You could say Felix Finkbeiner has a passion for photosynthesis. A recent internship at SAP gave the environmentalist a chance to learn about the company’s sustainability strategy.

Plant a trillion trees? The goal 20-year-old Felix Finkbeiner has set for his organization, Plant-for-the-Planet, is on the ambitious side. Unrealistic, though? Not if you consider Felix’s track record so far.

After founding Plant-for-the-Planet at the age of nine in 2007, Felix had already passed the million-tree mark by 2010. Felix then spoke before the United Nations in New York in 2011, which raised his organization’s profile around the world. Today, Plant-for-the-Planet’s tree counter stands at well over 15 billion.

“Using trees as a means of storing carbon dioxide, we can gain some of the valuable time we need to keep our planet’s climate from warming by more than two degrees Celsius,” Felix points out. “We had scientists work out the maximum number of trees that can be planted without encroaching on land that’s needed for agricultural purposes. They told us it was around a trillion, so that’s the goal we’ve set to maximize the ability of trees to sequester CO2.”

From School Project to International Organization

This all began with a school presentation on climate protection. Having been impressed by Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who had planted 30 million trees in Africa, Felix ended his presentation with a call to action: “Let’s plant a million trees in every country on earth!”

“Being fourth-graders, we probably didn’t have the clearest idea of how many a million was,” Felix recalls with a grin. That didn’t stop them from getting the ball rolling, however. An older student set up a simple website and the group kicked off a competition with other schools to see which could plant the most trees. This gave the whole operation real momentum, and just three years later, Felix and his friends had planted a million.

These days, Plant-for-the-Planet functions as an international youth organization. “We see ourselves as climate protection advocates,” Felix explains. In one-day workshops, children and teens can undergo training to become ambassadors for climate justice. This involves holding presentations, organizing local campaigns, and passing their training on to others. Some 63,000 ambassadors are currently active in 58 countries.

When it comes to planting trees, Plant-for-the-Planet also works with other organizations to ensure a high standard of quality. “Relative to the rest of the world, Germany’s forest management efforts already conform to a high standard, which is why our projects focus more on regions near the Equator. Trees also grow faster there, so it takes less time for them to start storing carbon dioxide. In the process, we make sure that the right kinds of trees are planted and, ideally, that they can be used in some type of economic activity,” Felix reports. This helps create jobs and addresses the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic.

A Reliable Source of Funding

These trees are planted with the help of donations at a rate of one euro per tree. To finance its own operations, Plant-for-the-Planet came up with an unusual solution: selling what it calls Change Chocolate. For every bar sold, 20 cents are invested in planting trees, while another 10 cents go to the organization’s efforts to train more ambassadors. Change Chocolate has since become the best-selling fair-trade chocolate in Germany. On the Plant-for-the-Planet website, you can even sign up for monthly or quarterly deliveries.

Where does an idea like this come from? “We actually wanted to start a project with the chocolate industry. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out, and we were all really disappointed,” Felix remembers. “That’s when we thought, well, then we’ll make our own chocolate!” It wasn’t long before that disappointment turned into sweet success.

Solving Global Problems

Felix is now studying international relations at the University of London. “I want to join the effort to solve global problems,” he declares. “As far as the best way to go about that…that’s what I’m figuring out. Maybe it’s in politics, or maybe it’s in business.”

Whatever he chooses, Felix has already demonstrated his talent for public speaking, including at the SAP alumni event in March. His brief presentation got the audience excited and turned many into supporters.

Meanwhile, Felix has taken more than just a casual interest in SAP. During a four-week internship in the department headed by chief sustainability officer Daniel Schmid, he learned how sustainability is embedded in SAP’s core business.

“I hadn’t realized how much of an impact SAP has with regard to sustainability. It’s not just about the company’s own efforts, like striving to become carbon-neutral by 2025. The influence it has on its customers through its software is a much bigger source of leverage,” says a noticeably impressed Felix.

Anyone Can Pitch In

How can each individual help solve global problems? “A trillion trees works out to 150 for each person on earth. In other words, one thing anybody can do is plant 150 trees. For every euro Plant-for-the-Planet receives in donations, we plant a tree.”

So far, SAP and its employees are responsible for nearly 40,000 of them. Those who work for the company can do even more, though.

“In our everyday work, each of us can ask ourselves questions like, ‘What impact am I having on the world?’ or ‘How does my product or service contribute to issues like climate protection or access to education and clean water?’” Felix explains. “The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals do a really good job of describing these areas.”

These aims are also at the heart of SAP’s vision to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. According to Felix, it comes down to planting seeds that will turn this vision into reality.

SAP Alumni Network
What do people do after leaving SAP? All kinds of different things. They found their own tech startups, engage as social entrepreneurs, and work as consultants. Or they even go on to tackle something completely different, like designing comfortable high heels (yes, that’s right – comfortable high heels).

Top image copyright David Bolley in Cooperation with Plant-for-the-Planet