Head Start

Trees not Tees: A Green Alternative to Race Swag

May 24, 2021 Race Directors HQ Episode 2
Head Start
Trees not Tees: A Green Alternative to Race Swag
Show Notes Transcript

Waste is a big problem in the events industry and endurance events are no exception. And it’s not only about water bottle waste. Sometimes the things we offer our participants, like medals and T-shirts, end up discarded or in a cupboard somewhere never to see the light of day again.

Change may be just around the corner though. In today's episode we'll be hearing from Chris Zair on how UK-based Trees not Tees is helping race directors offer participants the option of planting a tree instead of (or often on top of) receiving the traditional finisher shirt and medal.

It's a really interesting discussion with lots of details on how the Trees not Tees model could incentivize change in the industry through a win-win for participants and race directors alike.

Things covered in this episode:

  • How Trees not Tees was born from the frustration of trail runner, Jim Mann
  • The Trees not Tees model: good for participants, good for race directors, good for sponsors, good for the environment.
  • The economics of Trees not Tees: What does it cost for the race director to offer a tree-planting option? What does it cost Trees not Tees to plant the trees? 
  • The secret sauce: How can Trees not Tees plant trees at a loss and still make it work in the log run (hopefully!)
  • Trees not Tees' ambitious roadmap for planting 50 million trees by 2025

Don't miss in this episode:

  • How Trees not Tees' sustainable reforestation at scale helps turn wasteland into vibrant wild ecosystems 
  • Trees not Tees' plans for US expansion

Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 21,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.

You can find more free resources on planning, promoting and organizing  races on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com.

You can also share your questions about race waste, sustainability or anything else in our race directors Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

Panos:

Hi, welcome to Head Start the podcast for race directors and the business of putting on races. Waste is a big problem in the events industry and endurance events are no exception. And it's not only about water bottle waste. Sometimes the things we offer our participants don't always go to good use. I'm talking about medals piling up in drawers and finisher T-shirts that never get worn. Well, change may be just around the corner. Today I'm talking to Chris Zair, Director of UK-based Trees not Tees, whose mission is to help race directors offer participants greener alternatives to the traditional T-shirt and medal. Alternatives like planting a tree. This is a really interesting approach to sustainability in our industry and I hope this episode sets off a lightbulb or two for you today. Before we go into all that though, a quick shout-out to our podcast sponsor GiveSignup|RunSignup the leading all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events. More than 21,000 in-person, virtual and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events and raise more. And we'll be talking to Whitney Taylor from GiveSignup|RunSignup a little bit later in the episode about smarter ways to manage your race giveaway inventory, so you don't have to end up with leftover swag putting on a dent on your budget and the environment. Okay, so let's get into this amazing episode. Chris, welcome to the podcast.

Chris:

Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Panos:

Thanks a lot for coming on. So you're currently living in Barcelona, Spain?

Chris:

Yeah, correct.

Panos:

And you're the Director for Trees not Tees, which is a UK company. Is that right?

Chris:

Yeah. So I'm working remotely from Spain. I'm a Director for Trees not Tees and I've got a bit of envy from my colleagues in the UK, who are a lot of them based in Scotland, that the sun is often shining in the background of our team calls when maybe less so-- maybe it's a bit chilly up in Scotland. So I've been asked to make sure I don't show off the blue skies too much over here!

Panos:

Yeah, well, who can blame them - right? I mean, it's a great balance to be living in Spain, and working for a UK company.

Chris:

Yeah, as someone that loves the outdoors and loves running and cycling, it's a pretty good place to be, I can't complain.

Panos:

So how long have you been working for Trees not Tees?

Chris:

So I've been working with the team for around six months now. I'm heading up the whole growth of Trees not Tees from something that was growing with word of mouth to spreading the spreading the word and getting things-- getting things set up a little wider.

Panos:

Well, I'm very excited to have you on the podcast today, because I know a couple of things about Trees not Tees and I think what you guys do is really, really cool. I think quite a few of our listeners, particularly the people who are based in the UK, would probably have heard of you, others won't. So why don't you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?

Chris:

Yeah, certainly. So most of the clue is in the name. We're Trees not Tees and we work with race organizers, race directors who are keen to reduce their environmental impact, by making a little change to race-- the race signup process. So what races are doing is they're adding the option for participants to say I don't want a T-shirt, I want a tree instead. So typically, where they're going to choose the size of the T-shirt, if a T-shirt is included, there'll be another little option, a tick box, that says I don't want that, I actually don't want the T-shirt here, please plant a tree for me instead. So this is what the race organizers are doing from their side, and then essentially they send us a list after the race has happened of the X amount of participants who wanted to plant a tree and we plant the trees here in the UK. So we're part of a scalable reforestation project called The Future Forest Company, and we plant the trees, we take a photo of every single tree that we plant, record the geolocation and the species and we've got a cool bit of technology where we then send out an e-certificate, a personalized certificate, to every runner. So after the race and kind of a couple of weeks after the race, every single runner will get an email with a bit of a reminder of something they signed up for six months ago. And then they get their tree just after the race with the sponsor logo and the race logo on there as well. So that's kind of what we do. We plant the trees and we give that little greener option to race organizers and participants.

Panos:

That's awesome. So basically, a participant opts out of a T-shirt, you plant a tree for them, and they get a picture of their baby tree through the post after the race. That's super cool.

