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May 20, 2022

Planting trees and fighting greenwashing

Why do The Big Exchange plant trees and who do we partner with to make sure it happens the right way? Find out what we do with our partners.

The Big Exchange plant a tree for every customer who joins and invests on The Big Exchange. Why?

Well, in a meeting a year or so ago one of our team said;

"It would be nice if when a JISA is invested for a child we could plant a tree at the same time. That way, when the child turns 18 and take ownership of their investment pot, they could have a sapling too. That'd be quite a nice reflection of their fledgling investment account. Everyone can see how long it takes for a sapling to grow into a sturdy tree, but everyone underestimates how long it takes to grow your savings and investments. We can make that connection real."

Planting trees also has many positive impacts on biodiversity and the environment (if done well) so we thought we'd go ahead and do it. It's not something we really talk about but is a part of what we leave for future generations.

However, we were sceptical about tree planting. There are a lot of stories about greenwashing: where carbon offset schemes are linked to planting young saplings or seedlings, so we were really careful about who we partnered with to do this and what we say about it. We ended up choosing to work with a lovely company called Treeapp.

Treeapp convinced us that they were doing the right thing and not cutting any corners or promising the world will be saved by planting trees. We asked them this week about why planting trees is at the epicentre of greenwashing and how they combat it.

The greenwashing effect of planting trees

As tree planting becomes increasingly popular, Treeapp is equally excited and cautious about the changes in tree-planting investments across the globe.

The following article highlights this: How phantom forests are used for greenwashing. Articles like this are necessary to educate sustainably-driven organisations and companies about the pitfalls of engaging in reforestation activities without the expertise & experience of ecologists, knowledge sharing of communities and local understanding of government practices.

Why tree-planting initiatives fail

Many socio-political factors can make reforestation projects fail in the long-term as can planting trees without understanding the biome and soil composition of a site. Concrete local monitoring is the only option to ensure that the infrastructure, knowledge and long-term supervision of sites remains.

Some failed projects mentioned in the article are national or even supra-national, where local NGOs sign up to be part of the larger mission to reforest areas. There is currently no adequate monitoring available to understand the work of hundreds of NGOs signing up to become a part of larger missions such as AFR100 forest landscape restoration initiative.

Furthermore, planting initiatives at the national government level can also host many conflicting interests and can be imposed on local communities who will, without training and knowledge sharing, not be able to grow trees to maturity.

Treeapp is aware of government programs where seeds are bought by the government and provided for free to communities across the country. This means that spatial monitoring becomes impossible (i.e. where are my trees planted?), species are planted in areas they will not survive in (why did most trees die?), and communities are not taught how to care for the trees (why did the community not visit the sites after planting?).

Treeapp’s monitoring and forestry expert team

Treeapp therefore carefully chooses local partners who operate according to a community model focused on providing benefits to the local population. All tree planting partners have educational expertise and years of experience in forestry management. These decisions are not taken quickly and Treeapp put in extensive due diligence before signing on to work with a partner.

The onboarding process to become a Treeapp planting partner takes between 2 – 3 months and consists of: 3 interviews with the NGO and Treeapp’s forestry expert team, land agreements and previous work evaluation, as well as matching Treeapp and planting project missions.

Treeapp's 5 forestry experts, whose expertise ranges from PhDs in carbon sequestration to community management onsite in the countries they plant in, look at:

  • Are the local monitoring standards up to Treeapp’s standards?
  • Treeapp only partner with 8 NGOs out of 300+ potential partners that Treeapp has vetted.
  • Who owns the land (government, private or communal)?
  • Who benefits from the planting (fruit for the community, medicinal uses of bark/leaves)?
  • Does local management understand differences in tree species and biomes (ecosystems)?
  • Who did the external audit of the site?
  • How did the local government sign off on this project?

Understanding the community model

Correctly noted in the article, one of the most important factors to predict whether a reforestation project will be successful beyond the initial planting stage is how involved the community is and how much it benefits from the trees.

Treeapp analyses the following:

  • What are the uses of tree species for local farmers/communities/commercial activities?
  • How close are planting sites to roads as this influences how much effort it is for a community to upkeep the sites?
  • Are local nurseries used by the NGO as this stimulates the local supply chain and economy?
  • Are the sites replacing existing activity (i.e. farming)?
  • Are indigenous groups owners of the land and if not, are they provided with access to the lands?
  • Who harvests the fruits, nuts, leaves and bark?

Treeapp also estimates the capacity of work according to the local team size. Therefore, the number of trees planted each month is limited according to the capacity of the local planting team AND the size of sites. Every one of our NGOs works closely with all levels of government to secure written agreements regarding ownership and activities on the restoration sites. Survival rates are measured by the NGOs and compared to that of the predicted range of Treeapp’s forestry expert team. Treeapp also looks at the honesty of NGOs regarding the loss of trees due to drought/natural disasters/illegal logging activities in the area.

Open-source monitoring is the way forward

As the BBC article suggests

"it's mainly about making your good monitoring data available to the international community."

Treeapp is not only recording their sites in the open-source platform for ecologists called "", but has monthly catch-ups with the local NGOs, analyses satellite imagery and drone footage and does its own carbon sequestration calculations based on the different tree species planted in every site. This is only possible because of Treeapp’s forestry expert team that approve/deny any steps taken in the direction of NGO partnerships and monitoring.

Check out examples of Treeapp's open-source mapping of their tree planting sites:

So with thanks to Treeapp for pulling together all of this information, we are happy to say we think we are working with the right people here. If you want to find out more about what Treeapp do, you can find their Impact Report on their website, here 🌱