By Pradip Shah
Co-Founder & Director of Grow-Trees.com
In 1991, the 80-year old credit rating concept that had made no headway outside the USA was getting traction in India, thanks to CRISIL, India’s first credit rating agency of which I was the founder managing director. Following a talk I gave at an SEC event in the USA, the Israeli rating agency asked us for technical assistance, well before India and Israel established diplomatic relations. In appreciation for our help, they planted a garden of 100 trees in my honor.
That was the genesis of the idea of Grow-Trees.com. When my son Karan was finishing his undergraduate studies in USA in 2009, winning business-plan competitions and planning to start a business in India, we decided to set up Grow-Trees.com, as we were both passionate about starting a business that had a positive impact on the environment and the world.
We realized that we had limited resources of our own and had to make the idea viable and scalable. We created the concept of Greet with Trees®, and of a TreeBank® where one could plant and ‘store’ trees that could be dedicated later via eTreeCertificates® to greet one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one. We had to earn the trust of supporters and therefore instituted for the first time anywhere independent audits of the tree plantings. We did not want to be activists finding fault with development projects that conflicted with the environment – we wanted to offer a positive way in which each one could fight climate change. We wished to inculcate the habit of planting trees to greet friends which meant that the process had to be convenient and affordable. We made it web-enabled and possible to plant trees with a few clicks and started with a price of Rs 50 per tree – the cost of buying and mailing a decent greeting card; later on, we made it mobile-friendly. We wanted to benefit society as a whole, and so decided to plant trees only in public lands. We would seek all permissions of appropriate authorities for the plantings. Involving the local communities became a cornerstone of all our planting activities. We standardised a planting process based on developing a nursery and nurturing saplings of a mix of local tree-species, never just scattering seeds to get numbers, and determined an optimum number to plant at each project-location for cost-effectiveness. We researched and identified locations across India and planting themes to address the needs of the local communities and area with the benefits of trees.
With our eye on viability, we decided to run the organization like a social enterprise – it would never be condescending, would be customer-centric and stakeholder-focused. As a family we would support it with interest-free advances, some staff and office support. I had gone to Harvard with the help of scholarship loans from wonderful organizations, but I had to run around a lot to get those loans; customers of HDFC, the first retail housing-loan provider in India which I was involved in setting up, got their pre-printed, pre-franked loan documents in the comfort of an airconditioned office without any running around, because it was customer-focused. Also, we did not want to seek any tax-deductions as a charity so as not to take away revenues from the government for its priorities such as a mid-day meal for a child.
Ever since the Business Roundtable in August 2019 announced a modernized Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation which is not just to serve shareholders but “to create value for all our stakeholders”, there has been a lot of talk on the role of corporations. Danone shareholders in 2020 made it the first large listed French company to become an enterprise à mission or purpose-driven company – to not only generate profits for shareholders but to do so in a manner that would benefit its customers’ health and the planet. Others have done it differently: Robert Bosch GmbH, the €77 billion German company is 92% owned by Robert Bosch Stiftung, a charitable institution, with the Bosch family owning only 7%. In India, we have the renowned Tata Group where 66% of the shares of Tata Sons are controlled by philanthropic trusts.
Grow-Trees.com has developed its revenue model to make it viable while enabling individuals and companies to achieve a private purpose – greeting friends, welcoming customers, recognizing employees and honoring associates – while doing social good. Companies have found that emailing eTreeCertificates® or giving a printed eTreeCertificate® with their logo and message makes a lasting and favorable impression on the recipients honored, besides enhancing their green credentials. Individuals tell us how pleased they are to support a thematic tree-planting project such as Trees for Tribals®, the convenience of planting trees on the net and preprogramming dates of delivery of the eTreeCertificates® for birthdays or anniversaries, the choice of designs of the eTreeCertificates®, the ability to upload photographs of the senders or the persons honored, and the feature that allows one to locate the tree-planting with the unique eTreeCertificate number the project site on a google map on our website. Wedded couples have expressed joy at having started a small grove of trees to commemorate their wedding which, with the added tree plantings by their well wishers, becomes a forest with a large number of trees. And memorial groves to remember a loved one result in living trees that keep giving generously to society; the grove eTreeCertificates® additionally can be printed out for the album as a reminder of the well wishers and their greetings or tributes.
All the money earned so far, after paying taxes, is retained in the company; the founding shareholders take no money and continue providing their time and office support. Grow-Trees.com provided a little support to some pandemic-hit villages by enlarging three water bodies in 3 different states and distributing rations for 64,000 meals, provided succour to flood-hit Irula tribals, provided support for training and the basic rafts required for seaweed cultivation to augment incomes of indigent fisherfolk, created several dozen khaals (shallow-water bodies) to capture water for storage and recharge in hilly Uttarakhand, but realized that the best support to our less-well-off fellow world travelers would be to scale up its activities. An important metric employed is repeat transactions by customers – after successfully just completing planting 1 million trees for a European company, it signed a contract for planting 5 million trees for the same company. We have experimented with planting a shady plant along the western side of the sapling to reduce heat and moisture stress; we are heartened when villagers have told us that our Trees for Elephants® will help avoid man-animal conflict and reduce depredation of their farms or when a forest ranger told us that they had sighted relocated tiger ST 10 in the area of our tree plantings because of the improved green cover through our Trees for Tigers® project near Sariska, or when a red panda was photographed near our Trees for Red Pandas® tree-planting site in Sikkim, or when our planting partner told us that the water table had gone up near our site in Rajasthan because of our tree plantings.
Grow-Trees.com has now become amongst the largest non-governmental tree planting organizations in the world and has so far planted over 19 million trees creating over 1,570,000 workdays of direct jobs, mainly for tribals and women; these trees will absorb over 380 million kgs of carbon per year. The trees will augment rural incomes, provide flowers, fruit, fodder and fuel to communities and living creatures, offer shade to nomads and their livestock, give shelter to birds and animals, improve wildlife habitats, prevent soil erosion and flooding, improve water catchment, generate oxygen, remove pollution, reduce carbon in the atmosphere and fight climate change. The Jewish story of Creation talks of God planting trees before creating other living things, for the benefit of man. Then God took the first man he created to show him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and cautioned: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world-–for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” Tree by tree, each of us can repair some of the damage already done.