Chris:

Yeah, a little sapling or recently planted sapling. And yeah, everyone gets their own one and they can, they can even click on the geolocation link, and it takes them to the site in Scotland at the moment, but also other parts of the UK, where we're going to be planting, and they can see exactly where their tree is.

Panos:

So I have to say, and this is probably something you get from others, I'm sure, this is a very, very brilliantly straightforward idea. We get lots of questions in our Facebook group, and on our website, from race directors wanting to reuse T-shirts and medals and other stuff. And, you know, you run, I run, lots of race directors I know run. And for most people, all those race T-shirts in the end just end up on a pile somewhere. And some of them don't even ever get worn. So it's definitely something that is very much needed in our industry, I think, this kind of initiative. Where did the idea for Trees not Tees come from?

Chris:

So Jim, Jim Mann, who's one of our co-founders is a keen trail runner. He's won a few big races here in the UK. And like many of us who run a few races, as you said, he started accumulating T-shirts - for want of a better word tat - a lot of the time you go to every single race, you get a status quo for nearly all races, you get a T-shirt, you get a medal, you get a goodie bag full of stuff that you don't really need or use. So the footprint of that is considerable. And when you add it up, the people might be doing a race a month, or even more than that. And so Jim came up with the idea of Trees not Tees, he already worked in the space trying to prove the profitability of forests, because we are in a global crisis where we need to not cut down forests and also plant forests. So Jim was kind of already thinking in that space. And then as a runner, alongside that, he thought there's something that can be done, a kind of an easy win, as you said, a logical choice that can be done. And then I guess the, the Trees not Tees name, then just added a bit of momentum to it, because it's a nice-sounding name. So yeah, that's how we're set up and the kind of initial model, and then we've kind of grown with it a little bit of word of mouth, because Jim had some race director relationships. And we've really just grown so far through word of the mouth to where we are at the moment. We've got 109 different races in the UK, who are scheduled to use us for 2021. Fingers crossed that virtual races soon become physical races. And it looks like - touch wood - that will be the case. Yeah, we're just excited to grow.

Panos:

And when did the company start doing what you guys currently do?

Chris:

So we kind of set up at the end of 2019, into the start of 2020. Which, timing-wise, as many people-- as everyone knows in this space, it's not been a great time for races in general and race organizers. And because of what we do, we only plant trees after the race has happened, so there's no commitment until the races have received all the money and there's no refunds. So this year, we haven't had that many physical races take place. But we've seen the growth of virtual races, whether that is race organizers who are pivoting to do virtual races to cater to their runners or completely new organizations setting up just for virtual races. So we've seen real kind of good growth. And that allowed us to plant some trees this year-- I'm sorry, in the last 12 months. But at the same time, it's given us a chance to speak to race directors gradually and build those relationships and start growing our social media following as well. Because throughout this, you can't read the news without seeing something about tree planting, or something about the environment. And so it's really front of mind for a lot of people. At the end of the day, you know, race directors are often wearing many hats. So they are-- everyone's kind of a global citizen first so they've been carrying that forward into the decisions they make as race directors. So we're building a lot of relationships and hoping that as the year goes on, and as people are planning maybe for 2022 races, it's af front of mind and it's a kind of an obvious choice to then add Trees not Tees in there.

Panos:

So how many trees then did you plant over the past 12 months?

Chris:

Off the top of my head, it's probably about 20 races in total across virtual races and some physical races that managed to sneak into the window where physical races were allowed, but it was mainly virtual races there. And we've also got some partnerships with companies from a kind of company side of things who want to plant trees. So yeah, we've been able to plant trees through other means across races and virtual races.

Panos:

Is there any sort of like big event name you've signed up going forward that you're willing to share with us?

Chris:

So it really ranges from the trail side of things-- so Centurion have really partnered with us, Centurion Running, and the team there have been a real kind of big spokesperson for us. We've got the Dragon's Back race, which is another kind of epic trail race, the likes of Hardmoors are another kind of trail race series. And we've kind of seen that because of the nature of the trail running scene, word of mouth gets us out there and race directors are always looking for kind of green options, so we've managed to grow really well in the trail scene through word of mouth, and then kind of naturally trail races are smaller so the opportunity to plant trees is smaller in the trail scene. So a big goal of ours is to begin to break into the larger field road running side. So we're delighted to be working with Brighton Marathon and also the Loch Ness marathon as two of our bigger road marathons, and then we've got a few more either signed up or keen to sign up. For this year, we've actually got three races who are not even giving the option of taking a T-shirt - they're saying every single runner is planting a tree, which has been amazing. So that's the Cheltenham Half Marathon, taking that approach, and a couple of other races. So it's-- yeah, seeing those kind of decisions to help us plant, rather than 20% of runnerss - which is kind of our average that we see, 20% of people take out and plant the tree - for those kind of races we're planting 9,000 trees across three half marathons, because every single person is getting a tree. It's a really encouraging statement from those race organizers.

Panos:

Yeah, well, for people who are not that familiar with the racing in the UK, I have to say those are some very big, well-respected race brands, you guys have signed up - like, really well done! I mean, Brighton, pretty big event, very long track record in innovation and in embracing new things in the industry. I'm not at all surprised to hear they're involved. And then Hardmoors, Dragons Back, really, really high profile, absolutely grueling 100-mile plus ultras. Yeah, so some really great events, you guys have signed up. You know, hopefully, as you say, more people are going to be coming on board offering participants this greener alternative to the race T-shirt - if they want it, that is.

