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How Derrick Emsley Created A Net Positive Business With Tentree

In this week’s episode, Jonathan is joined by Derrick Emsley, Founder/CEO of the Earth-First apparel brand Tentree. Emsley describes Tentree as a tree planting company that sells apparel. They create products to represent that vision for the outdoor and active lifestyle consumer while creating a net positive business. 

Emsley’s background started off by creating a business in highschool that sold carbon credits through planting trees in an effort to make a more sustainable and impactful business. Their business planted 150K trees but had no funding vehicle. So he thought about how to create a business that allows them to scale and plant more trees. At this time (late 2000’s) Toms’ shoes popularity was rising, and some apparel businesses were being more proactive around sustainability, focusing on having a positive impact in the world.  They didn’t know much about the apparel business, but it was the way to get trees to grow. 

Once they started seeing success, they had people who were very aligned with tree-planting, and they challenged us to make the products more sustainable (fabric, dyes, manufacturing).  In 12-18 months, they overhauled the supply chain to a fully sustainable, environmentally friendly manufacturing with quality materials.

“We want to plant trees, and are using the product as the vehicle to do so.”, said Emsley.

The more their product gets consumed, the more of an impact they have.  So the product has a very low negative impact, and the tree is a big positive. The way to do this was to reduce the non-sustainable elements, to make the net impact very positive.

Using Storytelling to Define What Sustainability Means To You

How Derrick Emsley built a net positive business and sustainable brand.

When asked, “How are you informing the customers what sustainability means for you?”Emsley digs into how it’s all about storytelling. They want to meet supporters where they are, stay grounded and bring them along with their stories. They still have room for improvement but they have to be open and transparent (goal setting, results). Big companies can’t overhaul their total supply chain overnight, so it makes the industry noisey, and casts a lot of doubts about real environmental impacts. Their approach is about progressing each area of the business to be as sustainable as it can be.

Storytelling takes skill and can include video, photography, content writing and the customer journey across a brands website and social media. Don’t go at it alone, speak with our team of storytelling experts to see how we can use it to drive more business results.

Three Metrics That Guided Tentree’s Choice In A Tree Planting Partner 

Tentree plants roughly 10 trees per item sold which goes back to the high-school tree-planting program that connected them with a variety of global tree planting projects. The business was designed to build on those relationships with 30+ planting partners and grow their efforts regionally across the world. They’ve created a business that can see continued growth with estimated 25M trees for 2022.

They visit every planting partner and make sure that they can have success in the following areas: 

1) Large environmental impact to the region

2) A social impact in that community

3) The ability to visit, audit and monitor, so they can report back to consumers. Accountability is key to the growth and success of their  mission.

How Accountability Can Be Built Into A Business 

As part of their efforts to create accountability and to grow tree planting initiatives for other businesses, they developed Veri-tree, a technology platform using block chain. They wanted to support planting through technology, by creating an integrated planting management tool that can map, estimate, forecast, collect data, distribute information, locations, and verify tree-planting on a global scale. About 3 years ago they realized the planting partners didn’t have the ability to show and report the progress, there is a lack of technology and information, and they realized this from the need to audit. 

Information on the ground is what is more important when beginning a tree-planting project or working with a partner. In the first 3-5 years of tree planting, satellite imagery doesn’t help as much as you would think, ground work is needed first to get learnings.

Veri-tree has been an evolution, and how they accelerate the truth around tree-planting. Their belief is that the consumer should have a relationship with their trees, and the consumer is the one who’s planting the trees, and they need to inspire the consumer to believe in their ability to have an impact. Tree’s are the most prominent symbol and representation of environmental impact.

Creating A Consumer Experience That Empowers Change And Keeps Them Coming Back

When people buy from Tentree, they can see where their trees are planted. They want to make their experience more tangible, so they started a registry where you can now see all of their impact points, in a verifiable way.  It came from the need for better reporting and the desire to build trust.

They have been fortunate with the timing of the broader conversation around the environment and sustainability.  In order to stand out they: 

  • Focus on tangibility: Trees. They exist to plant trees
  • Communication: They’re realists, empower the consumer, not pushing guilt.
  • Empowerment: Is the best approach to build engagement and accountability

Their double-tap campaign (Top 10 most popular post in IG history) went viral, it felt like they’’re all in this together, and collectively, can make a difference.

Their most powerful metric is the tree registry program, and they want there to be a consistent experience for consumers across all outlets. Consumers see the tree registry on tags of the products in person, it’s often their first experience when introduced to the brand.  It’s now a QR code, and a fully digital experience where they can see their impact wallet.

They’ve created a “personal island” experience that’s fun, and an experience where people connect to create a community and see the impact that others are having.  Veritree makes it easy to integrate their impact wallet (block-chain) and it converts to the meta-verse in a long-term play.  The data is all there, allowing them to bring tree-planting to more people.

They Don’t Market Themselves As A Sustainable Brand But As A Net Positive Brand

They’re not a “sustainable brand”. The term “sustainable” seems like a “less bad” approach to making a difference (small % improvement). Brands should instead be creating restorative business models, about doing “more good”, and create profitable business through this approach.

When using brand ambassadors within social media marketing, they focus on the diligence of ambassadors, and what they’ve seen the best return from more community driven, locally followed and connected people. A large social media star means you’re endorsing them, not just them endorsing you.  So you have to be very careful.

Derrick Emsley’s Advice To His Younger Self

In closing, when asked what advice Emsley would give to his younger self, it would be:

“Treat every decision like a door, and you can walk through, or walk back through. Treat decisions, not as life and death.  I’ve spent too much time losing sleep over decisions, and in the years that followed, it was not worth it. Just take one step, move forward and figure it out as we go.”

Working With Agency Experts Can Help Jump Start Your ESG Program And Marketing

It’s not an easy task to kick off an ESG program with all of the things to consider like manufacturing, transportation, marketing and communications. The experts at Unconquered are available for an introductory consultation to help you get on the pathway for success. Inquire with one of our thought leaders to set up a time.