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Building a Carbon Capture Enterprise with Derrick and Stephen Emsley

Date Published: December 7, 2020

With a vision to plant over 1 billion trees by 2030, the co-founders (and cousins) of tentreeDerrick Emsley and Stephen Emsley, believe that big change starts small.  From humble beginnings in Saskatchewan, the tentree story will inspire you with its creative business model and resulting global impact.

We speak with Derrick Emsley and Stephen Emsley about their company’s unique business model, selling apparel, as a means to plant trees. Founded in 2012 and operating out of an office in Vancouver, tentree is a Canadian success story. Derrick and Stephen will be sharing their journey from their humble beginnings in Saskatchewan to the well-recognized socially conscious friends they are now. Derrick Emsley is the CEO of tentree. Derrick graduated from Richard Ivey School of Business in 2012, which paved the way to becoming CEO soon after graduating. He has been key to steering the company’s vision ever since. Stephen Emsley is the Chief Technology Officer and manages all IT operations including eCommerce site, internet marketing, and advertising strategies. Stephen has a Diploma in Computer Systems Technician and Networking. Welcome to the show, both of you. 

Thanks for having us.

Let’s dig in here. Derrick let’s go to the beginning of tentree. You started in a basement in Regina from what I understand. Talk about how that came to be.

If you go back to the beginning, back in high school, my brother and I had a tree planting company. The idea behind this was there’s a lot of people talking about climate change and inconvenient truth, but there was a lot of concern, particularly where we were based in Saskatchewan, around how companies were going to be able to meet these objectives that they were talking about through Kyoto. The idea that we came up with it was, let’s find some farmland that can’t grow a whole heck of a lot and let’s plant trees and sell carbon offsets. The business was great. It was a good summer job, we enjoyed it. What we realized quickly was that the Kyoto protocol and the carbon offsetting cabin trade wasn’t going to develop as we thought.

We walked away from that business realizing that we saw the impact that tree planting had, but we also recognize that we didn’t want to build a business on anything that was based on handouts whether that be government or otherwise. Through that experience, we also got connected with incredible groups all across the globe that were using tree planting to provide jobs and food security. At the same time, they couldn’t grow in scale. They couldn’t get their message out there. We took that experience and recognize that we see the impact tree planting has and we want to amplify that in a meaningful way. What we don’t want to do is create anything that we don’t control our destiny.

It was a number of years later when we were coming out of university that my brother Kalen and our other partner, Dave, came up with his idea to say, “What if we created a product that allowed us to plant trees?” Admittedly, we were product-agnostic at the beginning. It could have been anything. It could have been bedsheets for all we care. To use the profits and that product is our vehicle for planting trees. Kalen and Dave, after coming up with this idea called Stephen and me. They enrolled us in this idea of creating a brand around the idea of planting trees. Not around the idea of planting trees, but the idea of creating a tangible impact on the idea of creating a safe space for people that want to do good for the planet but also don’t like all the disempowering narrative of the world ending. Let’s create a business that gets people inspired to make a difference and ultimately do it through tree planting.

It’s a cool way to look at your business. It’s not traditional. What I find interesting especially is that the clothing company piece, which most people know you for. It’s secondary to the tree planting business, which is an interesting way to look at being successful with what you ultimately wanted to do. Looking at your clothing. I saw some pictures of sweaters stacked up in a basement, which I assume maybe was your parents’ basement. Who did your initial designs? I was curious about that because that’s something that seemed to appeal to the market right away. You took off. Did you mostly sell? Were you in Regina at that point when you were doing that? Did that mostly sell locally and then you built it from there?

Yes, it did. When we started, we found blanks. Part of the reason we fell into this world of apparel was that at the time, it was easy. In hindsight, there are a lot of easier ways to plant trees than creating an apparel brand. At the time for us, there were groups like American Apparel that were creating a product that we could come up with a logo, put a logo on their chest and we could sell it to our friends, family and use the proceeds from that to plant trees. What we came to realize was that we may have sort of stumbled into apparel, it was a vehicle that was a lot more powerful than we recognized at the time. Apparel is about your values.

