Tentree—the Canadian apparel company that plants 10 trees per item sold—has just planted its 50 millionth tree worldwide
What started as a small-town tree-planting business in Saskatchewan has become a worldwide fashion brand focused on responsible consumption.
Tentree is an intersection of comfort and sustainability “It’s maximum comfort, minimum footprint,” says Derrick Emsley one of the co-founders and the CEO of Tentree. “We look at ourselves as a tree-planting company that sells apparel, not an apparel company that sells trees—that’s a distinction that’s unique to us,” he says.
The genesis of Tentree goes back several years to 2006 when Derrick and his brother Kalen started a tree-planting company while they were in high school.
“People were talking about the Kyoto Protocol, An Inconvenient Truth and the world ending, which felt super disempowering—it also felt like nobody was doing anything about it,” he says.
The duo came up with the idea to buy some farmland near their home in Saskatchewan, plant some trees, and sell some carbon offsets. They ran the business for five years and sold the equivalent of $150,000 in offsets to crown corporations.
While the tree-planting part of their business grew, the carbon offsetting side of things didn’t develop into what they expected, so they shut it down. “That was the gateway to creating Tentree though,” says Derrick. “We met so many incredible groups that were doing tree-planting globally, which was providing jobs, food security and poverty alleviation.”
Then came the idea to create a product and use that as a means to plant trees. “We knew tree-planting, we knew how to do it scalable, we knew great partners across the globe to work with to create incredible messaging, and we knew the impact,” he says. “Trees have an incredibly compelling narrative around them, people have an emotional connection to them—it’s tangible, and we knew we could create a story around it that is empowering.”
The product they chose was apparel, but admittedly, says Derrick, it could have been anything. We’re a tree-planting company and the product is just the vehicle for doing it. “People were just excited about being a part of it and to say, 'Do you know that this shirt plants 10 trees?'”
At first, they simply bought blank clothing and put logos on it. “We didn’t recognize at the time that the apparel industry is incredibly destructive and that not only could we use the apparel as a vehicle to plant trees, but we could also create a brand around sustainable consumption, creating an ethical product that lasts and helps consumers shop more effectively.
Eighteen months into starting Tentree, they reinvented their entire apparel supply chain. “Someone asked, ‘Why aren’t you making your product sustainably?’ And we said, 'What does that mean?' because we didn’t know anything about it when we started.”
“We went from having zero sustainable products and sourcing blanks to making our own 99.9 percent sustainable product, apart from some trims and zipper pulls that we are working on—virtually everything we make is either recyclable, organic or Fair Trade.”
They have a tree fleece, a tree blend and a tree waffle (obviously, they like trees). The fabrics are made with Tencel, which is a lyocell fibre, that gets created through a biological enzyme process that has no negative outputs in the fibre, like a bamboo or rayon fabric which has an acidic process. Their fleece and knit come from China; their Fairtrade organic cotton comes from India; their accessories, including hats and backpacks, come from Vietnam; and their activewear comes from the Philippines.
“We did a full life-cycle analysis of all of our product which, for example, took a regular hoodie and compared it to our hoodie. We created a thing called an eco-log which shows the difference. You can see how much water was saved, and our product saves as much as 70 percent of the water consumed compared to a standard hoodie."
Microplastics are another huge issue they’re addressing right now. “We’re now looking at circularity—how can we ensure the actual use and end of life of that product isn’t destructive,” says Derrick.
They recently launched tree fleece, which is made out of Tencel, organic cotton and recycled polyester. As for the recycled polyester, the way the Tencel is woven into the fleece holds in some of the polyester so it doesn’t pill and become microplastics. “We know it prevents a dramatic amount of microplastics. The future is all-natural material that doesn’t pill.”
The tree-planting side of the business also has a large social and community component. Where they plant trees goes through a few decision-making factors: one is environmental need and impact, so there has to be a compelling environmental need, such as habitat restoration, ecological support, and the other big one is social. “We aim to find projects that have some compelling job creation, food security, education component. Right now, we’re planting in Madagascar, Senegal, Nepal, Haiti, Canada, the USA and Mexico.
Up next? Sea forestation, planting kelp forests in coastal communities and working on a seaweed-based shirt.
Their latest innovation? A "veritree" system at some of their largest projects, which is essentially an inventory management system for trees. Attached to the item of clothing purchased is a QR code that you can scan which tells you where the trees are planted and what the benefits are to that community. In the future, they plan for it to have maps, GPS and photos from on the ground.
“It’s what we’ve been trying to build as a company that connects people with tree-planting in a really powerful way. At the end of the day, we’re not planting trees, it’s the person that’s purchasing the product. You want to feel it. We’re just the vehicle that’s making it possible,” says Derrick.