Here at tentree, we have a term called “Environmental-ish.” and it’s part of how we’re making environmentalism inclusive. Living environmental-ish means taking small earth-first steps that add up to big change for our planet. That could be bringing tote bags to the grocery store (when you remember), or drinking from a reusable water bottle, or buying organic produce. We’re here to celebrate every meaningful step towards a better planet, even imperfect ones.
In this series celebrities, influencers, business leaders and everyday people share the details of their sustainability journeys, and the wins and fails along the way with the hopes that we can make sustainability more inclusive and that you can be inspired to live a little more environmental-ish.
We caught up with Derrick Emsley — one of Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs in 2020, tentree’s CEO and co-founder and self-described “big fan of trees” — as he dishes the details of his environmental-ish journey, which may or may not involve mexican food and cycling (or lack thereof).
Q: For those who don’t know you, do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
Hey, I’m one of the co-founders of tentree, and we’ve been around for almost a decade now. We’ve been fortunate to plant over 55 million trees since we started.
When myself and the other co-founders finished university, we just wanted to create something that allowed us to plant trees — we’re all big fans of trees. In hindsight, there are definitely easier ways to do that than start an apparel brand, but we’ve been able to create this incredible community around positivity in the environment, not taking yourself too seriously and taking that first step.
That’s what I felt was missing in the environmental conversation. When I started the business, it felt like everyone was telling me what I wasn’t doing in the environmental space, versus what I was doing well and how to do more of it.
tentree’s been this cathartic experience, to build this community and have these incredible people who really resonate with that messaging.
I don’t mind that we relocated from Saskatchewan to BC either. I love the outdoors, going skiing and hiking — Vancouver’s been a great place to do that. The winters are a little warmer on the west coast, which is a huge plus.
Q: I’d love to hear a bit about your environmental-ish journey. What first influenced you to live a little bit more sustainably, what were some of your first steps (successes and failures), and where are you now?
Growing up, I didn’t really know what it meant to live sustainability. We recycled, and that to me was the pinnacle of sustainability.
Same goes for us with tentree. When we started the business, we didn’t have the understanding that this was going to change the sustainability landscape within the apparel world. We knew about the impact of tree planting on the environment, but really early on, I don’t think we as individuals really recognized how our lifestyle could be more sustainable.
We realized that we didn’t just have the ability to plant a bunch of trees and make a huge impact, but that we could create a business that could live into those values in every aspect, whether that’s the manufacturing, the production, or the types of products we sell.
tentree’s growth definitely reflects my evolution of sustainable living. When we started, I didn’t know much about sustainability, but as we’ve scaled tentree people have come on our team who not only believe in our company, but sustainable living as well. And these people have challenged our business to continually grow in this, and frankly they’ve challenged me a lot to live even more sustainably in my own life.
Q: What environmental-ish things do you do on the regular?
Everything beyond recycling seemed too big, too unattainable for me when I started on my sustainability journey — living eco-friendly seemed like it was all about guilting people into sustainability, but that’s changed since I’ve learned more about it.
Today, my wife and I compost, we recycle as much as we can, and we’re very conscious of bringing reusable products, like mugs and totes, on the go with us.
The area I’m working the most on right now is my diet, and eating more plant based. Which is challenging for me, especially growing up with a very meat and potatoes kind of diet, but I’m working on it.
Q: Tell us more about your journey with eating plant based.
I started with “Veganuary” and it was definitely trial by fire. I wasn’t perfect by any stretch, I definitely stumbled on a couple of occasions, but I actually really enjoyed it. For me the challenge in the beginning was getting enough protein, I hadn’t totally wrapped my head around what that would mean when it comes to eating plant based.
But beyond the food itself, it was the lifestyle change that was the most challenging. I’m not a creative person when it comes to food, I have my routine and I stick to it. So when I had to switch it up to make a bigger salad, or add chickpeas — it sounds ridiculous to say that it was difficult to me — it was definitely a hurdle for me to get over. Nailing the quantities was hard at first! When I meal prepped, my fridge was literally not big enough to hold these massive salads I was making.
I’m no longer committed to being 100% plant based, but we’re trying to make at least 30% – 50% of our meals plant based.