Chris:

Yeah, it's tough because people-- and we understand the quandary for race organizers, because, well, there's a few elements, race T-shirts are a cool way of helping people show off your run because you can't go-- everyone wears their race T-shirts out. But actually, that's a-- it's easy to get carried away and think that every single person is going to wear your T-shirt every single time. So what we see is that it's good to give the option initially. We're saying, look, if what you say is right, and everybody loves your T-shirts, then put the option in there and we won't plant a single tree, give it a go. If no one takes the option, then it's no skin off our nose, but give it a go. And every single race is seeing a percentage of people out there take their T-shirts. And we're also kind of saying don't make it a race to the bottom for race T-shirts. If you give everyone a race T-shirt included in the fee, then naturally, you're going to choose the cheapest--, you're going to end up choosing a cheap t shirt, which is going to come from a part of the world where there's less of a focus on the environment. So the impact of your T-shirt is going to be greater on the environment. And it's also probably going to be a lower quality T-shirt. I think that races that I've done in the past, where it's a bright colored T-shirt, and you put it on and you never want to run in this T-shirt, it's kind of self-defeating. In that sense, it's a false economy for these races. So what we're encouraging races to do is to maybe not include a T-shirt for everyone, but to have a higher quality T-shirt that people can add on. Because by doing that, you're then covering the cost of the hi T-shirt, because then you're adding it on, it might be 10-15, but make it an epic-- a really cool t shirt that someone will wear. Because on the flip side, I've got race T-shirts that I did from marathons back in 2008 and I still wear them, and I've worn them hundreds and hundreds of times because it's a good quality T-shirt, it's a cool design. So yeah, there's a few areas that we're looking at advising or kind of recommending that race directors go in. And also removing the date is the first thing, removing the date from the T-shirt. Because the amount of 2020 T-shirts that must have been thrown away this year, because the race never happened, it's just scary. It's scary to think about the amount of T-shirts that would have gone to waste and they're trying to put them out in virtual events. But the reality is that so many would have been printed, and people don't want a 2020 race-- a 2020 T-shirt in 2021.

Panos:

Yeah, I guess you need to be an extra-good salesman to sell a T-shirt with a 2020 day on for a 2021 event. I know people have tried...I mean, yeah, I know exactly what you mean. By the way, with-- there's quite a big spread in the quality of T-shirt you get in a race, and the really nice ones you love running in and and you keep using the same ones, your three or four favorites all the time. And then you have like another 40 or 50 of not so great ones, to be honest. And some of them just never get worn ever. Just the fit, isn't great.

Chris:

They rub a little bit, or? Yeah.

Panos:

So actually-- yeah, that's great. That's a great point to look a little bit at the environmental impact of T-shirts, if you have any data on that. Like, what's the actual carbon footprint contribution of T-shirts to the overall carbon footprint of a race? Because, as you said, in 2020, it's scary to think how many T-shirts have gone to waste. And to be honest, T-shirts have gone to waste even before the pandemic, and they'll probably continue to do so after the pandemic. So, just for us to understand, what really goes into producing your typical shirt, something you'll get in a race like tech T-shirt?

Chris:

So yes, the race world, it's just part of a big sphere of fast fashion globally where this impact is absolutely devastating. So there's stats on cotton T-shirts, which create around two kilograms of eCO2 to create a single cotton T-shirt, but, staggeringly the report saying around 2,700 litres of drinking water goes into creating the cotton that goes into a single cotton T-shirt, which is just absolutely kind of devastating. And so it's going to be around a similar figure, if not higher for wicking T-shirts. And the worst thing about wicking T-shirts is that they're made out of microfibers. So when you put a wicking T-shirt in the wash, it's going to be releasing these micro fibers that then get released into our water system. So there's a lot of reports on the damage that micro fibers do. And when they're released and they don't get filtered out, they're washing through into fresh water and salt water and just really having a negative impact on the wildlife that live in these ecosystems. So yeah, it's pretty devastating, both the eCO2 pollution impact of a single T-shirt and the amount of water, the irrigation and the farming that can produce the cotton is pretty devastating. And then if you scale that up to a race that might have 10,000 runners, so you might be looking at 20 tons of eCO2 being created just for those race T-shirts, a staggering amount of waste for something that's really just a guess - it's a guess that these runners want them. And that can be completely eliminated. And then if you have a system where someone has to order their T-shirt, and you really know-- you're removing all the ones that are being created for nothing, you're replacing those with a tree, maybe, which does exactly the opposite, it's kind of a positive side of things, and then the ones that are being created, if someone's spending their own money on it, then it's much more likely that that one's going to be used. Hopefully it's a better quality T-shirt so the impact is less, and then the impact is for something, and it's being used by someone who wears it 30, 40, 50, 100 times the next 10 years. So it's worth it because, we know people consume, we're not trying to say never wear a T-shirt, never wear a race T-shirt because that's just not realistic. But we're trying to convince people that there's a better way, a better way of doing it - produce something of quality, and then even when you're looking at buying things outside of the race space, think of-- buy quality. If you buy a decent top, you buy it less time, you're more you're less likely to have to then throw that away in six months time. So yeah, that's the rule of thumb. That's what we're trying to implore that runners do through the races and also through their general consumption.

Panos:

So eCO2 you mentioned there at the beginning, is that some kind of CO2 equivalent or something? Like some kind of way of measuring the greenhouse gases that come out of the process of producing the T-shirt?

