Tree Planting 101: Uncovering the Truth

tree planting forest

Controversial Tree Planting Initiatives
and How WEARTH is Different

Read time: 12 minutes

Part 2 of 3, Visit Part 1 here

*Key terms are italicized and explained at the bottom of the blog*

We’re back for part two of our tree planting trilogy and trust us, this read is just as good as the first! For part two we’re digging up the dirt on problematic tree planting projects – many of good intentions, but not so great outcomes. We’re back with Brad from Wearth as he shares his unique perspective as a third-generation farmer with a bachelor of science in biological sciences and his experience working in provincial government and politics. The phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees,” surely doesn’t apply to Brad and his wide view on the topic of environmental issues.

Are tree planting programs a fad
or is there a place for them in our future?

different trees graphic

As more and more concerns about global warming and climate change have come forward, consumers have pushed businesses to put their hard-earned dollars towards corporate social responsibility (CSR). The idea of the triple bottom line has resulted in many large corporations hopping onboard so they’re not caught snoozing on the social demands of the market. But with more companies participating just for the sake of PR, are they distracting us with pretty foliage to hide a fake tree?

"In terms of it becoming a trend or a fad, it is really interesting. We started WEARTH in 2007 and the difference in interest, from not only businesses but also the interest of the end consumer, has definitely trended upwards. The value of ‘green companies’ for the business, the consumer, and the environment is one that everyone shares. But we are starting to see that component where it’s being used in a bit of that ‘green washing’ scenario. "

- Brad Rabiey, WEARTH Co-Founder 

Hands planting a sapling

is when companies market themselves to be ecological or environmentally friendly (mainly for company image and PR purposes) when in reality, they’re actually not very green at all and in some cases, doing more harm than good. While many companies do stay true to the idea of sustainable businesses, there have also been some big flops and projects that have even damaged the environment in the process.

What are the issues with some tree planting programs?

aerial shot of trees

Failed initiatives, controversies,
and the infamous 'Coldplay Conundrum'

"Some of these initiatives are calling a seed given to a villager “a tree being planted” but whether that’s really being followed through on is a different story. There’s also cases of funding being combined; where everyone says they’re planting a tree, but realistically they’re only funding part of the tree (eg.double counting, as multiple companies are taking credit for the same tree, overstating the actual number of trees being planted). You start seeing these practices drive down prices, but you don’t have the full benefits of a tree being planted, and that is a dangerous place to be in in terms of the outcome of the project."

As you can imagine, there’s a lot to consider in planting trees, especially at such a large scale. Like anything that’s continues to engross more eyes (and money), the efficacy of these programs can sometimes be diluted and ironically, negatively affect the cause. There are many different problems that occur with these programs. For example, single species (monoculture) and planting non-native species. This creates ecologically dead zones as some species can become invasive and overhaul the area, destroying biodiversity. Aside from planting the wrong tree, there’s also the problem of planting trees in the wrong places. In some tree planting projects, trees were planted in regions where there never was a forest. But why is this an issue? Trees are known to absorb heat in their leaves and if the location formerly had grassland– and in the winter even snow–the heat that would’ve been reflected (by the albedo effect) gets trapped. This causes an increase in temperature and threatens the water supply disrupting the existing ecosystem. But there’s also the less talked about social issue as well.

"Not as common in Canada in a social context, but in some other countries, indiginous populations are restricted from entering those lands or using those forests for basic needs. But frankly, they don’t have other alternatives that are feasible for them." 
"So we can categorize common issues caused by improper tree planting initiatives into three groups; environmental, social, and the marketing or greenwashing concern."

Coldplay Conundrum:
A high-profile initiative that ended a high-profile disaster

Interestingly enough, tree planting doesn’t end when the trees have been planted. There have been cases where initially the project appeared to be a big success, but then problems arose due to the lack of long-term vision. Notably one of the most famous upsets? The British rock band, Coldplay, and their project to plant 10,000 mango trees in southern India.

