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Tentree international does well by doing good

4-minute read

Tentree international

Kalen Emsley and David Luba were surfing and hiking in Hawaii in 2011 when they noticed a trend. Many of their fellow travellers were embracing socially responsible clothing companies such as TOMS, a firm that’s built a strong brand by giving away shoes to needy children.

The two friends had a eureka moment. What if they combined Emsley’s knowledge of tree planting—he and brother Derrick had run a tree-planting company as high school students—with apparel to build an environmentally conscious brand? The idea would be to plant 10 trees for every item of clothing sold.

The duo returned home to Regina, enlisted Derrick and officially founded tentree international in 2012. “People want to feel good about their purchases and know that what they buy is helping the world in some way,” Derrick Emsley says.

True to his brand, Derrick (now CEO) is reluctant to even discuss growth by sales. The firm’s success, he says, is really measured in the number of trees planted, a figure that had exceeded 1.2 million by the end of 2013.

There looks to be much more growth ahead with a U.S. expansion planned for 2014. Other socially conscious countries such as Australia are also on the founders’ radar.

An engaged brand

Tentree’s success can be credited in part to a shift among Canadian consumers in recent years, says Craig Ryan, BDC’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Canadian consumers now expect businesses to go beyond a “Do no harm” philosophy to “Make a difference,” Ryan says. And that’s a trend entrepreneurs ignore at their peril.

“A lot of people and businesses are acting not just as buyers, but also as citizens who care about the world they’re creating and living in,” he says. “What tentree has done is tap into that current.”

Indeed, a BDC-Ipsos survey released last fall found that 60% of Canadian shoppers would be willing to pay at least 5% more for a product or service they consider ethical, while 90% said they would stop buying from a company using irresponsible practices.

Motivates employees

Socially responsible companies are able to establish a clear point of brand differentiation that helps shield them from lower-cost competitors. Their mission also helps them to attract and retain motivated employees. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of building a fiercely loyal base of customers who will act as brand advocates.

All kinds of businesses can find ways to make a positive difference. But achieving success requires taking a strategic approach to ensure your company remains true to its mission and delivers the social benefits it promises, Ryan says.

Need to stay true to vision

At tentree, the entrepreneurs believe staying true to their vision is essential to the company’s growth. “Our customers need to believe in us and what we’re doing,” Emsley says. “If they question whether we’re actually planting trees, we’re going to be in trouble.”

While there might be ways to reduce costs on the tree-planting front, Emsley says he’s not interested. Instead, tentree, a client of BDC Financing, works with registered not-for-profit tree-planting organizations to ensure they support environmental best practices and plant trees that survive. The company is also careful to buy from suppliers with high ethical and environmental standards that are verified by an independent auditing company.

Sharing the story on social media

Tentree used social media platforms such as Facebook and X to build a dedicated online following.

After the firm earned more than 5,000 Facebook “likes” in just four months—a number that has spiked to more than 580,000, along with nearly 22,000 X followers—local shops began paying attention and stocked the company’s T-shirts, with national chains such as Boathouse following suit.

In 2012, the founders made an appearance on CBC’s hit show, “Dragons’ Den”, and enjoyed an immediate boost in sales.

Saving environment for the future

Next, the seven-person firm plans to introduce a tree registry program. Consumers will be able to buy a product and use a code to see exactly where their trees have been planted around the world.

“I think we’ve got one of the most compelling stories out there,” Emsley says. “It’s all about enjoying the environment and saving it for the future.”

4 ways to build a CSR business

1. Understand the expectations

“The first thing to figure out is what society expects of you,” says Craig Ryan, BDC’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility. “If you’re selling T-shirts, people want to know that workers aren’t making that shirt in unsafe conditions.”

2. Tell a great story

As tentree international CEO Derrick Emsley explains, building a socially responsible brand means communicating your efforts in the simplest and most engaging way possible.

3. Use social media

Using social media channels such as Facebook and X is cost effective and also delivers online community engagement.

4. Remember the bottom line

Consider a few questions: Is this initiative going to make money by reducing costs (energy savings, for example)? Build brand awareness? Attract customers? “If the answer is ‘no,’ you have to stop,”Ryan says.

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