods linked to behavioural data and carbon emission reductions.

Through this paper, it is interesting to note that this bottom-up project that originated from the creativity of Alipay’s employees has become an important asset for Alipay and Ant Financial today. More importantly, its success can also be used as a tool for global expansion for the company, and the country, in the future. However, the authors  note that it is not without obstacles, such as differing cultures (China has a collectivistic or interdependent culture, whereas countries in the West like the United States are known to have individualistic or independent cultures), as well as different environmental and climate goals, that could potentially prevent its success in other markets.

Methodology & References
  • Merrill. R., Chang. H. H., Liang, H., Yang, L. and Wong, A. (2019). Growing a Global Forest: Ant Financial, Alipay, and the Ant Forest. Singapore Management University. Retrieved from: {}