With current conversations about climate change, deforestation, and the finite nature of natural resources, sustainability is on the minds of both consumers and corporations.
But more than that, it’s also in our hands.
Businesses care about their social and environmental impact because consumers care.
That’s why corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability reporting are a focus for companies with a significant carbon footprint, such as Pepsi and Loblaws.
Too often, saving the planet is sold to us via doom-and-gloom visions of a growing human population that takes more than it gives back.
For Matt Hill founder of One Tree Planted, however, advocating for environmental sustainability is about creating hope and optimism that individual efforts and contributions can create change.
One Dollar, One Tree
One Tree Planted is a 501(c)(3) charity with a mission to help reforestation efforts around the world. It’s an organization built on a network of partners, corporations, schools, and individuals who contribute either funds or volunteered time to help with reforestation efforts.
Matt Hill, before starting One Tree Planted, was already used to talking about social responsibility to large corporations.
“I worked for Eco Products, which was the largest manufacturer of sustainable food packaging, based out of Boulder, Colorado. I basically ran Canada for them. I got us into the Winter Olympics at Vancouver, so it was like everything had to be compostable or recyclable at the Winter Olympics. That put us on the map.”
During Matt’s time at Eco Products, he found himself in a lot of conversations with Directors of Sustainability and Marketing at companies like Molson and Loblaws. “I would deal with a lot of different companies that were looking for more sustainable options for their organization. I would always tell them yeah, there are: You could plant trees because people don’t realize how important trees are to the environment.”
Matt explains this via 6 pillars:
- Trees clean the air.
- Trees sequester around 20% of the carbon in the atmosphere (carbon contributes to climate change).
- Trees help clean the water. It actually is like a filter when there’s heavy rain. Trees absorb the water and release it gradually.
- Trees help with soil erosion.
- Trees have a social impact to it in terms of employment and life (1.6 billion people on this planet are somehow connected to forests for their livelihood).
- Tree are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity (on land).
We lose about 46-58 thousand square miles of forest each year. Not for nothing—a large portion of those trees are turned into the products we buy and use every day. However, this would be unsustainable without active reforestation efforts, especially when you consider how long it takes for a tree to grow and mature.
The organization is called One Tree Planted because its core messaging is that it will plant “one tree for every dollar donated”.
Here’s how Matt breaks that dollar down: “In Canada, for example, we’re working with some large reforestation organizations out there this summer, going out and planting 15 million trees. They cost about 60 cents for a tree sapling. It’d be about, call it 20 cents to get planted, and about 20% in administrative expenses. In other regions, the prices vary, but essentially you can get a tree planted for a dollar.”
“Companies are looking to do something more. They just don’t know what. One Tree Planted was like giving them an easy way—which I call sustainability made simple—to do something that gives you a tangible result. If a company gives us $2,000 to plant 2,000 trees in Colorado, they know exactly what the donation went to.”
Contributors can also choose where their tree gets planted (North America, Asia, Africa, Latin America), and are kept in the loop as their donations are put to work: they each get a “Tree Certificate”, a project report, photos and videos of the trees getting planted, an invoice and tax receipt.
However, one of the challenges with running a non-profit focused on sustainability is ensuring that it is indeed sustainable, both for the organization itself and the impact it seeks to create. And that’s where reforestation can get complicated if you’re not careful.
Sustainability at Scale
Supporting reforestation efforts worldwide is no easy task. It would be impossible for one organization to go out and plant trees everywhere on its own. Instead, it’s all about evangelizing the cause and supporting tree planting projects in different locations around the world.
One Tree Planted works across four different segments to coordinate reforestation efforts:
- Individuals: Anyone can donate or “gift” a donation to a friend (a feature powered by the Gift Wizard app).
- Schools: Students can get ambassador kits to help them organize tree planting events in their local communities.
- Businesses: Companies, such as Zip Car and Ford, looking for an easy way to reduce their carbon footprint and be transparent with consumers about their efforts.
- Partners: Carefully vetted reforestation projects, large and small, in locations around the world that understand the local environment and can be there to maintain it after the trees are planted.
Vega, a plant-based protein powder, is just one example of a company that partnered with One Tree Planted for Earth Day.