Chris:

Yeah, exactly. So it's taking up the corresponding amount of CO2 that is given out into the atmosphere through that production.

Panos:

So, generally, do you have any idea of what percentage of a race's carbon footprint would be eliminated by eliminating T-shirts? Or even by reducing the number of T-shirts that are given out? I know it's a pretty open-ended, depends-on-a-lot-of-stuff kind of question. But it'd be really interesting to hear if there's any kind of data on that.

Chris:

So it's tough to know, really, because when you're looking at the different scopes, so you're looking at-- when you look at carbon footprint, you're looking at scope 1, 2, 3. So scope 1 would be the energy that is used by that company. So you look at the company's - if it's a big race - the company's office and the energy that is used to actually set up the race itself. And I would think that the T-shirts would also kind of fall into that, or fall into scope 2 which would be the supply chain for the products. But it would be definitely a considerable chunk of that. Another really big part of what we're seeing is the travel. So for runners traveling to a race, it's a huge part of the footprint as well. And it's something we're starting to explore more, because if you've got-- if you've got a global race, think of the big marathon majors, you've got people coming from across the globe, and you're a victim of your own success, because people want to travel across the globe to your race. But the footprint of that is absolutely colossal. So we're working with a few partners to potentially look at ways of providing offsetting in the ticketing journey as well, which hopefully we'll be launching soon, because that's, again, it's something that's so linked to our everyday behavior, so that more and more when we're looking at offsetting our footprint as general everyday consumers. So we're hoping to be able to encourage runners to start doing that on a small level, to offset their travel to their races. And then the T-shirt just really supplements that as a way of reducing another element of their footprint, and transforming that into something positive for a tree.

Panos:

So, from your experience so far, what percentage of participants in a race would typically give up the T-shirt in favor of the Trees not Tees planting-a-tree option?

Chris:

So at the moment, averaging out the races that went ahead, we're looking at around 20% to 21% of runners have taken a tree, and also other races-- so races are also given the option to plant a tree and take the T-shirt as well. So there's some races that are seeing higher, because they're seeing 20% of people take just the tree and not have the T-shirt, and then you're seeing some more say I want the T-shirt, but I'll have a tree instead, and they can pay a physical fee for that tree. But then we go all the way up to, I think, the highest bar, the ones where a tree is included for everyone. The highest we've recorded is with Great Owl Running, who saw, I think, 56% of runners for their virtual event for Christmas chose a tree. And then trail runs-- so people are tending to see that people are more in touch with the environment in the trail scene. So yeah, 20% is the average. And we'd love to push that up. I think year-on-year, as this becomes something that is more and more widely available and the publicity comes up, hopefully, we'll see that grow. And then hopefully we'll see more people pushing that 50% to 60%, 70% of runners as people become even more conscious of the environment.

Panos:

Yeah, well, let's certainly hope so. So when I'm going through the registration process, and I elect to get a tree planted, instead of receiving the T-shirt, what happens next? Walk us through the process, from a participant's point of view. What do I get? When do I get it as a participant? And, just, what's in it for me?

Chris:

Yeah, so the ticketing process won't really change bar that extra tick box. They'll say, yeah, I want a tree not a T-shirt, maybe they'll have a-- they should have a little hyperlink to Trees not Tees, so you can find out more about what's going on. And then they will check out, they'll pay for the race. And then they won't actually hear anything until after the race. So then after the race-- actually saying that... So we've got some races who do T-shirt collection at the finish line, so there were logistical challenges as to understand who should get a T-shirt and who shouldn't. So what races are doing are trying to create green champions. So we're working with a couple of big races, who we haven't quite announced this year, but they're championing a green runner model where their race packs or the race number's green, maybe got an image of a tree, and so the race, the runner themselves, will know they're part of this kind of green path. So they will see that in the post, they might receive a bit of information about Trees not Tees as part of that, so that's still to be confirmed. But then post-race, what they'll get in-- we'll try and get it done the week after the race, but the race director will send us a list of every single runner that has chosen to plant a tree, and then we will plug in the runner participant data into our tree database. So every time we plant a tree, we take a photo, record the information, and then we will match them with recently planted saplings. So it's typically been planted in the last couple of weeks. Because we have planting seasons in the summer, we we're not planting trees, because you can't plant trees often in the summer, because of the conditions, we will have a stock of trees that have been planted and we'll assign them a sapling of their own. So they will then receive an email from Trees not Tees saying thanks so much for running X race, click this link and it will take you through to your certificate. And so they'll then get-- a certificate will come up on their phone or on their computer with a little photo of their sapling, they'll have a hyperlink so they can click on the location that takes them to a map, and then they'll see where the trees are. And that's it. Hopefully they'll share it on social media, which is always a good way.

Panos:

Yeah, absolutely. And I've actually seen, when I was researching Trees not Tees for this interview, I actually came across lots of posts on Facebook and on Twitter of people sharing their tree certificates. Which makes total sense. And also it's another great win for the event because the race, it gets a little bit more publicity. And it's not just getting more publicity, it's really, really good publicity at that as well. So I think, yeah-- the potential, I think, for Trees not Tees to create lots of very positive buzz for any race, it could be very, very significant in all this.

