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The Changing Face of Sustainability: tentree for a Greener Planet

 

Jonathan Hackett is joined by Derrick Emsley, CEO and Co-Founder of tentree, the Canadian lifestyle apparel brand whose first mission is to plant 10 trees for every product sold, in a discussion about carbon offsets, tree planting and how the way we look at sustainability is changing.

In this episode:

  • How the impetus for tentree was tree planting first and the lifestyle apparel brand second.

  • On inspiring customers to help plant over 55 million trees across the globe in eight years.

  • On changing the message around sustainability to empower individuals.

  • On the importance of transparency when funding planting of trees and the platform that tentree has developed to support this.

  • On how sustainability can be a differentiator, and a way to attract new customers.


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Learn about how BMO is supporting Earth Day with the launch of its new Trees From Trades program.

 

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Derrick Emsley:

What we've developed to support our projects is almost a sustainability kind of as a service type offering. And really just supporting in transitioning people's perspective from what I would call an old way of looking at sustainability, which is as a cost, to a new way of looking at sustainability, which is as a differentiation or a marketing tool, or a way to attract new customer.

Michael Torrance:

Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, Chief Sustainability Officer with BMO Financial Group.

Michael Torrance:

On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices and our world.

Legal Disclosure:

The views expressed here are those other participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries.

Jonathan Hackett:

Hi. I'm Jonathan Hackett, Managing Director and Head of Sustainable Finance for BMO Financial Group.

Jonathan Hackett:

Today I'm joined by Derrick Emsley, CEO and Co-Founder of tentree. Derrick, thanks for speaking with me today.

Derrick Emsley:

Thanks for having me John.

Jonathan Hackett:

To start, for anyone listening that doesn't know, what does tentree do?

Derrick Emsley:

tentree is to most people a lifestyle apparel brand that plants 10 trees for every item we sell. From the outside we kind of look like an apparel brand that happens to plant trees, but from the inside, we're actually a tree planting company that happens to sell apparel. Over the last eight, nine years or so, we planted over 55 million trees all across the globe in areas like Canada, US, Madagascar, Senegal, Nepal, and more. And we create the most sustainable outdoor lifestyle apparel that we possibly can to do it.

Jonathan Hackett:

What led to you creating an apparel brand in order to do that?

Derrick Emsley:

In hindsight, there's a lot easier ways to plant trees than creating an apparel brand. I think for us, our background was in tree planting. It was what we knew. It was the world of tree planting and carbon offsets and things like that. And so really what inspired us to create tentree was less the idea of creating an apparel brand; it was more about creating a vehicle that allowed us to plant trees. For us, it was let's create a product, let's create a brand around that product and use it as a vehicle to inspire people, to have an impact through tree planting, and apparel was frankly, just the product that we stumbled into. It's proven to be a really powerful vehicle for that, where we've created a huge community and a huge network of people around it.

Jonathan Hackett:

Do you find that people keep coming back and planting more trees as they purchase more clothing?

Derrick Emsley:

I would say that absolutely that's the case. I think we have some specific, tangible KPIs that we consider that proved that that's the case. I think when we look at the initial purchase, a lot of the times we see that as much as 30 to 50% of our customers don't even know we plant trees. And a lot of our post-purchase messaging is about the impact that that purchase had. But what we also know is sustainability doesn't make up for a bad product. It's also got to be a good product experience. What we find is that when people interact with the fact that we plant trees, whether that be through our tree registry program, through our social media channels that are focused on that, they tend to have as much as a 70% to over 100% higher lifetime value than other customers.

Jonathan Hackett:

You mentioned a tree registry program there. Can you explain to me what that is?

Derrick Emsley:

Yeah. When we think of why we started the business first and foremost, it was trees. Second to that it was the community that we created. When we looked at the world of sustainable brands and things like that we felt that one, a lot of the messaging was disempowering. It was the world's ending and green gilts and that sort of thing. As well, we felt like a lot of the messaging lacked tangibility. It was a percentage of profits. It was creating using organic cotton that you didn't really understand what that meant.

Derrick Emsley:

For us, what we wanted to do was not just plant trees; we wanted to connect people with that impact. And for us, that was really what inspired us to create this tree registry program. How it developed and what it is is that every single product comes with a unique code. It's historically been an alphanumeric code; today it's evolving into a QR code. The customer can scan that code and find out where their trees are planted, what the benefits are to the local community and the ecosystem, and they can sort of see the lifetime of those trees and the impact their purchase made.

Jonathan Hackett:

That sounds really interesting. Can I ask, when you talk about the communities that trees are planted in, how are you planting these trees? Are you doing them directly or are you partnering with a not-for-profit?

Derrick Emsley:

We've done a bit of everything. My background being in tree planting, we have a fairly in-depth knowledge of the tree planting side, arguably more than the apparel side. We have organized some of our own planting projects, but generally speaking, particularly for the international projects, you need to partner with groups that have boots on the ground. We partnered with different not-for-profits. We partnered with different organizations like university programs, Peace Corps workers, missionary groups, and different organizations that have true infrastructure on the ground. And then we really plug into the projects. We travel to them, we meet the locals, we understand how things are accounted for. And then we look to fund the projects both from an infrastructure standpoint, a community standpoint, like building elementary schools, maternity centers, fresh water well drilling systems, things like that. And then also funding, ultimately the tree planting that comes out of that too.