People now particularly wear things that reflect something about what they care about. If somebody is confident enough in our mission and what we’re doing to put a logo on their chest and effectively say and shout from the rooftops that, “I planted ten trees,” then that’s going to have an effect of word of mouth. It’s going to be a lot more powerful than any of us could have recognized. To that point as well, we recognize that the apparel industry had a lot of problems too. It became an opportunity for us not just to be true to our mission through tree planting, but also weave that into creating the most sustainable apparel that we can. For us, it was about creating a product that people wanted to wear, not trying to be ahead of the curve, but creating a sustainable product that allowed people to reflect their values in a meaningful way.

While I was doing research, I came across a clip of you doing your pitch on Dragons’ Den. What impact did that experience have on your business?

It got us in front of a nationwide audience way earlier than we had any business getting in front of that audience. Even if you rewind the 4 or 5 months previous to when it aired to when we filmed it, we were 4, maybe 5 months into the business. What it did was it forced us to take a hard look at things like our numbers, how we’re running the business? What the scalable model is? What’s our profitability and ability to grow and scale this business? It builds out that plan in a more meaningful way. What it did was it forced us to get our ducks in a row a little bit earlier than we otherwise would have. We went in front of the Dragons’ at the time we presented the business.

We got a deal on the show, which secured our understanding that we would have that show aired as it happens as a lot of those deals, it never went through in the future once the show aired. What it did was it got us in front of a huge Canadian audience and allowed us to tell our story. It gave us a little bit of credibility and validity to what we were doing in a time when we definitely needed it. Like anything with that, it’s a moment in time and it doesn’t have this long tail effect unless you make it. That was something that Stephen did early on that was impactful. We had this huge amount of traffic that happened that day. Realistically it could have hit, a few people buy some shirts, but then it’s gone. What Stephen did was he ensured that our website was prepared to both handles that traffic as well as be prepared to retarget and get back to those people and use it as an opportunity to continue telling our message. It was a foundational piece of our growth versus a flash in the pan.

What I’m hearing also sounds like you would recommend others to go on for the experience aside from getting on TV, which was helpful for you, but it also helped you look at your business in a different way.

You got to understand the pros and cons of it. If you’re going in there and you’re on your last month of cash and you think you’re going to walk out of there with a check in hand, then it’s not the platform for you. If you’re using it as an opportunity to both get in front of a national audience, work to refine your business model and your pitch, and then hopefully if a good deal gets put in front of you, that you can take it and get some good partners out of it, then it’s a great avenue.

When I watched that clip, one thing I was impressed with is you had two deals on the table. You also had to listen to Kevin speak about how he at least at that time capitalist like money is the end game and only money. You had other deals on the table and you chose the deal that was a balance between doing good and having a strong business, as opposed to something where you had the option of someone who might have given you the ability to offshore clothing and drive your cost as cheap as possible. You made the choice because it was part of your brand. I have to say, I was impressed that it stuck that even though the deal never ended up going through, but you did choose the deal that was the one that was most authentic for you.

There are a couple of points in what you said. One being that it reflects on why we started the business, the way that we did and how we structured it. We believe in the business’s ability to make an impact. We believe not in the responsibility, but the opportunity that businesses have to make a mark on our planet. For us, it is a balancing act that we have to go through every day, every decision we make, whether it be making products sustainably, but also making it affordable, choosing the right factories, and dealing with longer lead times.

These are all decisions that make it in many ways more challenging to run our business in some ways, but downstream make us a more attractive brand and more authentic to our end consumer. That’s reflective of where the world’s going with business and it was called a few years ago. Maybe it was a little ahead of the curve, but it’s certainly the world’s catching up. The one other thing I would say is that they didn’t include it in the actual show, but Kevin did come in and make us an offer. Our Cofounder Dave said, “We’re not interested. Thanks for the consideration.” They edited down, but it was a fun experience and we’re better for it.

What you articulated is what Arlene and Bruce were already seeing that direction of the brand and how you balance that as being a strong business strategy. It was interesting to watch. That leads to the idea of Tentree is a B corp. You’ve been B corp since 2016. You’ve already started to build some of that the direction of why you want it to be B corp. How has that helped you going through that assessment? How has it helped you change and grow your business? If you could maybe articulate a change or two that you’ve made since going through the B corp assessment. 