Chris:

Yeah, so one of the challenges that we have less now with conversations-- as race organizers, I've been on the part of a race organizer for my old club, and we know that there are sponsor requirements and sponsors love the T-shirts, because the T-shirts, you've got the sponsor names and the sponsors fund the races. So we kind of understand that there is the quandary there, where we need to keep the sponsors happy. Whereas there's two sides of it, what we really know and the figures are showing that the 20% of people who choose not to take the T-shirt are most likely the ones who are going to put your race T-shirt in the bottom of a drawer. So there's not much sponsor coverage in the bottom of a drawer, and there's even worse sponsor coverage if you're sending it into landfill. And so we're-- that's part of the story and part of the factor for sponsors is that you're not really losing any coverage from those race T-shirts that aren't being worn, and on the flip side, you've also then got that social media coverage where you're attached as a sponsor, you'll be on the certificate that goes out, and that's some really positive coverage from that sort of thing. We've actually been contacted directly from a race whose sponsor has said, look, we need to be doing something, we don't want these waste T-shirts, we need to be doing something. One is they're out there, so we're launching a race this year where it's actually been sponsored-lead, and it's a big sponsor, which is a pleasant surprise for us, because we always feared that the sponsor would be the one who was creating that kind of-- maybe a bit of friction. But we're excited about that.

Panos:

Again, I mean, that makes total sense to me. Basically, you're saying that rather than have the sponsor on a T-shirt, and a T shirt that no one wants, you get the sponsor to instead be associated with a great moment, which is someone opening their email and seeing the tree that you planted for them and everything - right? Which admittedly is a much, much better context to have for that connection that all sponsors are looking for, which is that connection between the brand and the race participant.

Chris:

Exactly - sharing it on social media. So if you think you've got a race with 20,000 people and 20% of people take that, you've got 4,000 runners who are hopefully sharing on social media, then tell that to the marketing people, and you've got 4,000 runners, you've got an average Instagram following of whatever, that's brand coverage, that's positive brand coverage. So yeah, we're pretty excited about it.

Panos:

Planting trees is is one way of reducing race waste, managing your purchases and inventory more smartly is another. So let's hear what GiveSignup|RunSignup have up their sleeves on that from GiveSignup|RunSignup's own Whitney Taylor. Whitney, thanks for coming on.

Whitney:

Hi, Panos. Thanks for having me today.

Panos:

So tell us a little bit more about this amazing Giveaway Projection tool you guys have at GiveSignup|RunSignup.

Whitney:

This tool is underrated, so I'm glad you asked. The Giveaway Projection tool can save event directors a ton of time and money, something most people want more of. The tool is pretty straightforward. It's designed to help event directors make an educated guess when ordering giveaway items aka that free swag. It simply uses data from the previous year's size breakdown with an anticipated level of growth, and then auto-calculates the quantities by size. You combine that with our built-in inventory management system, you can be confident you won't oversell or overbuy excess product.

Panos:

Okay, so that helps me better manage my forward purchases for things like T-shirts and other swag, which is great. What about leftover gear from previous races? We get this question a lot from race directors, which is, what do I do with my leftover shirts and medals and stuff?

Whitney:

That's a great question. We've seen some event directors get really creative with their leftover merch, especially during the pandemic. One fun idea is a low-frills race, where all the giveaway items are vintage shirts from previous years. All you have to do is input the sizes from all the inventory you have on hand and - voila! - your old gear is turned into a quirky race perk, and everybody loves it.

Panos:

Vintage shirt giveaways. I like that. It's finding new homes for old inventory and putting on a quirky race in the process. It's a great tip - thanks, Whitney! Okay, let's get back to talking Trees not Tees with Chris Zair... So let's do a quick dive into the economics of the whole thing for a sec. Because cost is always relevant to race directors. But also, I think it would be quite interesting to understand how it all works out for you guys. Because - it's something I think we should have mentioned earlier, actually - you guys are a for profit company, correct?

Chris:

Yeah, so The Future Forest Company, who is our parent company, which is also founded by Jim, and there's 11 of us in the whole company, we're an impact for profit company.

Panos:

Perfect. So let's have a look at how the whole thing works out for the event, for the event participant, and then for Trees not Tees. So let's take an example. Let's look at a race you would have worked with. We're probably going to be talking in pound sterling here, because you guys are UK based, so I should say for our US listeners and other listeners from around the world, pound sterling is currently trading I think at around 1.4 dollars or there abouts. So for a typical event you've worked with, what is the cost to the race director to buy a T-shirt, on the one hand, and then what is the cost of the alternative you're offering to them of planting a tree?

Chris:

So that really-- it really varies. We're seeing an average at around 2.50-3. So $3-$3.50, roughly, maybe a little bit more. And there are some races who have got bigger fields. So you've got 20,000 runners, so you've got economies of scale as a race organizer, who are paying less. But when you do your research into where they're buying the T-shirts from, if anyone is buying a T-shirt for 1.50-2, then the environmental impact is typically-- without exception, the environmental impact is going to be pretty devastating for those T-shirts because they're coming from the other side of the world. People are trying to save 50p-1 where they can, which is understandable for races where margins are tight. But yet the impact of those T-shirts on the environment is going to be pretty, pretty considerable. So yeah, we're seeing when we ask races, because our model is that we ask a race to-- we match the price that they will pay for a T-shirt, their cost price per T-shirt. So most races are coming back with 2.60, 3, 3.50 up to 5. So, in order to get as many races on as possible, we've said that whatever you pay for your T-shirt down to a base of 2.50, so we won't go lower than 2.50 because of our planking costs, we will match that. So we've got some races who do 2.30 for a T shirt and then they supplement the extra 20p for that. So yeah, really kind of varies from 2.50, some people are 5. So it's anywhere in that gap.

