Could you be accidentally greenwashing by promoting a tree planting scheme?
Tree planting can feel like a “quick win” when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability – especially with so many charities now making it accessible for individuals and brands alike.
People have begun to look for new ways to have a positive impact and reduce their carbon footprint, and it’s clear that shoppers expect the same from the brands they buy from.
Now it seems that almost every brand on Instagram “plants a tree for every purchase”.
UK politicians even jumped on the tree planting trend in the 2019 election and political parties tried to outbid each other on how many trees they could promise to plant.
But is tree planting really the best way to have a positive impact, or is it just greenwashing?
Planting trees is important.
Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide – one of the gases contributing to the greenhouse effect causing global warming. Deforestation accounts for 10% of global emissions.
Trees have also been shown to help cool the streets in cities. They clean the air and have a positive impact on air pollution (another growing environmental problem), their roots help prevent soil erosion and they provide an important habitat for wildlife.
There’s no denying that trees are an important part of the solutionto so many environmental issues we’re currently facing.
But for environmentally conscious businesses, trees have become a powerful marketing tool too.
And while planting trees is beneficial, the way companies approach tree planting could be doing more harm than good.
So it’s important to know what questions to ask and what research to do if you want to ensure your tree planting scheme isn’t greenwashing:
What’s our forest footprint?
Palm oil production, industrial agriculture and the timber trade are leading causes of deforestation in the rainforest. Consumer goods and commodities from furniture to coffee and chocolate, and even paper and packaging, all carry a ‘forest footprint’ – because some degree of deforestation will have occurred in their production.
Before you rush to implement a tree planting scheme, think about the forest footprint of your business. What ingredients are going into your products? Is your packaging made from recycled timber or virgin forest? Are you using FSC approved suppliers to ensure responsible forest management?
Depending on what your business does, there’s probably a lot you can do to protect forests and biodiversity by making small but effective changes in your supply chain and reducing your forest footprint.
It’s not necessarily such a ‘sexy’ marketing message as planting new trees, but it could be much more impactful.
Is our tree planting programme protecting biodiversity?
When you think about your tree planting scheme, you probably picture a beautiful forest teaming with wildlife. But all too often tree planting programmes use plantations – rows and rows of timber trees which will end up being harvested when they reach maturity.
These schemes often use fast-growing species because they need trees that store carbon very quickly. But this can lead to problems.
Planting the wrong species of trees in the wrong places can do more harm than good – introducing new pests and invasive species and harming the nutrients in the soil.
This type of monoculture planting is the same problem that palm oil plantations are causing in deforested tropical areas. These plantations are usually maintained with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, which kill vital pollinators. And they require ongoing human intervention, rather than restoring the balance of natural ecosystems.
Sadly these plantations often replace existing, biodiverse forests, rather than focusing on replenishing degraded land.
Financial incentives to plant new trees can encourage plantations, where they can be planted quickly and easily, but without a long-term focus on restoring the ecosystem and protecting the land they stand on.
As countries have made huge tree planting pledges, scientists have aired concerns that this will lead to a rise in tree plantations.
What forest management measures will be in place for the trees we plant?
Trees take a long time to grow and need continual care. Saplings are extremely vulnerable to threats such as droughts, storms, pests and diseases – so not every tree planted will survive (but this often isn’t factored into carbon offsetting calculations).
Trees only really become highly effective carbon stores when they reach 20 to 30 years old and start drawing in significant amounts of carbon dioxide. So tree planting programmes need to take a long-term view and ensure that there is protection in place for the trees long into the future.
Forests at this stage also need to be “thinned” to help them thrive. If timber from the cleared trees is used in buildings, the carbon will remain stored inside the structure – but if the wood is left to rot, the carbon will be released. A responsible tree planting scheme should factor in “end of life” plans for the trees, and the carbon they are holding, or all the good work will be lost.
Lots of tree planting schemes operate a “plant and go” model without long-term forest management in place, so this is an important topic to raise with any company or charity you’re looking to partner with.
Are local people being supported by this scheme?
1.6 billion people rely on forests, including 60 million Indigenous People, for their livelihoods, food, building materials and medicines. Plantations offer nothing to local communities, who often lose land to the corporations behind them.
Research by Friends of the Earth groups has found that these projects often fail to deliver on their promises of job creation and sustainable development, instead depriving communities of vital resources and having a negative impact on the cultural diversity of the area.
Communities who refuse to join plantation projects often suffer intimidation, and tree planting projects can come at a huge human cost.
On the other hand, when tree planting programmes are integrated into local communities, they can draw on local knowledge to restore biodiversity and directly benefit local people.
Could we protect existing forests instead?
Research has found that the amount of carbon that new forests can absorb may be overestimated. Existing forests, on the other hand, are already effective carbon stores, with established ecosystems. They are also critical to the lives of many communities. But they are under threat. More than 20% of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and we’re losing more every day.
In many developing countries where these crucial tropical forests are found, deforestation is big business – largely to meet consumer demand for commodities in developed countries.
Between 2009 and 2012, Brazil and Indonesia spent over 100 times more in subsidies to industries causing rainforest deforestation than they received in international conservation aid to prevent it.
To prevent deforestation, there needs to be an economic incentive to keep these forests standing, which outweighs the income made from cutting them down.
The UN-approved model, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), is a carbon credits scheme designed to protect these forests and support their communities. The amount of carbon stored in standing forests is calculated, and when a forest project can prove they are actively preventing deforestation and degradation (through a verified third party), they can receive REDD+ payments.
If you want to offset your carbon footprint, doing it through carbon credits can be more effective, because the carbon calculations are usually more accurate and the measurement more robust. Plus, REDD+ schemes benefit local communities, create sustainable livelihoods and help reduce poverty too.
By protecting existing forests, you don’t have to wait for trees to come to maturity before they become effective carbon stores, and you help safeguard vital wildlife habitats – many of which are home to endangered species.
Because carbon credits come with a unique serial number linked to you when you purchase them, you can still measure and report your impact accurately. In fact, because you can report how many tonnes of carbon you’ve saved, and for how long, your impact reporting is likely to be more accurate if you protect existing trees instead of planting new ones. And all the additional benefits of forest preservation still make it a compelling marketing story too.
Are we encouraging over consumption?
We all know that our consumption levels are driving the climate to destruction. If we’re going to lower emissions, we (in developed countries) need to consume less.
By promoting a tree planted with every purchase, are brands encouraging unhealthy levels of consumption, and making it look good for the planet?
Does the benefit of one tree (especially if it’s a sapling that will take years to reach maturity and become an effective carbon store) really outweigh the environmental footprint of that purchase?
This is a decision for each brand to make for themselves, and will largely depend on how their tree planting scheme sits within the rest of their impact story and marketing messaging – but it’s an important consideration to factor in when you’re trying to decide if tree planting is right for you.
Have we taken all possible steps to reduce our carbon footprint first?
If you’re planting trees or protecting forests to offset your carbon footprint, it’s important to remember that environmental damage in one place cannot be ‘fixed’ by repairing habitats elsewhere. Carbon emissions are just one part of the picture – deforestation has a devastating effect on the local environment and ecosystems too.
Rising temperatures cause more extreme weather events, such as wildfires and droughts. All of which put forests and trees at risk. If we don’t do the work to reduce our carbon footprint first, we are still part of the problem, even if we plant trees to offset our emissions.
Many carbon footprint calculators don’t take into account historical emissions. If you calculate your footprint for this year and begin by offsetting that, it’s a good start, but remember that greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere for a long time, so it’s important to consider your historical emissions too.
Our first priority should always be reduction. What actions can you take in your individual behaviour, business operations and supply chain to reduce emissions first? Switching to a renewable energy supplier, choosing a bank that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels, moving your website to green hosting and working with local suppliers where possible are all steps you can take to bring your emissions down.
Ideally, you should only be offsetting the emissions that are unavoidable, and even then supporting a carbon credits scheme through REDD+ might be a more accurate and effective way to have a net zero impact.
Tree planting can be a really effective part of your impact strategy.
…But it’s important to recognise that it is only one part – not a “catch all” solution to alleviate carbon guilt.
There’s lots of different elements to consider when it comes to finding the right tree planting partners to work with, and it’s essential that you do your research and ask them these key questions.
As tree planting has become increasingly popular, more greenwashers have come onto the market – some even offering to “plant trees for the price of a chocolate bar”. As we know, our drive for everything to be as cheap as possible is usually the cause of exploitation of people and the planet, so when you’re shopping around for tree planting partners, the usual ethical consumption red flags should apply.
Too often, these programmes are a short-term fix that haven’t fully considered the lifecycle impact across the community, biodiversity and long term carbon storage.
Scientists have now proposed ‘10 golden rules for tree planting’which can help give you a framework for these conversations when trying to choose the right reforestation partner.
If you’re going to plant trees or protect forests as part of your impact strategy, it’s important to communicate transparently with your customers about this. Consider putting an FAQ on your website addressing questions about where the trees are planted, how they’re cared for, how much people planting them are paid, how biodiversity is ensured, and anything else you think your customers should know. This will help educate everyone about the pros and cons of tree planting and help tackle greenwashing across the industry.
How we do it:
There’s no right or wrong way to make a positive impact, if you’re truly committed to it and embed it with your business values. Here’s how we integrated tree planting into our strategy, taking into account all of the issues we found along the way: