Planting Trees and Other Sustainability Bedtime Stories

How many trees does a brand need to plant to call itself sustainable? Is one tree per day too much or too little? Should they sell the saplings alongside their products or services, too? Or should they buy a forest per year and use that as a yearly proof of ‘sustainability’?

While totally serious and much necessary, the sustainability bandwagon is slowly becoming a caricature term: abused, misused and totally disingenuous.

Dr Mohammed ElHabbal, Assistant General Manager for ENPPI’s Offshore Division, shared his thoughts with Circklo on this issue and on whether a brand promising to plant trees for every sale it makes can call itself sustainable: ‘If they keep their business as it is without change and just plant a tree ... I think it's just a way of manipulating their customers.’

And Dr ElHabbal is right; and so is Hassan Khadra-Brooks, the founder and CEO of The Hive: ‘I think that such initiatives mean caring or being advocates for the environment, but not necessarily explicitly sustainable. That, in my opinion, requires much more proof points.’

When did sustainability become such an all-encompassing, all-inclusive, and all-abused word? In business and policy contexts, limits to sustainability are determined by physical and natural resources, environmental degradation, and social resources. This means that just by planting a tree (or several, or even a forest) a business cannot call itself sustainable, not if it:

  1. Pollutes the environment through its activities
  2. Uses suppliers and resources which are known and proven to cause environmental damage (that includes plant and wildlife, too)
  3. Embark on unsustainable business practices (i.e., actions which are likely to bankrupt it or are illegal or unethical)
  4. Disregard the social impact its actions (can) have on staff, customers, partners, and wider stakeholder groups.

Sustainability – irrespective of which definition one chooses to ascribe to it – is never a finished endeavour; it is a journey that continues for as long as the business continues to trade. Sustainability requires constant monitoring, an eagle-eye assessment of gaps in business processes, and a very solid financial base to switch suppliers or change markets.

Many brands abuse ‘sustainability’ as a concept. If a business pays its staff a minimum wage and/or does not pay its interns, irrespective of how many trees that business may claim (or it actually does plant) it plants, it can never call itself sustainable.

Similarly, if a business’ supply chain uses child labour, forced labour or inappropriate health and safety rules and measures for its staff or the staff of its suppliers, that business cannot call itself sustainable.

If a business uses natural resources which are scarce, require population displacement or natural habitats destruction, that business is very far from being sustainable.

Sustainability is the sum of business resilience and ethical business practices. One cannot survive without the other and, when they are not balanced, the ‘sustainability’ ratio of any business suffers.

The biggest conundrum of the current marketing blurb is related to the so-called ‘demands’ of various generational segments, with many studies purporting that Gen Z (those born after 1997) want, and expect brands, to be sustainable. That is a beautiful, honourable and rightful demand. However, in stark contrast with their purported expectations, the same Gen Z buys fast fashion and, sadly, helps fast fashion brands to thrive.  

Why this dichotomy between expectations from the others (i.e., what the young generation expects brands to do) and expectations from self (i.e., what they actually do as a purchasing behaviour, thus creating demand for fast fashion) then?

The answer is exceptionally simple: Gen Z does not have the purchasing power – as in the necessary funds – to afford to buy sustainable goods and fashion. Their careers are just taking off and sustainability is an inspirational pursuit, not a possibility today, not a possibility for right now.

So, how many trees would a brand need to plant to call itself sustainable? The answer may sound surprising: none. On its own, no number of trees will ever be enough.