When is a tree not a tree?
Climate and the environment are hot topics. Brands doing the right thing – or hoping to convince us they are doing the right thing – often shout about their virtuous actions.
In advertising, on packaging and elsewhere, they flag up what they are doing to mitigate the effects of their products being produced, or their services being delivered.
Trees and tree planing often feature, either because wood is used in the manufacturing process or because tree planting is seen to offset CO2 emissions.
“We plant two trees for every one we cut down!”
“We offset your emissions on this journey by planting a tree!”
Although we have words for different species of tree, we only have one or two for the thing itself. Whether it’s a measley 2-metre tall five-year-old or a mighty 50-metre 300-year-old, we tend to call it a tree.
When we think of a tree, most of us would picture something like the latter: a mature oak in full leaf, or a sky-scraping pine.
So, when a company tells us they plant a tree to offset this or that, many of us are seeing a mental image of something that won’t exist for decades or even centuries.
We have a word for baby trees – saplings – but I’m yet to encounter a brand that says “We plant two saplings for every tree we cut down”.
This would surely be more truthful as no one is replacing a 100-year-old oak with two brand new 100-year-old oaks: they are planting some saplings.
In fact, maybe they are not even doing that… they could just be planting two acorns.
Of course, “We plant two tiny acorns for every grandaddy oak we fell” would not impress anyone. So instead they say they plant two trees. Technically correct, but psychologically it’s taking advantage of a shortcoming in our culture’s vocabulary – and perhaps our laziness to challenge what is meant by ‘a tree’.
Take a leaf out of money’s book
Unlike when talking about trees, we have no shortage of words when talking about sums money.
With money, we talk about exact amounts (for example, the gift cost £19.99… the round came to £9.75… the car is £31,450… they want £399,250 for the house). Or we use imprecise but roughly accurate amounts (the round was about a tenner… the car is around £30K).
We even have colloquial terms for certain amounts. A penny. A few bob. A quid. A fiver. A tenner. A pony. A monkey. A ton. A grand.
But with trees, we do not talk in terms of any kind of specific or approximate measure.
The “we plant two trees for every one we cut down” scenario is made to look ludicrous when translated into the language of money.
Imagine someone told you they had “taken one lot of money from your bank account but put two lots of money back in”.
You would not believe you had just doubled your money; you would want to know the amounts.
Cutting down a mature tree and planting some acorns is like being told £100 was taken and £2 put back.
(Hey, with a generous interest rate of around 4.75%, that £2 will become £200 in 100 years… about the same as it takes those acorns to turn into the oaks in your mind’s eye.)
If that was the deal with someone taking our money, we would not be impressed.
We should therefore be equally unimpressed with the tricky chat about ‘tree’ planting, and be just as challenging about what exactly is involved. And brands should therefore be more specific and honest about their actions and commitments.
Planting acorns is easy, but nurturing to maturity is something else – something that really is worth talking about.