When we first became a B corp, we were a small team. It was a day-long exercise to fill out the paperwork or the forms. Stephen and I could sit down and say, “Let’s change this about how we run the company.” It was a lot easier to make those decisions quickly. As we got bigger, those things become a little more challenging. What we knew is tree planting. Tree planting for us was this mission that we could get the entire team, our company, and the business rally behind. We knew that it had an incredible impact. We were partnering and doing it in a sustainable and meaningful way. What we maybe didn’t have the insight into was how to weave those values and that purpose through everything that we do as a business. That means going into things like the governance, additional procedures to make sure that we’re sourcing ethically, looking at our community and internally, and how we’re managing our power, all these different things that B corp offered that asked the question.

Once we answered it, it gave us a measuring stick to not only say how are we doing three years from now, look back, and how have we improved, but also benchmarking ourselves against both people in our industry and out. Fortunately, we’ve gone through this process where that B corp scores raised dramatically. Now, in our industry of apparel, we’re second only to Patagonia, which we’re on their tails and we’re hopefully catch up a little bit more here in our recertification. For us, when we think of moments in time where it supported us, it was a lot of things around some of the conversations that are happening now, diversity and inclusion. Thinking about gender and racial equality and how we’re managing that. Thinking about our governance structure and how we were ingraining the values of the organization into our articles of incorporation. It forced us to reflect and have some challenging conversations internally and reinvent how we were managing things like employee ownership and everything like that.

I can say for our company as well it’s done similar for us in terms of setting this measuring stick and benchmark where we can continue to move and grow and maybe areas we weren’t even thinking about. You talked about tree planting and I want to get into that. Stephen, tree planting, Tentree plant trees in Canada, but primarily you plant in other countries across the globe. Talk us through a little bit about where you’re planting and maybe a little around why it’s still important to be planting in a country that might be thousands of miles away from Canada. What’s the importance of that?

We do work with groups and support groups that do planting in North America, Canada, and the United States. The majority of those projects are focused on restoration after a wildfire, trees that were not planned to be cut down and replanted. In a lot of those areas, the trees are not going to naturally regenerate on their own. It’s important that the groups that are doing the planting are strategic and it’s almost surgical the way that they reforest these landscapes. Around the other parts of the world, we’re working with groups that are planting in Madagascar, Peru, Indonesia, Nepal, Senegal, and Haiti. We get that question a lot, why should we care about planting anywhere else than where we are. I like to say that, Mother Nature isn’t some nerdy geographer that’s drawing a squiggly line separating countries. The health of the planet depends on our ability as a species to recognize that this is a global issue and that we can’t expect that countries and other continents to clean up the mess that they didn’t necessarily create in the first place. We have to look at it as a global issue.

The idea that we’re interconnected as much as we, as people like to draw the lines. When you take CO2 whether it’s over Asia or Europe, it’s impacting the entire planet. If you’re living in Canada or in South Korea, it’s to the benefit of you.

Especially when it comes to weather patterns and the way that the weather affects us all and something that happens on the other side of the planet eventually makes it over our way as well. We have to look at it holistically and not just this is something we need to solve for Canada. It also comes down to resources, too. A lot of these other countries, if there are wildfires, they don’t have the technology to deal with those fires on a mass scale as we do.

You both mentioned that you work with NGOs across the world. You want to talk a little bit about you don’t physically go and plant trees. How do you partner with NGOs and leverage what structure and frameworks already exist out there to make sure that you get trees planted?

We partner with a variety of NGOs. Some of them did reforestation projects Trees for the FuturePlant with PurposeGlobal Forest Generation, all of these groups are incredible. What we have set up is a strict set of guidelines and requirements that we go to those groups with and make sure that they can abide by them and have our own diligence process to ensure that their values and our values align. On top of that, we physically visit those countries and communities with those partners to make sure that we’re supporting the setting up and maintenance of those projects. It’s a long-term effort and it’s not something that we want to find a partner who can plant trees for the cheapest amount and then be done with it. We want to invest in the entire process and the storytelling elements of it so we can help lift up the partners who are doing amazing work around the world.

