In-Depth Q&A With Social Entrepreneur, Joe Lannen, Co-Founder of Tree Tribe
Meet Tree Tribe, a social enterprise that plants 10 trees for every eco-friendy pair of sunglasses that are purchased. Tree Tribe partners with non-profit organizations that plant trees to naturally replenish the environment, while at the same time providing food, shelter, and economic opportunities to communities around the world. The main contribution goes to planting forest gardens– diverse plots of trees and supporting species that help communities self-sustain.
Below is a really great in-depth interview with Tree Tribe Co-Founder, Joe Lannen. He and Co-Founders, Sharif Gordon & Dylan Basile started Tree Tribe in the Summer of 2015 and since then have already planted over 50,000 trees around the world!
How did Tree Tribe come to be a social enterprise? Can you walk us through how the idea came about?
The seed for Tree Tribe was planted a few years ago when I was living in San Diego, I got really into sustainable materials like hemp and bamboo, and was experimenting making things with bamboo in my back yard, I was fascinated by it, and got the idea to start a business that makes eco friendly materials and gives back to the Earth.
I was spending a lot of time in nature, backpacking, camping, etc, and the Earth gave me so much joy that I wanted to find a way to return the favor.
I dabbled with a couple ideas but nothing stuck, and I didn’t have business experience at the time, so I didn’t really have a great sense of direction back then. I was just becoming a freelance web developer at the time because I had a goal to travel the world, so I focused on that goal first to attain more freedom.
A couple years later, I left the US in January 2015, moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and within a month an avalanche of ideas and motivation hit me, and Tree Tribe was born. The first product was bamboo sunglasses, which perfectly represented what I was going for – sustainable material, sunglasses that represent permanent summer, and a tropical vibe.
I decided from the start I wanted to plant a tree on every sale, and after researching it more, I found we could plant 10 trees per sale without eating too much margin. So with the first product idea, and the tree planting model, the business model was ready to go! I brought on my first partner and about 3 months later we launched, summer 2015.
Things have evolved a lot in the last year, but one thing for sure is that we will always plant trees on every sale. We’re all about the outdoors and will continue expanding with products that fit the outdoor lifestyle. We’re also starting to experiment with different types of sustainable materials and plan to create some cool products from some of these materials soon.
On the social enterprise level, part of our mission is to inspire other businesses to give back as well. This is also one of my personal goals for 2017, to teach and inspire people to start and get involved in social enterprises.
How tough was it to find a reputable manufacturer to produce the Tree Tribe sunglasses as well as finding the right non-profit partners to carry out the Tree Tribe mission?
It can be hard, but it’s really a matter of thorough research and testing, developing relationships, and sampling from multiple manufacturers to find a good fit. I researched and contacted manufacturers from a few different countries to find the best fit.
For non-profit partners, I look for reputable organizations that have been around and have transparency and active social media accounts. Our first partner, Trees for the Future, has been planting trees for 25+ years and they have a very efficient system. They also post a lot of cool personal stories about the communities that we’re helping.
We’ll continue working with more partners, so we can plant trees in more countries and get involved in a variety of projects.
Where does all the wood come from? Is the bamboo sourced from a particular area of the world?
Bamboo loves tropical climate, so we naturally looked to Asia for sourcing our sunglasses. I lived in South East Asia for a year, and was there while starting Tree Tribe, so it made it easier to work with our manufacturer and meet in person. I’m a big fan of developing relationships on a personal level with business collaborators. As for the wood sunglasses, we work with the same manufacturing partner in Asia, since they have a lot of experience and I’ve met with them personally, and have a trusting relationship.
For materials it’s important to us that the wood comes from responsible sourcing and that we don’t contribute to any deforestation, so working with a reputable, experienced manufacturing partner is key.
The non-profits you have teamed up with really seem to focus on local jobs and sustainable community ideas. Do all your non-profit partners hire locals to plant all the trees?
The model varies for every organization. Some hire locals, some train locals and empower them, and some bring on interns or volunteers, and a mix of employment. I’d love to get my hands dirty with our partners more, but they’re all over the world and so far I’ve only been at planting sites for one of our partners… the rest I’ve met with on the phone to learn the details about the operation but ultimately would like to hang out and physically plant some trees 🙂
How does Tree Tribe choose where the 10 trees will get planted for every pair sold? You are currently planting trees in nearly a dozen countries, so how do you allocate the tree planting? Do you do a particular country each month?
Right now, we connect a specific product line to a different tree planting partner, we have a tree planting map with the countries we plant, who we work with, and what product allocates the trees – treetribe.com/pages/trees. As we expand with more product lines, we’ll work with more organizations, and also double up on our current organizations when we can.
Another idea we’re thinking about doing is letting the customer choose which country they want to plant the trees in.
It would be cool to develop a stronger connection between the customer and the country/community where the trees are planted, we just need to work on the logistics and make sure we’re taking care of all our tree planting partners.
Tree Tribe has planted nearly 50,000 trees so far.
When you take a step back and pause how does this accomplishment make you feel?
We just passed 50,000 🙂 It’s crazy because working on the business everyday, I get desensitized to the number, but I make sure to think on it from time to time, and really think about the communities we’re helping, and the overall boost to the health of the Earth by adding thousands of trees, and it feels great, it really motivates me to keep hustling to grow our business and community.
It’s been a life goal to create some type of business that could be used as a vehicle to give back to the Earth, and now living inside this goal is pretty cool.
Seeing some of the other businesses that work with our partners planting hundreds of thousands, and even millions of trees really inspires me to come up with ways we can plant more trees and do more good. I dream about the day when we can hit that 1 million mark that’s going to be awesome!
What has been the most memorable moment from one of the non-profits you have partnered with. Do they have a story how Tree Tribe has helped impact their life and community?
I can’t think of a single most memorable moment, but Trees for the Future has some really cool stories that keep us inspired and remind us that we’re not just helping the Earth, but we’re also helping to literally save lives and build stronger communities. Check out their stories here
On a similar note, we have a unique partnership with CIRENAS.org, in that we have a dedicated plot of land on their campus where our trees will go. This is cool because we can work together on custom projects… for example we might do a lot of fruit trees, and in a few years time be able to provide nice harvests to feed local communities and ease any financial burdens, because it’s all non-profit.
For a visual of the Tree Tribe story, check out the talk Dylan (1 of my 2 partners) and I gave at the 2016 Nomad Summit: