To plant or not to plant? That shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s …
Meta Pavlin Avdić // November 2021
In the last month, at least three high-profile communication campaigns have been taking place in Slovenia, urging us to plant trees. The noble act of just about every campaigner, no doubt there, but when we put them together like this, side by side, in the same time frame, a good basis for counteraction can emerge. How to prevent it?
Last year, planting trees (or reforestation) as an activity in resolving the climate crisis gained even more momentum when the One Trillion Trees Initiative was presented at the World Economic Forum. They wanted to encourage governments, businesses and civil society to support the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. They obviously got off to a good start with this initiative, involving many stakeholders in achieving this goal, including those with slightly less sincere intentions. However, the opportunity is great – to become part of a credible mosaic of planet-saving activities.
Sarcasm aside, it seems that even in this originally sincere story, the same pattern is happening on a global scale, destroying all the beauty of good intentions over and over again. Opprotunity is also exploited by those who try to cover up their ”sustainable nothingness”. Knowing that, they are buying CO2-offs on one hand, and thinking that they are building a reputation and a positive image in the eyes of sustainably aware stakeholders on the other hand.
The low fruits of our tree?
Let’s take a look at why companies choose to plant trees as one of their sustainable activities – of which they are also proud to announce.
Planting trees is undoubtedly one of the quickest and easiest decisions when choosing what to start with. So called ”low fruit”, which is easy to pick, gives us quick self-confidence and also opportunities to involve key stakeholders. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and I strongly encourage such steps. If – and here comes the really big if – if these steps are part of a planned strategy that answers to why, what and consequently how. And another if – another big one – if this is just one of the steps, measures and activities that the company, which is transitioning to sustainable business, has set itself.
Planting trees is a concrete activity that can be nicely divided into different stakeholders. It includes them in the activity before, during and after the implementation, and by doing so it builds understanding, motivation, belonging. Yes, why not plant trees together with your business partners, employees, local community, including journalists… Such action has a number of opportunities to deepen relations, present our sustainable development steps, lay the foundations for further cooperation in the field of sustainability, etc. And it can be visually very appealing, appliquéd and communicatively resonant on many channels.
Planting trees is also a great opportunity to build partnerships, connect for collaboration, and potentially work together to tackle other environmental and social challenges sometime in the future. Which, of course, is the core of sustainable business; establishing partnerships to address common, systemic environmental challenges.
Planting trees undoubtedly has positive effects on the environment. And these are the ones that can be measured very well. Numerically. Critics of afforestation point to the fact that trees must grow before they can absorb a specific amount of CO2. A significant percentage of them also die during this period, due to too much plastic, fuel, etc used in planting. But leaving that aside, let’s take the numbers a little with a grain of salt, and still conclude that the act is concrete, real, and measurable. Which gives the company good ammunition to argue its sustainable actions. Beside measurable CO2 numbers, there are also important factors: the preservation of the habitats of wild animal and plant species, the prevention of erosion, as well as the provision of shade and cooling.
Tree planting as an activity that is valued, well received by the public and clearly contributes to the seventeen goals of sustainable development (SDG), as well as raises company’s reputation and its value in the eyes of various stakeholders. In the long run, through sustainability reports, is well presented in the eyes of new investors, future employees, future business partners, aware customers.
And those big ifs apply to all the others point as well.
Canadian clothing manufacturer Tentree, committed to sustainable fashion, regularly plants one tree for every 10 products sold. On Earth Day, they performed with a high-profile campaign on Instagram they would plant trees based on acquired likes. Initially, they planned to plant a tree for every like, but due to great interest, they had to adjust the original goal for planting 500,000 trees for every 5 million likes in Indonesia. They reached over 15 million and gained over 400.000 new followers.
So why are all the fruits rolling away so far?
Planting trees as one of the company’s sustainable activities is therefore a completely legitimate, moreover, extremely effective and noble activity with great communication potential. So where does it bend and why at all? Let’s take an example at home.
With a little delay, as befits, a wave of mass tree planting is coming our way. In our village, for now, we are consciously planting only in our district, although it would be wise to look beyond the borders as well. Far beyond the borders where cattle graze, which also ends up in our burgers, where these pastures drive out indigenous peoples to leave their land, where … Well you decide for yourself where our responsibility goes.
We have had quite a few options for planting in the last month. We were able to plant through the return of glass packaging, through the return of old phones, in order to remind us all how important it is to invest in the future and desires, but also because we like to travel blue and protect the green. And I could go on and on. The initiative of each of these plantings, I believe, arose on solid foundations. And with a clear vision of what follows. But when we put them all together in one month, add them up, the end result is somehow not correct.
Why? In a sustainable world, one of the key goals of communication is to create sustainable consumer life habits. As a player in the market, which calls for measures to move to a sustainable, regenerative world, we have a responsibility that we cannot escape.
Creating sustainable habits means changing existing ones based on excessive, unconscious consumption, eternal comfort and – let’s be boldly direct – consumer pampering, which has been at the heart of our communication and marketing activities for many years. Existing habits are automated, now very entrenched, and operate on the classic principle of cue, covetousness, and action that leads to a reward. What do our trees mean in this context? What they can teach the consumer?
If the source is (my) environmentally harmful act, and covetousness is the desire for a reward that is recognition in a society as a sustainably aware individual (as well as personal satisfaction with environmentally friendly activities), then what is planting trees as an action? Unfortunately, only the patch, which does not negate the real reason why the cue was created at all. Or to put it more simply, by encouraging the act of planting trees, we are not teaching the user a moderate, more sustainable lifestyle, but actually giving him an apology, forgiveness, an emergency exit to correct his unsustainable behavior. Or rather, it equalizes when we talk about companies.
Planting trees by itself does not promote sustainable consumer behaviour. That is why consumers urgently need additional activities that will guide them on the path of a sustainable lifestyle, help them in the transition and preserve the whole meaning of existence, mission and vision of the company.
So be careful your planted green garden doesn’t become a tool of green deception. Consumers are becoming more and more aware, removing the canopy, analysing the undergrowth and finding out what is really hidden in there. If they discover one big, empty zero, their trust in your brand will become just as much.
Below the line
To avoid misunderstanding, I emphasise that promoting tree planting, caring for nature, preserving all indigenous tree species, natural habitats and all the other benefits that this activity brings, is an example of excellent practice. More than welcome. It becomes problematic only when all ”ifs” are not met and when in a short time window the communication of these activities from different sources is so potent that it is established as a self-sufficient practice. The solution? What if communication (planting trees) were pointed systemically, in partnership, into one resounding story, supported by smaller, creative and diverse activities of all partners involved in systemic communication?