Derrick Emsley and his co-founders never set out to build a clothing company.
Emsley may be the CEO and co-founder of Tentree, the Vancouver-based sustainable apparel brand known for planting 10 trees for every item purchased. However, he explained, the founding team’s vision for the company goes far beyond fashion.
“For us, Tentree was never an apparel business that planted trees,” Emsley told BetaKit. “It was a tree-planting company that sold apparel.”
Tentree says it expects to see its 100 millionth tree planted this year, but that doesn’t mean the startup has gotten there without challenges along the way—one of the most pressing, he said, was ensuring that the company was planting the number of trees it said it was.
Concerns have been raised recently about how to verify that tree-planting commitments are being carried out and having the intended impact.
Tentreee created a platform internally to track its tree-planting projects, which Emsley and fellow Tentree co-founders have now spun out as its own company, Veritree. The spin-out is a B2B product to help businesses globally verify their own tree-planting projects.
Recently, concerns have been raised about how to verify tree-planting commitments are being carried out as promised, and are having the intended impact on reforestation and climate change mitigation.
Veritree aims to address those concerns by offering a platform that verifies, digitizes, and stores data on tree-planting initiatives managed by partner organizations such as American Forests and Ocean Wise. It also enables organizations that invest in these projects to track their impact over time.
Veritree has only been in business for a year, but it has already helped companies like Samsung, Telus, and Beyond Meat pledge over 19 million trees, and according to Emsley, approximately half of those trees have already been planted. In the last five months, the startup also raised its first financing round.
Now, Emsley said Veritree is ready to help even more brands “embed nature into their businesses.”
Sowing the seeds
The roots of both Veritree and Tentree can be traced back to 2006. While growing up in their hometown of Regina, Emsley and his brother Kalen started their first tree-planting venture while attending high school. Emsley explained their idea was to purchase a square mile of land in Saskatchewan, plant thousands of trees, and sell carbon offsets to other organizations.
“That business was intended to be a pilot project that could be potentially scaled out if the need was there,” Emsley said. “As we all know, the carbon offsetting market didn’t develop the way we all expected it to, so the business model wasn’t viable.”
Following that experience, Emsley said he and Kalen were still excited about the impact of tree planting on the environment, but knew there would be a challenge in scaling the carbon offsetting business. So in 2012, Derrick, Kalen, their brother Stephen, and David Luba co-founded Tentree, a consumer brand that would fund tree planting through the sale of clothing.
Tentree’s eco-friendly approach extended beyond tree planting. The company uses only organic or recycled materials and has focused on upholding ethical labour conditions in its manufacturing. By 2014, the company had helped plant one million trees, and its products were sold in more than 330 retail stores. Two years later, the company became a certified B Corporation.
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Emsley claimed that at the end of 2022, Tentree had funded the planting of approximately 92 million trees, and an additional 8 million have been pledged in 2023. Emsley explained there is typically a six to nine-month window between a sale and actual planting of a tree, which means the startup expects to see its 100 millionth tree planted this year. Today, Tentree’s sales, costs, and receipts for trees planted are audited annually by Deloitte to ensure the company is upholding its tree-planting commitment.
As Tentree scaled to tens of millions of trees planted, Emsley said the team began to encounter challenges with keeping track of each project with ground-level data. By 2019, Emsley said the company was investing a good deal of time and money in partnering with new projects but was receiving “very little verification, very little auditing and transparency in return.”
“We were feeling like there was too much focus on inputs versus outcomes,” he added. “Tree planting doesn’t really mean anything if it doesn’t result in [the] intended benefit on nature, people, and the planet.”
From in-house fix to standalone startup
In 2019, Tentree’s team began to develop specialized applications and tools to manage the company’s growing portfolio of tree-planting projects. The aim was to collect and verify on-site data and create a platform to streamline and display that information.
Emsley said there was a good deal of fine-tuning and iteration during the platform’s development phase, but by 2021, Tentree was using its new platform internally.
Although it wasn’t originally intended to be spun out, according to Emsley, Tentree began talking about its new verification technology at a variety of speaking engagements in 2021.This caught the interest of Samsung later that year, and the Tentree team realized the platform could benefit other companies.
In early 2022, the team initiated a partnership with Samsung, which led to the official launch of Veritree as a standalone company. Veritree has since been used by brands like Telus, SportChek, Beyond Meat, and Bank of Montreal, among others. The startup also recently announced a partnership with tech-enabled fulfillment and last-mile delivery startup GoBolt to measure and sequester carbon emissions from delivery trucks.
According to Veritree’s website, 19 million trees have been pledged through the platform since its launch. However, given the window between a pledge and planting, Emsley said approximately 40 to 50 percent of those trees have been planted so far, and the remainder will be planted this year.
The platform allows tree-planting partners to manage their projects, data, and evidence through a web-based dashboard
The platform allows tree-planting partners to manage their projects, data, and evidence through a web-based dashboard. Veritree collects and verifies data from multiple sources throughout the lifecycle of a restoration project, and then publishes the data to a public blockchain to ensure accuracy and prevent double-counting.
Businesses can use the platform to monitor and share their data, such as trees ordered, people employed, and carbon sequestered. These metrics are measured against the business’s specific tree-planting target, which is often part of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiative.
Emsley said in Veritree’s first year, the startup has already generated $2 million USD in sales, roughly three-quarters of which was from business partnerships.
Veritree has also caught the eye of investors, closing $3 million USD at the end of 2022. Participants included Garage Capital, Lyra Growth Partners, and Broadstreet Bulls, among others. Emsley said Veritree is looking to stretch the round to $4 million USD this year.
Clearing the air
As the world confronts the escalating climate crisis, tree-planting initiatives have emerged as an attractive opportunity for businesses—including tech companies—to contribute to carbon sequestration, job growth, and biodiversity restoration.
The B2B tree planting sector has existed for some time and includes businesses such as EcoMatcher, Click A Tree, and Tree-Nation, which have been connecting corporations with reforestation projects for more than five years.
Still, some critics argue that not all tree planting projects are equally impactful, and when executed poorly, could actually exacerbate the issues they intend to solve. Other experts have noted that measurement and verification challenges could impede tree planting from being a reliable climate change solution.
It’s also not just corporations that are struggling to hold to their tree-planting promises—even the federal government’s initiative to plant 2 billion trees by 2030 is facing setbacks. According to a recent audit, the program’s progress suggests that it is unlikely to achieve even one-tenth of its goal without significant improvements, including more long-term planning.
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Speaking to Veritree’s goal to create clarity in the tree-planting process, Emsley said, “With other organizations that we’ve partnered with [to plant trees], they say basically, ‘Thank you for your money,’ and ultimately, maybe they’ll send a few photos,” he said.
“In [our] case …you’re going to see the polygon that you’re planting in, you’re going to see field updates from where your trees were planted. You’re going to see additional information on survivability, geospatial information, ground data, all that.”
Emsley said Veritree’s current focus is to launch with more planting partners that can license Veritree’s technology for more reforestation projects. The startup is also looking to continue building its customer base and is looking to find other ways to service organizations’ CSR and ESG objectives through sustainability-focused initiatives.
“We were big believers that businesses are going to be the most significant driver of change when it comes to climate, nature, preservation, biodiversity loss,” Emsley said. “Businesses have the ability to really be the catalyst and the driver of fixing some of these issues.”
Image courtesy of Tentree.