I assume in different parts of the world, it depends where you are, you would plant different trees. Can you talk about maybe some of the types of trees you like to plant and a little bit about how trees sequester carbon, some of the other environmental benefits that come from planting trees other than carbon?

When it comes to sequestering carbon, the trees that we like to plant are the right trees for the area. Everyone asked me, “What’s your favourite tree?” It’s tough because if we get too stuck in those ways of picking our favourite tree to plant and support, it might not be one that’s native to that area. That could end up being dangerous. A good example of this is in Peru. In Peru, there’s been a big push for supporting forest carbon projects and the sponsors of those projects and the government level want to see the fastest, biggest-growing trees.

They contribute to planting eucalyptus trees. What ends up happening is they get what they want because they get those large trees that they can see from a satellite and that their project is being successful. However, that leads to the other environmental impacts that eucalyptus trees or non-native species are having on that project. Eucalyptus trees suck a ton of water out of the ground and that’s affecting the communities and their ability to have a successful crop yield throughout the year. We have to go back and look at the history of how this has all taken place and how these trees affect the environment holistically.

In Peru, we didn’t contribute to planting the eucalyptus trees, but the group we work with you ECOAN recognizes that Polybius species are going to work much better for regulating the water for the communities throughout the year so they don’t have food shortages. It’s not just about carbon sequestration and trying to grab as much carbon out of the atmosphere as possible, it’s about water. Water is another major environmental impact that we look at and make sure it’s a top priority for us.

It’s definitely bigger picture thinking than just simply something that’s quick, easy, grows fast, looking at the area and impact. You mentioned satellites, I know this is your specialty a little bit, Stephen, how do you make sure the trees are getting planted and surviving? What checks do you have in place for that?

We’re fortunate enough to work with some amazing partners who are willing to allow us to work with them in their team to implement some of our technology and strategies that we’ve adopted over the past years of visiting these sites. Being a for-profit company, we can invest in some of that technology that can support the monitoring side of things. To ensure that the trees are planted, we’ve helped develop a system for the NGOs to track the planting as it goes on throughout the day. We can see when the trees are planted, GPS coordinates of where they’re planted, the species that are planted and the quantity of those species so that later we can randomly check those areas where the planting has been done for survivability. It’s an unbiased approach to measuring survivability. If we have all of the data where the planting sessions happened, we could follow-up and plan for a more successful plant the next time around.

Looking at the bigger picture and I think both of you may have some input on this one. The impact of Tentree isn’t just on the environmental side. You plant trees, there’s carbon, and the impact of the trees you plant. Talk about the community impact in some of the countries where you focus your efforts. Derrick, we’ll start, and then maybe Stephen, I know you’ve got something to add to this as well.

When you think of the issues that the world is facing, the reality is that deforestation globally is an issue that leads to poverty. It leads to immigration like people having to leave their communities, their families. It has many negative impacts from a social perspective that often get put to the back burner when you’re talking about things like carbon. That’s frankly one of the main reasons we’re excited about a lot of these international projects is because of that impact. We travelled to Senegal a number of years back. In Senegal, we’re partnering with an organization that’s called Trees for the Future. They have helped us support farmers in getting out of unsustainable peanut farming.

Peace Corps, a methodology called Forest Gardens. When we were travelling there, we got to see it firsthand. We were riding around on donkey carts. We were going into these incredibly rural communities where we had a translator talking to these individuals and talking about how trees had changed their life. It was an incredible experience because we got to understand that the impact this peanut farming had were 50, 60, 70 years ago, international groups had come in and said, “We need a sustainable source of peanuts. We’re going to invest in building peanut plants and getting seeds out to people to start planting peanuts so that we have a sustainable source.” What it’s led to is one of the most nutrient intensive crops eroding all the topsoil, people cutting down the trees, the farm yields starting to deteriorate.