Mexican food was our go-to, we made a lot of pico-de-gallo with avocado, tomato and onion, and the meat substitute for tacos would be black beans and chickpeas. That’s where I tended to camp, it wreaked a bit of havoc on the stomach occasionally, but that’s where I focused.
Q: Living sustainably is about progress, not perfection. Are there any eco-friendly lifestyle choices that are a struggle for you?
The biggest struggle for me is commuting. I live about a 20 minute commute from the office by bike, so frankly it’s a totally reasonable distance to cycle. My drive is like 7-8 minutes, I’m super fortunate that I’m so close.
Last summer I was really committed to riding my bike into work frequently. I was aiming for four out of five days of the week, and I probably landed on one day every two weeks.
I definitely got called out for this by the tentree team, and rightfully so. We did this thing internally where everyone made an environmental-ish pledge of something we wanted to get better at and we posted it on a wall, and biking to work was my pledge. And I totally failed at it.
Coming into this summer, I’m way more committed to cycling to work. The issue last summer was that I had to run around to all these different meetings all over the city. Now with Zoom being a reality, I’m thinking I can be a bit better about it. It’s definitely an area I really want to improve in.
Q: Do you have any go-to resources for sustainable living?
There’s a website I used when I was starting to eat plant based called “Eat This Much”. You select the eating plan you’re going for, like vegan or vegetarian, how many meals you need and your calorie target, and it will generate meal plans for you.
Honestly, the tentree team has kicked my ass a little bit on living sustainably and how to live up to that commitment. They’re my go to resource. I’ve definitely taken some meaningful steps personally, but there’s still so many areas where I think our team just does such a better job — particularly on the bike commuting side. Team members who eat vegetarian and vegan inspired me to get into plant based eating. They can push me, which is helpful around taking those steps and living up to my commitment.
For anyone wanting to live sustainably, the accountability piece is huge. Choose to surround yourself with people who are living more environmental-ish than you. Learn from them, get humbled and encouraged by them.
When I had to walk by our pledge wall everyday I didn’t ride my bike, I put my head down and hoped no one would call me out. At the same time, it inspired me to make changes that I never committed or pledged to because I saw other people’s pledges.
Our team’s been great for this, they’ll call me out but in a supportive way. It wasn’t like, “You’re contradicting yourself, do better.” It was more like, “Hey, I noticed your car parked out back, how’s that pledge going?” We’re in it together, and we’re trying to take those steps as a team.
Q: What tips would you have for someone who wants to live eco-friendly but doesn’t know where to start?
I should take my own advice, but the biggest thing for me living environmental-ish was realizing that the diet side of things has a huge impact on my carbon footprint as an individual. I tend to eat a very prescribed diet with no variance, since I’m kind of lazy when it comes to my food choices. I’m all about just getting the calories in. If my diet didn’t fit into that mould, then I wouldn’t do it.
This switch to plant based eating forced me to think about how I could make this easier on myself. This included learning to prep my food on Sunday to get ready for the week, so I wouldn’t go back to my default eating, and finding my go-to recipes that I could fall back on.
If I put a little bit more effort early on, then it makes things a heck of a lot easier down the road. And that applies to living sustainably in all areas! It’s about making it easy and simple. Having a reusable bag in your car or at your front door, having a reusable mug in your car for when you grab a coffee — these things make sustainable decisions feel easy. Sustainability is so much easier to adopt when you don’t feel like there’s a tradeoff. We can ask ourselves how we can make sustainability easy to do, and apply that.
All of these issues we’re facing — climate change, single use plastic — they’re all these really big, existential problems. It’s very easy for us to disconnect ourselves and our everyday actions from that big issue that’s out there. It’s hard to grasp. It’s too easy to opt out altogether if we don’t feel like it’s this inclusive environment where we lift each other up. The moment, for me, when I don’t feel set up for success or I’m out of the loop, I’ll opt out. Getting involved in an inclusive community that makes sustainability approachable is so important.
Whether this interview left you feeling inspired to add some chickpeas to your meal, or hop on your bike, we’re here for it. No matter where you are on your environmental-ish journey, you’re in good company. Keep your eyes out for our next Environmental-ish Confessions interview, where we’ll catch up with Gordon Renouf, the CEO and one of the co founders of Good On You, the world’s #1 resource for fashion sustainability ratings.