“People come to One Tree Planted and they can pick the region that’s most interesting to them. Let’s just say they pick North America and then they can read about these different great projects that are happening. What we do is we pool these donations and then quarterly give it to the reforestation partners. It’s an economies of scale game because if you reach out directly to a lot of these organizations, they don’t want to receive $10 from you and $100 from someone else. We make a commitment that we’re going to give them X per year, and then they factor that into their tree planting season.”
But it’s not a simple matter of just planting trees, packing up, and moving on.
“We make sure our tree survival is 80% or higher. But it’s also not even just that. It’s understanding the local community that’s been planting there for many, many years and knows what type of trees to plant, who to work with, where to plant, what’s the best time to plant there, what’s the best soil type, etc.”
Without that local body of arboreal knowledge to leverage, reforestation efforts can potentially do more harm than good.
“I’ll give you an example. I just came back from Colorado and they planted this species of tree that they thought would have a faster and overall better impact. But it was such a dominant species of tree that it was sucking up a lot of the soil’s nutrients and water, and killing off a lot of the neighboring tree species. They found this out after two or three years, once the trees started to grow. They had to pull out all these trees. What they did with the best intentions actually backfired on them. Only an organization that’s been there in the community, seeing what’s working and what’s not, can do it. Because a lot of NGOs that go into a region, they go and they do it, and then they leave. They don’t see the long-term effects.”
Staying Scrappy as a Non-Profit
Matt says that One Tree Planted is still fairly small and has a long way to go, but is confident that they’ll get there. For now, he keeps things scrappy, which keeps himself constantly busy (he also teaches marketing at McGill University in Quebec).
Starting a charity comes with all the challenges of starting a business, plus the added obstacle of keeping your overhead to a minimum while staying productive. Luckily, charities can benefit from a variety of technology and special offerings specifically for non-profits.
“The reason why I used Shopify was because before I put out some heavy amount of money, I said let me prove the business model. I said let me see if I can get a basic website created, see if the donations can happen there.”
Without a dedicated developer, Matt relies on an app called Page Studio to help him make the One Tree Planted website look the way he wants. And with it, he’s been able to go through several iterations.
“We’ve been with Shopify for over three years now and our website has been kind of piecemeal. From year one, year two, year three, we’ve had inconsistencies within the website in terms of aesthetics. Now, with Page Studio, we’re going through and we’re revamping each page using that. I can do it versus having to lean on somebody else.”
Many technology companies also offer grants and special pricing for charities. “I get $10,000 a month from Google because they’re trying to support charities. We get a lot of additional support by being a charity.”
As for his base of operations, Matt uses WeWork for co-working spaces.
“They’re a communal work environment where there’s multiple up-and-coming business working at them. Actually, Shopify has a partnership with WeWork, so many Shopify store owners, developers, and partners work out of WeWork too.”
Building a Charity App For Shopify Merchants
One Tree Planted is also unique in that they’ve built out a Shopify app called Plant a Tree to expand their reach as a charity. Matt describes the charity as a “turnkey solution” for businesses trying to make a positive impact, and the app is just one way to make that easier for Shopify merchants specifically.
“I said if we can get 500 stores to install the app, and they do 100 transactions per day, and we can maybe get 10 of those people to plant a tree, then it’s worth it.”
The premise of the app is similar to the grocery store experience where, at checkout, you might be asked to donate to a cause. Not everyone will donate, but to those who agree at that point, $1 gets added to their cart.
The goal of the app is to scale via numbers: “With something that requires very little effort, millions of trees could be happening through the infrastructure of Shopify.“
Building a charity and building an app proved to be drastically different experiences however.
“The funny story here is we had a small budget, so we created the app on a nominal budget. The reporting was a nightmare for us. I had to sift through line item by line item for each store. But the business model for the app was kind of proven because there were a lot of downloads for version 1.0 of the app.”
This initial user base provided ample feedback that Matt is now working into a new version of the app with the goal of offering a better experience for both merchants and their customers.
Driving Social Responsibility
In their first year, One Tree Planted helped plant 20,000 trees. Now, coming out of their third year, they’ve supported 100,000. In a short amount of time, the charity has grown a lot in terms of its impact. And as it does, it’ll open itself up to more collaborations with even larger companies.
Matt still flies out to help plant some trees himself, but his main focus is to build a brand that can spread their reforestation mission, and help them bring more people and companies on board.
Social responsibility has given rise to a mutually beneficial partnership between non-profits, social enterprises, and larger corporations to create a positive impact in the world.
And it’s channeling commerce into a force that’s helping to make the world a better, greener, place.