How Tentree Is Laying The Groundwork For Environmental Good
Known for its easy-to-wear clothing and obsession with planting trees, the Vancouver-based company is reforming the apparel industry and shattering stereotypes about living green.
“For too long, environmentalism has almost been this kind of exclusive community where not everybody had all the facts, not everybody understood, not everybody felt like they could get involved,” says tentree CEO Derrick Emsley. “It was almost left to feel like this all or nothing choice, or this exclusive community.”
The elitism around sustainable living and the perceived difficulty of making lifestyle changes are hurdles for most people, he continues. To Emsley, the idea that you can’t live sustainably unless you can afford it, coupled with a sense that you aren’t going to do it right even if you try, makes it intimidating for many well-meaning folks.
Becoming imperfect environmentalists
“Our belief is in accessible environmentalism, and our belief has always been that the changes we need to make as a globe, as a community, as a nation, aren’t going to happen by 100 or 200 perfect environmentalists. It’s going to happen from millions and millions of imperfect environmentalists,” says Emsley, who admits that as a company, they, too, are far from perfect.
Like any consumer goods company, tentree has to walk a fine line between manufacturing items to sell and the ripple effect those items have on the global community. About four years ago, tentree decided to transition its entire supply chain to sustainable materials.
“At the end of the day, we as founders didn’t really come from the apparel industry. We didn’t know just how, frankly, polluting it can be,” explains Emsley. “Once we really understood the impact it had, and sort of tried to think about our place in that, we decided to remap our entire supply chain, and made sure every single product we made was made from sustainable fabrics.”
“Ultimately, our goal was to create a tree-planting company, and apparel was our vehicle to do so.”
- Derrick Emsley, tentree CEO
Today, there is no virgin polyester in the tentree supply chain. Planet-friendly materials like hemp, cork, organic cotton and natural plant dyes go into their clothing, and tentree taps into recycled options when polyester or plastics would traditionally come into play.
A “trails to cocktails” aesthetic permeates the approachable-priced casual wear line, with many hoodies, hats, tanks and tees featuring graphics of — you guessed it — trees. Though sustainability is a pillar of the tentree brand, Emsley points out that it is not always the first attraction for customers.
“What we’ve found is that the first decision isn’t sustainability. The first decision is the product, and the function and the look of that product. The second decision, often for us, is the sustainability of the product or the story of the brand,” he says.
Making tree-planting personal
Though consumers may go for appearance first, there’s no doubt that commitment to responsible business has been an important factor in the brand’s success. Planting 10 trees for every item sold has earned tentree millions of engaged and loyal fans — and put over 30 million trees in the ground.
“If you were to rewind to seven or eight years ago when we started the brand, we were tree planters. We didn’t know a thing about apparel,” he recalls. “Ultimately, our goal was to create a tree-planting company, and apparel was our vehicle to do so.”
From Indonesia to Haiti to their own backyard, tentree works with planting organizations in parts of the world that will benefit most from the social and environmental impact of reforestation.
“We wanted to create something that was tangible — that you could, as a consumer, really feel like you were a part of,” says Emsley of their tree-planting program and registry tokens, which allows mindful shoppers to track where their trees end up.
Being part of a community working toward meaningful change has been rewarding for tentree and their customers, and shoppers continue to send suggestions for expanding the line. While tentree hadn’t designed bags before, requests for a sustainable backpack kept coming in.
Creating the perfect backpack
“For us, when we set out to build a bag — to sort of meet that demand — the idea was that we wanted to create the most sustainable bag the world had ever seen,” Emsley tells us. The Mobius was born of this ambition, and with the help of some Kickstarter funding, their first design task was to rethink everything.
“The fabric was the biggest one,” says Emsley, who wanted to find a more sustainable alternative to typical nylon or polyester construction. Instead, they opted to use REPREVE®, an innovative material made from recycled plastic bottles.
Recycling post-consumer offal and preventing new petroleum-based products from being made was a no-brainer as Canada and other progressive governments began announcing plans to curb single-use plastic and consumer waste.
Though it took a little more effort, tentree found a way to work scraps and recycled materials into virtually every part of the Mobius: straps, clips, and even hard-to-source recycled YKK zippers.
“We wanted to create the most sustainable bag the world had ever seen.”
- Derrick Emsley, tentree CEO
Perhaps the most unconventional and groundbreaking shift from traditional manufacturing techniques, however, was the eco-friendly foam padding used in the Mobius backpack. Working with a company called BLOOM, tentree pioneered the use of a plant-based foam that, like recycled bottles, also addressed two problems at once.
“When we started talking with them, they had never used this foam for backpacks before,” says Emsley of their collaboration. More often used in sneakers, BLOOM foams are created from excess algae biomass, a problem plaguing North American lakes and waterways. After harvesting the algal bloom and returning the filtered water to its source, they use the raw material to create a responsible alternative to fossil fuel-based padding.
In addition to the material upgrades used to manufacture the Mobius, the bag’s versatility added to its sustainability. An expanding roll top and the attractive design make Mobius a suitable outdoor daypack, commuter bag or weekender.
“The sustainable side of things doesn’t just come from fabrics; it also comes from the function and the durability of that product,” Emsley points out. “If that product can replace two bags, or prevent you from having to purchase multiple products, it’s a good product from a sustainability standpoint, because it reduces that sort of overconsumption problem that we’re faced with.”
Being part of the solution
As a certified B Corp, tentree adheres to standards of transparency and interdependence — a recognition that we are all stakeholders in and stewards of the future.
While the balance between consumption and overconsumption is still uncharted territory for many, brands like tentree are making a name for themselves by offering shoppers more mindful options, planting trees and forging new paths.
Emsley and tentree are optimistic for the future and proud to be part of an ideological shift for consumers.
He says, “If we can support them in those decisions through making accessible products that look good and they feel good wearing, [we can] hopefully help them on their journey to living more sustainably.”