Jonathan Hackett:

Derrick, for the tree registry, what sorts of technology are you using for it?

Derrick Emsley:

Over the last three years, we've actually invested a ton of time, resources and energy into developing a tool to ensure that the trees that we say are being planted are actually being planted. What we found is that there's this real lack of transparency and accountability throughout the international development space. While I can only sell somebody a t-shirt once, theoretically somebody could sell a tree that you're not necessarily going to go and visit and audit as many times as they want. While we partner with the best groups and we know that that's not happening, what we've come to realize is that tree planting in general is the profile of it is growing quickly. There's the UN Decade of Restoration, there's the Trillion Tree Pledge, and so many other things and tree planting is going to have a big part of that conversation. The worst thing that could happen is years from now, we all say that we all hang our hats on the trillion trees we planted only to find out that we actually planted a hundred billion.

Derrick Emsley:

I think what we've done in the last three years is really trying to create the technological solution to ensure that that doesn't happen. What it is is it's a basically on the ground data collection platform, where when people go in the field to plant trees, they record the number of trees. They take photos. We collect the data on time GPS and more, and our system stitches that together into forms, into timelines and into maps and allows these different NGOs, these different organizations that are doing reforestation work to ensure that they're not double counting the trees and they're allocating them appropriately. And then to the end donor, the end person that's purchasing those trees, they actually get to see the on the ground data that was entered that supports the efforts that they're ultimately supporting.

Derrick Emsley:

We built this program on distributed ledger technology to ensure that it really has a ledger and a record to ensure that there's no double counting, and the impacts that we say are happening are truly happening. And that ultimately is what powers the tree registry program.

Jonathan Hackett:

Derrick, because you did mention distributed ledger technology, I feel I do have to ask in terms of the carbon footprint of that ledger, are you concerned or is there a partner you're working with to make sure that that doesn't have some of the environmental implications of the blockchain?

Derrick Emsley:

While we're still in the early days of the blockchain side of it and it today doesn't have a significant environmental footprint, it's absolutely part of our long-term roadmap of it, ensuring that this is a carbon neutral sort of blockchain. It's built on Ethereum technology as well. As some of the Ethereum 2.0 comes out as well, that's intended to have a smaller footprint long term, but we're going to be doing everything we can to ensure that the tool that we use to collect the data and deliver the data is in its own right having a negative footprint. We're going to ensure that we take care of that.

Jonathan Hackett:

That's fantastic. As you think about the growth in consumer affinity for sustainability, how do you see the role of tentree evolving?

Derrick Emsley:

I think for us, the example I often think of goes back to Shopify. What Shopify originally was, was it was a snowboard company. Ultimately they wanted to sell online and they found that there wasn't a good solution for that, so they created it. So they ultimately became the platform. For us, we created a sustainable brand, and through this experience, what we've recognized is that there's this growing need for businesses to take part in a sustainable initiative, but a lot of them don't know how to do it.

Derrick Emsley:

For us, I think what the future of our role is to play in that is amplifying the messaging and facilitating that connection of brands and sustainability and offering almost what we've learned and what we've developed to support our projects is almost a sustainability kind of as a service type offering. And really just supporting in transitioning people's perspective from what I would call an old way of looking at sustainability, which is as a cost, to a new way of looking at sustainability, which is as a differentiation or a marketing tool, or a way to attract new customer.

Jonathan Hackett:

As you think about that path, what kinds of companies are you looking at partnering with?

Derrick Emsley:

I think any company that is starting its sustainability journey. I think what we're not looking to do is really plug in to a company that's looking to use, whether it's tree planting or sustainability as an excuse. What we want is to partner with organizations that are thinking about their sustainability strategy, and they're looking at it holistically and tree planting can fit in to that strategy in an authentic way. What we're not looking to do is plant trees, like I said, as an excuse for doing a lot of bad things, but in this next couple of decades, as we pursue Net Zero and all these different commitments that are out there, what we're looking to do is create a network of organizations that people can go to, that they know that they're buying from sustainable organizations that are doing good for the planet.

Jonathan Hackett:

Derrick, it sounds like you're doing amazing, interesting things and very much looking forward to seeing how they develop. Thank you so much for joining today.

Derrick Emsley:

Thanks for having me John.

Michael Torrance:

Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO Financial Group. To access all the resources we discussed in today's episode, and to see our other podcasts, visit us at bmo.com/sustainability leaders. You can listen and subscribe free to our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. And we'll greatly appreciate a rating and review and any feedback that you might have. Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative.

Michael Torrance:

Until next time, I'm Michael Torrance. Have a great week.

Legal Disclosure:

The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries. This is not intended to serve as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any company, industry, strategy or security. This presentation may contain forward looking statements. Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on such statements as actual results could vary. This presentation is for general information purposes only and does not constitute investment, legal or tax advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment product or service. Individual investors should consult with an investment tax and/or legal professional about their personal situation. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

 

Jonathan Hackett Managing Director and Head, Sustainable Finance Group

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