Ultimately now, 60% of people in Senegal are planting peanuts and virtually every single peanut farmer is living hand to mouth and barely able to afford to feed their family. When we were in Senegal, we got to sit in a forest garden. In one of these areas that we’re planting trees with an individual who used to be a peanut farmer. Years ago, he was making $250 a year off harvesting his peanuts. What this model is you take your peanut farm and you plant trees in a fence row around it, and then you start planting fruit trees inside, mango papaya, guava, cashew, as well as vegetables and longer-term trees like mahogany and teak. This was about three years in, and he’d been working in this program and we were fortunate to be able to support him and 200 farmers like him. The crops, the fruit trees were all yielding. He was able to plant vegetables. His entire life had changed. Where years ago, he was barely able to afford to send his kids to school to get their books.

Now, he was making as much as six times off the yield of that fruit. He was sending his kids to school. He was supporting his local community and he was teaching twenty other farmers how to do the exact same thing. It is a paradigm shift in a lot of these areas where for years, they’d been told to cut down the trees for whatever reason whether it be firewood, shelter, or in this case, making room for peanut farming. To now come in and say, “No, you need to plant trees because the ecological impact will support your livelihood too.” It’s an incredibly challenging thing to communicate, but it hit home for us on that trip because we saw it. His children come into this forest garden and he had two four-year-old that had grown up hungry. They have grown up going to bed night after night with an empty stomach.

When they got a little restless and they picked up the fruit from the ground, those two children went sat down and started eating it. The youngest who is two years old picked up the fruit and started handing it out to every single person that was there, making sure that everybody had food. It goes to show the impact that these things have long-term and the systemic issues that come from things like poverty and the issues of deforestation that those children that had gone to bed hungry every single day were they grew up, went and sat down and ate their food. The one child who had gone to bed with a full belly every night was the one that went around each of them, shared the food, and it goes to show the impact that tree planting can have in the communities and socially.

Stephen, I know that you’ve also seen some of the impacts from the community both environmental, but the environmental as in Derrick’s story also connects to the health of the community. Do you have anything you want to add to that?

That’s a tough story to follow for sure. It is about the communities and it’s part of building a sustainable forest project. A lot of the projects that happen around the world don’t necessarily think about how the community interacts with the forest and it is essential to the project being successful or not. One example is like I mentioned, some of these countries and communities don’t have the ability to fight forest fires when things get out of control. When you involve the community in a major way, they can gather together and create a strategy for addressing when a fire does happen and create those breaks in the forest so they can alert the rest of the community and come together and help deal with a stressful situation. It’s about the water. It’s about bringing back the food and the wildlife on the ground or underwater wildlife. It’s about protection on the coast from storms. All in all, when it comes to these projects, the community has to be thought about first and foremost and the impacts outside of the carbon impact because that’s what’s going to make this lasts longer and be that much more successful.

Tree planting seems like this simple tree and carbon sequestration, what I’m hearing is the impact on the community and the ecological system, the thought around that. When you impact the ecological system whether it’s water retention in soil, it’s a massive impact on that community so you’re helping people and the planet at the same time. That’s an incredible connection that not everyone makes when they think about tree planting. It seems like a simple we’re going to plant a tree and it’s good. Where do you both see the company going in the coming years? Is it more the same or do you have some other areas where you’re passionate about do you want to branch into? Derrick, do you want to start and then Stephen if you want to add?

We set out that goal years back and that hasn’t changed. Our goal as an organization is to plant a billion trees by 2030. The thing that we talk about internally is that we don’t have to sell 100 million pieces of apparel to do it. For us, our belief is in saving the planet is simple. What that means for us is the world would be a better place if everybody understood how to make an impact and how their decisions as a consumer, as a citizen can have an impact on our planet. For us, we think of three things when we talk about where we’re headed as a business. It’s our why, how, what. Our why are trees.

Trees are why we exist. We’re on a mission to empower everybody to have an impact through trees. We’ve planted almost 50 million trees to-date and that goal of a billion is our north star. When you think of our how, it is our community. Our community is the group of frankly imperfect environmentalists that we want to activate. We want to make it a little bit easier for them to have a positive impact. Our belief is that the world doesn’t get changed by a million perfect environmentalist. It gets changed by billions of imperfect ones. If we can create that safe space to enroll people in having an impact on our planet, it could have an incredible impact far beyond even what we’re doing from a tree planting perspective.

