Brand-conservation endeavors that are built primarily for marketing sew distrust into the fabric of consumer consciousness.

It was late January when I read an article that stated planting 1.2 trillion trees would cancel a decades worth of carbon emissions. Over the next few days I noticed companies advertising that they planted trees for each item sold. This sounded like a great priority for companies and was interested in incorporating the technique myself in future projects.

I wanted to know where these companies were planting trees, who was planting them, and how much of the purchase was actually being used to do it all. That’s when I started to see something I had suspected.

It’s Difficult Getting Honest Products

After researching the space, it was obvious many bad actors were misrepresenting their charitable side for marketing or namesake — successfully, so it seemed. Many brands claim to be planting 10 trees or more per item sold. While this may be technically true, the fact is they are actually donating around $1 for every $40-plus item they sell. Less than 3 percent of the purchase is actually donated to conservation efforts despite being the focus of all marketing material.

The main techniques many brands use is to be extremely vocal about their reforestation efforts but very vague as to where, by whom, the costs, and follow-up when those trees were planted. There were even brands that would make it sound as if they themselves were planting the trees when they were not. In some cases, brands employing this technique would actually use the number of trees they plant directly in their name.

Other issues faced by brands included their actual product. Important details were left out about where their product gets sourced from, manufacturing methods used, packaging materials, and the supply chain’s carbon output. Simply saying “100 percent organic cotton” isn’t enough; 100 percent organic cotton is actually harmful to many environments by depleting local water resources for cotton farming. Building sustainability into the supply chain is a crucial part of making a product that benefits the environment.

It’s Difficult Finding Trustworthy Partners

There are hundreds of “reforestation partner” organizations that brands are donating to. Looking closer, the same issues faced by the brands using them often came up for the planting partner themselves, such as not enough information about where they plant, who plants them, and costs associated, as well as a lack of follow-up information. It would be nice to know how they can create a sustainable reforestation effort with land ownership, site preparation, nursery, crew, materials, and maintenance; all at one-tenth of a dollar per tree. Not to say it can’t be done; many just aren’t detailing cost breakdown with that information.

The sheer scale claimed to be planted successfully by some reforestation partners should be visible from space. One might think they would be keen to show such massive efforts with their other marketing material. Google Earth Timelapse is a perfect tool to showcase this kind of information. Using the tool’s cursory checks, I was not able to see the kind of development that some had portrayed. Having a global view would be a big help, if just to show the scale of land where saplings are growing. Perhaps it’s simply an oversight from not providing plant locations, but it doesn’t help inform donors.

Making an Honest Product

At this point I was getting extremely disappointed with the supposed altruistic reforestation efforts many brands employ. Reputable brands making a real effort to combat climate change seemed too few and far between.

In response to the aforementioned issues with other brands, on Earth Day this year I launched Treets.org, a clothing brand that donates the majority of profit to the environment. Seeing the pitfalls among others in the space, it seemed necessary for a brand to exist that actually does good by focusing on environmental (instead of monetary) profit. No less than $5 per item sold is donated — over 90 percent of Treets profit — to plant five trees via OneTreePlanted.org.

I had finally found a reforestation partner that had all the boxes checked. Each tree planted by One Tree Planted costs $1, and they are brimming with details about exactly how and where that dollar is used on projects around the world. Another reforestation partner that does great work within the US is the National Forest Foundation with a similar $1-per-tree initiative. Less transparent programs plant trees for as little as $0.10 per tree. At this rate, each Treets donation of $5 per item purchased would equal 50 trees planted but would be less accountable. Great marketing — not so great for actual nature conservation.

The goal at Treets is to plant more trees sustainably in areas of need by responsible clothing sales. Each item produced is, by default, carbon negative by planting five trees. The clothing sold at Treets is sourced sustainably and manufactured in a solar powered factory to minimize the carbon output for production. No plastics are used in the product or packaging. The fabric can actually be recycled by our manufacturer once distressed or outgrown. Transparency of how the money is distributed, where trees get planted, and by whom will be a staple for the brand.

Treets shows prices, costs, carbon impact, sources, and earnings upfront. This allows it to operate unlike any other clothing brand I’ve come across — from transparency around manufacturing and shipping to dollars earned per item and amount donated per item. Not that there aren’t other great brands focused on actual conservation — there are. There just aren’t enough.

Brand-conservation endeavors that are built primarily for marketing sew distrust into the fabric of consumer consciousness (even if some good may come from their efforts). The next time you are buying a product or service that claims to benefit the environment, take a closer look. Are they transparent with the “who, what, and where” of their environmental efforts? Many simply aren’t helping anyone other than themselves, least of all the environment.

Planting 1.2 trillion trees is just one of the major efforts we need to take part in to reduce our harmful environmental impact. We’ll only truly begin to make a positive impact if more people and companies take a good look at their own footprint and make an informed decision of how to make the next step. Marketing language about conservation being “the sole focus” while primarily pocketing profits is not helping us. Transparency around conservation efforts isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s absolutely critical.

Nick Toffolon

Nick Toffolon is a product designer and the founder of Treets, a clothing brand that donates the majority of profit toward environmental efforts.

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