With the release of their second album, the band announced that they would be paying for trees to be planted, allegedly offsetting the impacts of the release. Coldplay also invited fans to contribute to the cause by purchasing a mango tree which they would receive a certificate for. Sounds great in theory doesn’t it? Unfortunately, four years later 40% of the planted trees had already died due to the lack of aftercare. Regrettably, Coldplay’s well-meaning initiative had become the epitome of a flop in the industry, commonly being referred to as “The Coldplay Conundrum.” Probably not the publicity they were hoping for. Thankfully since then, Coldplay has continued their sustainability initiatives, working with companies with good reputations to make sure that their new projects fulfill their environmental goals.

The WEARTH promise

Wearth tree planting

So now that we have more understanding regarding all-sides of the tree planting industry, how did we end up with WEARTH? As you know now, it definitely wasn’t as simple as searching “tree planting program” and taking what came up first. After countless emails and phone conversations with multiple different companies and organizations, we ended up going with the fellow Alberta company. Other than the fact that Brad won us over in an hour long phone conversation where we grilled him with questions (3 vs. 1 and he didn’t even flinch!), there’s a few big reasons we wanted to work with WEARTH.

Mix of native species planted on
conserved, often private, sites

"The projects usually have a minimum of about six different species (the highest being 13-14). We also have 100% conservation easements on the land that they are planted on. "

Dedication to the long-game
including aftercare of the trees

"The trees planted are seedlings that are between one to three years old and are hand planted with site prep so they’re given the best possible start. Projects are followed through to a free-to-grow stage, which in forestry terms means that the trees are a certain height and health so essentially, they have a really good chance of longevity without intervention."

Transparency of the projects

“From a communication standpoint, one tree is one tree. When you support the planting of a tree, all the costs of the trees are assigned to you.“

They also have project pages on their website where you’re able to view the project statistics, tree species, step-by-step events and more– you can even view their stock shipping and balance reports!

Strong focus on the integrity
of their work

"We plant the trees ahead of assigning them to a client. So what that means is that we will not give you a virtual tree or take payment unless the trees have been planted. This is because there are scenarios where projects go sideways. Seedlings don’t do well in the nursery, the landowner changes their mind, whatever it may be, the trees don’t get planted. That’s why it’s really important to us to have this as one of our guideposts. It’s not a promise that maybe one day five years from now, if we get to it, we’ll plant a tree."

Their understanding of the
industry's best (and worst) practices

"The follow up and survival rate of projects are important to us because when these initiatives first started there were a bunch of high-profile cases where they made a big deal about it but then everything that got planted died within about a year and nothing came about from those projects."

Now that we’ve uncovered and explored all things tree planting, how do we take what we’ve learned and put it into action? The last piece of our tree planting series will be all about what you can do to get involved. Not just tree planting, but all sorts of actions, big and small, to help protect our environment.

Brad Rabiey, Cofounder of Wearth Farm  
Brad Rabiey, Co-founder, WEARTH
Half farmer. Half environmentalist. Half entrepreneur. Which is why he never sleeps!

Graduating from the University of Alberta majoring in biological sciences, Brad worked in the provincial government, as a renewable energy consultant, and more before returning back to the family farm.

Brad's focus is on the triple bottom line of people, plant, and profit. Co-founding WEARTH (originally only The Carbon Farmer) in 2007 with his wife, they welcomed investment from Arlene Dickinson and Bruce Croxon via CBC's Dragons' Den. WEARTH is focused on planting trees on select parcels of previously farmed land. These new forests are helping address the major environmental issues today's world faces such as habitat loss and climate change. He's also transitioned the best agricultural soils on their third generation family farm (in the places other than the spots where they planted trees) to organic grain production, with a focus on gluten-free crops. 

Key Terms

Corporate social responsibility

A form of self-regulation that reflects a business’s accountability and commitment to contributing to the well-being of communities and society through various environmental and social measures. 
Triple bottom line

In economics, the triple bottom line (TBL) maintains that companies should commit to focusing as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profits. TBL theory posits that instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people, and the planet.

The process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly.

Single species planting/monocultures

The cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land

The variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. While Earth’s biodiversity is so rich that many species have yet to be discovered, many species are being threatened with extinction due to human activities, putting the Earth’s magnificent biodiversity at risk.
Albedo effect

A way of measuring the proportion of sunlight and energy that is reflected back into the atmosphere by the Earth.

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