Panos:

Right. So let's say - and again, I'm going to put it in US terms here - let's say I'm a race director, and I was buying T-shirts for around $3-$4 or there abouts. And then you guys come in, and you give me the option to allow my participants to plant a tree through your company, instead of receiving that shirt. So then I hand over the $3-$4 of my T shirt budget to you guys, and then off you go and you plant trees for my participants. How does that $3-$4 fee that I hand over to you then translate on your end into your cost for planting the tree and sending out the tree certificate and everything else you guys have to do?

Chris:

So our costs work out around 5 per tree. So that includes the sapling, the vole guard, the planting costs, the taking of the photos, and that whole process. And our focus also is when you're talking about tree planting, the pivotal thing you need to look at is permanence. So that tree that's being planted, how long is it going to be there? Is it on land that someone owns? Is it at risk of wildfires? Because there's no point in planting a tree if it's not going to be there in five years time. So our model at The Future Forest Company is to buy land, so that we plant the tree on land that we own, where we can guarantee that it's going to be there - we guarantee the land use. And so yeah, our cost is 5 and in there is built-in the land cost as well, to be able to guarantee that permanence.

Panos:

That's interesting. So basically, you're saying that the operation of actually buying the land, and planting the trees and issuing the certificates and all of that, basically everything you need to do to run your operation, is actually higher than the money you get from race directors to do all that. So then from your end, how do you plug that hole in your economics? Because you get paid less money than you need to go and deliver the service you're being paid for - right?

Chris:

Yeah, definitely. So we are, as The Future Forest Company, we're implementing different carbon sequestration techniques or technologies on the land. And so we're doing reforestation at scale. And we're also implementing a couple of other technologies. I won't go into huge amount of detail, one is called biochar and the other half-- the other one is enhanced weathering. So both of those - or all three of those - tree planting sequesters CO2, biochar locks up CO2 through a process called pyrolysis, and enhanced weathering captures CO2 through rainfall. And we're also restoring peatlands. So every piece of land that we buy, we're looking at how we can capture as much CO2 as possible. And doing that at scale, because we need to be doing that right now. And then we've got a model where, in the future, from some of these techniques, we'll be able to produce and sell carbon credits to companies who are already reducing their footprint, but they're companies who want to invest in high quality projects like ours, to be able to fund the other part of the tree planting, but also fund our growth. So our model-- we've got an ambition to plant 50 million trees by 2025. So it's definitely a big ambition. But by approaching this as The Future Forest Company, like a tech company would, where we know that if we set up as a charity, where we won't be able to get funding and we'd maybe plant a few thousand trees or a few hundred thousand trees, we understand the reality is now we need to plant millions of trees, not thousands of trees. So we've kind of set up this growth model that hopefully we can create this really scalable model that will allow us to buy land here in the UK at scale and reforest. So, yeah, that's our kind of funding to be able to say to race organizers that, okay, if you-- if it's 2.50 we can part-fund that tree.

Panos:

Okay, so let me just see if I got this right. Basically what happens is you get part of the cost of what you need to plant the tree from the race director. But then because that money alone is not enough, basically then as the trees you've planted grow, and they capture and lock in CO2 from the atmosphere, you then get paid through, I guess, various carbon emission schemes for the CO2-- the tons of CO2 that your trees have taken out of the atmosphere to grow. So you get paid for reducing carbon in the atmosphere in a kind of the reverse way, I suppose, in which polluters nowadays have to pay to emit carbon into the atmosphere for their industrial manufacturing and that kind of thing?

Chris:

Yeah, so the trees are creating a habitat and they're growing. So trees will be growing for 100 years or more. So they'll be capturing CO2 over that period. But largely, we're kind of implementing biochar and enhanced weathering at scale to be able to fund the rest of the project to plant as many trees as possible. So yeah, there's revenue sources that can help us grow through those means.

Panos:

And, I'm just curious, from the point of view of the participant who got the really exciting picture of the sapling on day 1, do they ever get the chance to visit the tree as it grows? Is that an option?

Chris:

Yeah, it's something we cherish. Something we focus on as a reforestation technique is that these forests that we're planting are for the local communities. So we-- whilst we fence them off at the start, because deers tend to like to eat saplings, we open up our forests for public thoroughfare. And given that every single runner gets the exact - down to a three meter squared - location of their tree, they can come up and visit, and if people do multiple races, they'll get multiple links, they can see our different sites, and a lot of them are quite beautiful. If you go at the right time of year, they're in quite beautiful, scenic spots. So we really-- yeah, whether it's race organizers that want to come up and see their forest, that they've helped plant, because they're planting tens or hundreds or thousands of trees over 10 years or so, or individual runners who have planted one tree and they want to come up and visit.

Panos:

And the sites where you plant the trees are those located in the UK mostly?