For us, when we think of the next few years, it’s how do we activate that community in an even more powerful way through our product, technology solutions, engaging in indifferent activities and events. It’s about creating a more empowered and inclusive community around saving the planet. The last piece is the what, which for us is the product. The product doesn’t mean physical apparel. Product for us is the activation of how we show up to our end consumer. What we do a good job of is creating communities, creating consumer stories, and telling impactful stories. For us, it’s how do we continue to create innovative solutions to help people plant trees through our products, whatever that product be. It’s more of the same, but it’s also going to be a lot of new. It’s going to be a lot of focus around that north star of making, saving the planet a little bit more simple and doing it for us through trees.

Stephen, did you have anything you wanted to add about what you see as the future direction in the next couple of years?

I completely agree with Derrick in the sense that we want to build out that community and we see the importance of the community. A forest as a community and older trees are supporting the younger trees and they’re all together no matter what happens. The health of that forest depends on the strength of that community. I would hope to see us help other companies adopt or integrate tree planting into their sustainability, give back initiatives, help them tell the stories, and get their employees involved in that impact as well. That’s going to have that amazing network effect that we all need to understand to move forward and make better decisions in our lives.

Stephen, we’ll keep going with you for the last question. What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that we’ve been able to inspire consumers to be environmentally conscious, and that we’ve been able to engage with the younger generation of entrepreneurs to let them know that it’s not always about profit and that doesn’t have to be their primary focus when starting a business. The key driver to what’s going to get you excited every day to come to work is having a bigger purpose. I’m proud that we’ve been able to do that. I’m proud of the fact where we’ve gotten to and stayed together as our own community as well with the founders, Derrick leading this craziness for the past few years. I’m proud that we’ve been able to stick and also ourselves see that bigger picture goal and not just be about money.

Derrick, what about you? 

There are many things that we’re all proud of. It’s been a long ride so far in a lot of ways still getting started. It feels like we’ve taken the first step on what’s frankly a long journey here. For me, it’s two things. One echoes with what Stephen said. It’s our community. It’s the group of consumers and community we’ve built that are those imperfect environmentalists, those people that are on a journey to be a little more environmentally aware. Not just environmentally aware, but also environmentally active. That’s what we’re trying to demystify, make that easier and whether it’s through consumer decisions or through education.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to create an incredible audience and community through that. I’m proud of what that community has been able to do for the world. We always talk about it. We don’t plant the trees, our community does, the people that are buying that product. The people that are supporting our mission are the ones that do that. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve been able to be a vehicle to plant all these trees, the vehicle for our consumers, a vehicle to support all our partners all across the globe, and a vehicle for all those people. Whether they’re planting in Canada, Mexico, Madagascar, or in Nepal to create a little bit better livelihood for their family.

We’re at the end here, what I’m most impressed with within my research and speaking with both of you is one thing that’s clear to me from everything I’ve seen is that your authenticity around your mission of wanting to plant trees and help communities. Both local communities, people here wanting to make environmentally conscious choices around apparel and maybe supporting implanting trees, and then what you’re doing internationally supporting NGOs and communities around the world, it’s impressive. That authenticity has everything I’ve seen permeates throughout your business. That is likely one reason for your success, your passion, and authenticity around that. It’s interesting to your business model of you figured out that tree planting was a thing.

There were going to be maybe some hitches along the way of getting that going if you focused on that and flipping that and almost using inversion thinking and coming up with a business that supported that, which is often not what people, the way they look at creating a business. This idea that around make it simple demystify, make it accessible for people who are interested in environmental actions to be able to not only to wear your clothes and show to the world around them that this is something I support and in turn doing that the impact you’ve had in communities around the world. It’s impressive. I would encourage anyone who’s reading this. If you haven’t looked at tentree, go take a look at their website. You have an amazing product line. I’m impressed and I’m excited to see what comes for you in the next coming years. I appreciate both of you being on the show and sharing your story. There are lots of great things that come from Saskatchewan and tentree is one of them. Thank you.

Thanks for having us.

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