We need to talk about trees

lone tree

The emerging problem of tree-washing and wish-planting.

“One tree planted for every order” is a phrase that you’ll see across the marketing of a growing number of businesses these days. It’s not greenwashing, but it is a concerning trend that spans a business’s marketing communications and carbon offsetting efforts in a way that risks devaluing and even undermining the path to a sustainable future. But, why? Surely planting more trees is a good thing?

“Trees are good as long as the right trees are in the right places. The big issue is thousands of businesses jumping on the treewagon, planting trees without having reduced their carbon footprints first and then proclaiming that they’re climate positive, carbon neutral, or whatever term they’ve chosen for their business.”
Matt Hocking

Tree-washing and wish-planting are two terms coined by Leap’s founder Matt Hocking to describe the growing trend for businesses to pledge to plant a tree for each sale made, when the planting of a single tree might not offset the impact of that sale, or taking an incredibly simplistic and hopeful view of carbon sequestration and offsetting. The problem as he sees it, is the risk that many businesses and their customers will click a button to plant a tree then dust their hands in a self-congratulatory manner and believe that their job is done. Climate catastrophe averted. Easy. But it’s not that simple.

Our friend Mark Shayler recently wrote about greenwashing and its bedfellow ‘green-cocking’ (Matt also calls this as “eco-peacocking”) for Ethos Magazine. He highlights the tendency for businesses to cling to the good things that they do, and as those actions become part of their brand mantra they ultimately lose validity.

“The saying “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” is resonant here. As citizens we are looking to feel less guilty about our behaviours and to try and do good. It’s no surprise then that business seeks to meet this customer desire, a desire to feel less-bad about consuming their products. This is a good thing and should create a race to the top. And it has done this in many sectors. It has also created a certain romancing. The embroidering of story. Not lying. Just distraction.”
Mark Shayler

Let’s make one thing very clear through all of this. Planting more trees is great, and something that we wholeheartedly encourage. But as an offsetting exercise it MUST come after a business or individual’s carbon emissions have been reduced as much as possible. Otherwise, polluting companies can avoid reducing their emissions at source (and all of the intersectional environmental injustices that they might also be perpetrating) and can carry on whatever it is that they do with the justification that they’re planting trees somewhere to cancel out their actions. Worse, if this practice were to become widespread then there is the very real risk of land grabbing in the developing world escalating to meet the demand.

“I’m all for mass drawdown, but everyone and every business must understand the details. Leap planted our first native trees in 2004, so they are now roughly halfway through drawing down the one tonne of CO2 that they will sequester over their lifetime. For me though, our biggest endeavour and achievement has been protecting existing mature forests, of which we’ve locked more than 330 acres to date – potentially equal to 65,800 tonnes of CO2 protected from deforestation.”
Matt Hocking

One sapling planted does not equal immediately offsetting one tonne of CO2. It just isn’t that simple. That one tonne (average) is drawn down over the lifetime of the tree, and not at a steady rate but in a bell-shaped curve. What’s more, that sapling has to survive and thrive. Many do not. For maximum positive impact they should also ideally be planted as part of a mixed reforestry or rewilding scheme with wider ecological benefits.

Giving consumers permission or encouraging them to purchase a product (that perhaps they don’t even really need) by using the “one tree planted for every order” hook is becoming highly questionable. One tree might be a tangible concept for consumers, but that one tree might not balance out the footprint of the product and it might also represent a comparably very cheap “get out of jail free” for the vendor if the cost of planting a tree is as little as $1 but the value of the sale was worth hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars.

The disconnect between consumers and the reality of drawing down and offsetting carbon emissions through tree planting reached what might well have been peak-ridiculous recently. A tree planting organisation created and shared one of Instagram’s new “Add Yours” stickers, promising to plant a tree for every picture of a pet posted to it. It was used over four million times. The account deleted the post within ten minutes when its virality became obvious and they realised that they didn’t have the resources to deliver on their promise. Despite them deleting the post the sticker kept spreading, the irony being that each pet picture posted as a story has an attached carbon footprint (just under 0.3g), and very few (if any) of those four million plus posts will have a tree planted in response.

Humanity, and in particular the developed capitalist economies, cannot tree-plant their way out of the climate crisis. For actions to be meaningful, businesses must first reduce their carbon footprint as much as they possibly can. Only when they can reduce it no further should they then offset what remains (*there are various different ways to offset CO2 emissions). Protect existing mature forests, woodlands, and blue carbon habitats. Then, regenerate them through planting. By all means incentivise consumers with a “one tree planted for every order” offer, but this should be a programme above and beyond the business’s reduction and offsetting efforts towards Net Zero. Leveraging such schemes as a primary marketing hook risks them being seen as aforementioned acts of “eco-peacocking”, which leads inevitably to skepticism amongst consumers and valuable methods to work our way out of this crisis being undermined.

Protect trees. Plant trees. But do it for the right reasons.

Once you’ve minimised your personal carbon footprint and that of your business as far as is practically possible, the schemes that we’d suggest to offset what remains through tree planting are:

In our own fragile beautiful neck of the woods, Cornwall, see what the team at Cornwall Wildlife Trust have been doing as part of the ‘Forest For Cornwall’ initiative and their essential Right Tree, Right Place tree planting guidance.

In-article images of Canada’s temperate rainforest by Leap’s Senior Sustainable Web Developer, Nick Lewis.