Chris:

So at the moment-- it's all UK focused at the moment. So we've got sites in North Ayrshire in Scotland, so just to the west of Glasgow, so we've got the Glenaros Estate on Mull as well. And we've got the Brodoclea site and Brisbane Mains site in North Ayrshire. We're also looking at other sites in Wales and in England at the moment, and broadly across Scotland as well. So what we're typically looking for is degraded farmland. So there's so much land in the UK, it used to be rich, mixed deciduous forest that has been cut down and been overused for farming to the extent that if you actually left the land, it wouldn't have a seed base to reforest naturally. So we're buying up that land, preparing the lands, fencing it and preparing it for planting. And the aim is to buy big bits of land, big areas of land adjacent, because the ecosystem benefit of having one large piece of of reforested land versus little pockets is much greater, because you can create wildlife corridors, which just really multiply the effect, because you'll get the shared effect of an ecosystem growth, if it's in one part and then connected to the rest. So it's, yeah, it's quite exciting because given that we can record all the location data of all of our trees, we can start to map out where all these trees are being planted across the UK.

Panos:

Wow, so many great things happening throughout this process, right? So you plant the trees, and then slowly the animals start moving in. And you've basically just turned a bit of, I guess, what would have been unused land or exhausted farmland into a really vibrant ecosystem. That's really amazing. Well done - really well done, guys.

Chris:

Yeah, thank you. Yeah, it's exciting. I've been on Mull which is going to be our kind of main site, where we've got land to plant a million trees, which is a huge, huge number, and that's going to be starting hopefully later this year. We've also got Seagull, it's a coastal site, which has got some seafront and we've got seagulls on site. So we're trying to understand how we can work with the RSPB regarding the seagulls on site, and I think every site that we take on there'll be new ecosystem potential there, given each site will be slightly different. So, yeah, it's-- for us, whilst it's great to plant a number of trees and trees are a wow factor, and everybody loves trees, it's the how can we restore the ecosystem and help potentially endangered species flourish. And even not endangered species flourish under these forests, because, yeah, the trees are trees and one element in carbon is one element, and it's a huge part of what we have to do. But also, we've only seen in the last 12 months the impact of deforestation and as people - humans - get closer to nature, or we can remove animals from the food chain, the impact that this is having. So, yeah, the more we can help the nature that is there at the base of our ecosystems, the better.

Panos:

So how has the feedback been from race directors and participants so far? I guess people are quite excited about the concept and value they're getting out of it?

Chris:

Yeah. So from a race director's point of view, although the races haven't really been going ahead, the ones that have been going head have been really kind of effusive about the simplicity of Trees not Tees. It's a pretty simple process for most of them. And if you work with a ticketing platform-- we were in partnership with a few ticketing platforms, and a lot of them are quite happy often just to add a little tick box. So the simplicity of it, that's all it is. And then from our side of things, we're pretty efficient at getting trees in the ground and sending out the certificate. So from a race director's point of view, they should not be spending any money. So it really is a no brainer, as no brainers come. And then from a runner's perspective, they're loving getting the certificates, they understand what we're doing as a company, our ethos to plant as many trees and they're really happy to be a part of it. And what we're kind of seeing is that you have to change-- in life, you have to change with little bits, there's no point in saying to people go and be better for the environment. It's like a running coach saying to you, I want you to run better, I want you to run faster. A running coach wouldn't say that. A running coach would break down and give you a little bit of a technique that you then work on over time, and then implement. We've seen that is the same with Trees not Tees. It's a little part of your life where you click here, rather than clicking there. And people-- people are lazy, everyone's lazy, I'm lazy. If you make it super simple for people, then that becomes a habit change that they then think in other parts of their lives. How can I then change something else? So, yeah, the reception from runners has been has been brilliant. It's been really, really good.

Panos:

And am I correct in thinking that Trees not Tees is currently only available in the UK? So you're only planting trees and working with races in the UK? Is that correct?

Chris:

Yes, we've only got three sites in the UK at the moment. And we're working with races across the UK. We've got a couple of events in other parts of the world because there is a kind of a trans-boundary impact. If you plant a tree, it's sequestering from the world's ecosystems, from the world's atmosphere. So the benefit is for everyone. But at the same time, we understand that people like trees in their own backyard. And so we completely understand if a race in the US wants to plant trees in the US. And the good news is that we are hoping to close-- we're going to close our first reforestation site in the US in the next six months. And we're going to be implementing the Trees not Tees model there and The Future Forest model of let's plant as many trees as possible, let's take the ranch land - so we have to kind of adapt our vocabulary a little bit and I'll need to do some reading up on the right vocabulary - but we'll be taking degraded ranch land, which I believe is the right term, and turning it back into the native forest land that it used to be, making sure that it's done in the right way. Because there's also, unfortunately, a lot of reforestation that's done incorrectly. So every site that we take on, we make sure that we're planting the right trees in the right place, and if a tree shouldn't be there, if it's peatlands-- so we're taking on lots of sites in Scotland that have got peatland, so kind of marshland which should never be planted on, because marshland and peatland is a carbon sink. So you've got meters of carbon that is locked out there that is often being drained in the past, and then people have been planting on it. So this is devastating, because all that carbon that has been trapped in there, then just gets released out, so it's not-- the trees that you're planting are in vain, because you've already let out more CO2 than those trees will sequester. So yeah, we've got - I digress a little bit - but yeah, we've got plans to start in the US and hopefully start building relationships with race directors in the US and yeah, if anyone wants to be first in line to have their tree certificate sent out, they can get in touch.

Panos:

Yeah. So how do they get in touch by the way, let's get that out of the way. If a race director wants to reach out to you, whether they're in the UK or the US or, as you say, in Australia, because some people may be okay with trees not being planted necessarily in their backyard, how can people reach out to you?

