Picture this. A CEO with muddied boots kneels down and gently inserts a small green seedling into the ground. Photographers snap away, onlookers clap politely, and journalists start scribbling furiously a few ideas for a smart headline.
The corporate frenzy for tree planting (tanam pohon in Indonesia) is still in full swing, but the question is: how can this kind of activity really make a difference for the environment and for your company’s green image?
(I had promised to write about tree planting in a previous post, and with a recent heated discussion on the subject flaring on the green living mailing list I help co-moderate, and actress/celebrity/jack-of-all-trades Luna Maya now planting trees for a cigarette company, now seems a good time to talk about this.)
On the surface, tree planting seems like the easiest fruit to pluck from the CSR tree. You can associate it with the issue of climate change, it’s a relatively cheap activity, it shows visible results (at least in the short term, and especially if planting happens in a bare area), and it allows VIPs to get their hands dirty and be pictured doing the right thing.
And as the Luna Maya story has illustrated in the past week, it can also generate considerable media coverage, strengthening your brand.
But as this blog keeps ranting on (and on) about, too many companies are not aware of the risks they face when sticking to safe, predictable and short-term environmental CSR activities that promote image over substance.
The truth is, many of these tree planting activities are one-off events, with seedlings promptly forgotten once the show is over.
According to a source, in West Java, an IDR 25 billion tree planting programme failed spectacularly, with only 10% of seedlings remaining one year later. Not the kind of news you want to see in the public media, especially when associated with your brand (by that time Luna Maya’s publicist won’t be returning your calls).
Now how about this?
- Consider whether tree planting has anything to do with your business activities. I mean, if you’re selling stethoscopes, does it make any sense to sink part of your CSR or marketing budget into planting trees?
- Now assuming you see a logical connection between your business and tree planting—let’s say you’re in the pulp and paper sector—what are you going to do to ensure that tree planting is actually delivering added value to the local ecosystem and to the people who live there? Think local income opportunities, educational benefits etc.
- Collaborate with people who know about tree planting. Don’t buy the cheapest seedlings and plant them on the next available slope. Talk to specialists and partner with them. Engage with the local community and listen to their aspirations.
- (“It sounds like a lot of work”. Yes, sustainability usually is, but you reap benefits further down the track. Honest.)
So let’s look at this again.
Your company has now developed a solid strategy for greening an area whose ecosystem will be greatly enhanced with new trees, and you have identified collaboration opportunities with local folks so that they can draw revenue from these trees.
Sounds like you’re good to go?
Not yet. If you don’t have a budget set aside to regularly monitor and take care of the trees for the next few years, you’re just seeding failure, wasting resources and exposing yourself to some potentially nasty backlash once the seedlings wither and die, and people start taking notice. You may also hear the word greenwash. Hence the critical importance (notice the underlining?) of budgeting for this activity into the long-term.
Set? Now you can call Luna.