Chris:

So my email is [email protected] Or you can find us on treesnottees.com, or social media is - you guessed it! - @treesnottees. So you can find us on all of those, if you give us a follow, and you can find out everything that's going on. You can also see @thefutureforestcompany as well, which is - The Future Forest, as I said, it's kind of our planting body - you can see even more stuff that's going on. But yeah, if you want to get in touch with me, it's [email protected]

Panos:

Perfect. And I think another thing that we should mention here is that, although it's Trees not Tees, there's a lot more things that you guys can do for a race - right? So it's not only the T-shirts, races can also choose to make their medals optional through a similar mechanism that you guys offer. Can you tell us what other options there are for race directors to manage waste and reduce their events' environmental footprint through Trees not Tees?

Chris:

Yeah, so, as you said, there's some races, which pleasingly now don't offer T-shirts, but offer medals. So you can say, the same setup, but trees not medals in the sign up - do you want to opt out of your medal, opt in for a tree instead - exactly the same way. You've got races like I've mentioned who want to have an impact for every single runner. So you can plant a tree-- include a tree in that race subscription. Because if you're getting rid of a T-shirt and you're keeping the price the same, it's nice to offer something that explains that, otherwise people want the cost to be reduced. So yeah, we've got those options. Or if you've got a kind of a merchandise list, you can add a tree on there. And anything else that you give away in the race that you think people might want to exchange for a tree. As I've mentioned, the green runner is a way of kind of really championing people. So some of the races we're starting to work with have got this green runner ethos, where that runner will receive nothing in the post, they'll have to pick up their their race bib from a certain location, but they get rewarded by being championed as a green runner. So you can add a tree into that package along with a few other elements that would be a green touch for those runners. And one other thing that I mentioned at the start, and hopefully we'll be launching this soon and going public with it, is that the carbon offsetting approach. So for races that are really concerned about the amount of travel that participants are making to get to their event, we're going to be launching soon the ability for runners, in the same way, that when they're signing up for a race, to plug in the distance where they've come from, the mode of transport, so that they can offset for 50p, 1 - depends on where they're traveling from, but really quite a small amount - to offset their train or their car or their flight travel. Which, again, it's a global change that people are slowly doing, that they're doing this for their own holidays, we're trying to implement this as well for races. So yeah, there's a few different things. And, to be honest, just-- we'd love for races to get in touch who are already implementing cool things. And I know there's a sustainability group in the UK for some of the major races. But I really think the more that races share-- because the mass of races in the UK are made up of people who do it as their second job. And, you will know, there's people who once a month sit in the top room of a pub, sit around after work and say, okay, we've got a 10K to organize this summer, how are we going to do it? Should we do T-shirts? Should we do water? I think the more that people can share the best practices - even looking at economies of scale for T-shirts as a way of placing bigger orders with better T-shirt providers, if you're going to go down that route of T shirts - just to make sure that we can connect, collaborate together and create ideas and share ideas that can help everyone. Because races shouldn't be pitted against each other for this. It should be everyone trying to improve and bring up the level of sustainability for races in general.

Panos:

Yeah, definitely. I think sustainability has become a really, really hot topic within the race management industry on either side of the Atlantic - and rightly so, to be honest. And I think race directors are a lot more aware of the impact our industry's having on the planet, both at the local level of where the event takes place, but also more widely in terms of logistics, of shipping supplies around the world and everything that's involved in that. So people are a lot more conscious of having to find ways, I think, to mitigate all this and having to make event production, just an altogether friendlier proposition for the environment - right? So things like Trees not Tees, and the Trees not Tees model of tackling these challenges more generally, I think these seem to me to be obvious win-wins for everybody involved. And I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more traction for these kinds of initiatives over the coming years.

Chris:

I think, yeah, things like water for races is a big challenge. But hopefully, we're seeing solutions that are kind of moving ahead from a water perspective, because that's a huge challenge. It's tricky for race directors, because you need to put on these things for health and safety. So yeah, it's great to see other areas where people are improving.

Panos:

Absolutely...We're coming up to a full hour, actually. It's been a super, super interesting discussion. I want to thank you very, very much, Chris, for coming on and sharing so much about what you guys do with our listeners. It's been fantastic. We have your contact details, if anyone else wants to reach out, and we'll be putting those on the show notes as well. So Chris, many, many thanks, again for taking the time to share all this great information with us.

Chris:

Thank you to you, Panos. It's been great to talk about it, and of your enthusiasm, I think what you've created with Race Directors HQ, I think the more race directors I speak to the more it's such a useful platform. And as we venture more into the environmental solutions, it's going to be such a vital way of sharing ideas to people not just for Trees not Tees. Other things will pop onto the market that can be a solution for so many race organizers. So hopefully, it'll be a really valuable platform for the environment as a whole for race directors and for projects like ours. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me on.

Panos:

Definitely. And listeners should expect also more on the topic of sustainability from us on the podcast. We've got some really great episodes lined up for you on that. So thanks again, Chris, for this amazing discussion. Thanks to everyone for tuning in. And we'll see you all on the next episode.

Chris:

Thank you very much. Thank you, Panos - speak to your soon.

Panos:

I hope you enjoyed this episode on Trees not Tees with Chris Zair. You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your questions about race, waste, sustainability or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to hit subscribe on your favorite player for more content like this. Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.