Posts Tagged ‘2011 International Year of Forests’

I Will Save the Forests – Just As Soon As I Update My Facebook Status

If you haven’t seen the headlines (or are focused more on Grammy-gossip than environmental news), the UN has declared 2011 the “International Year of Forests.”

I think it’s about time for this acknowledgement, actually, because trees get a bad rap.  It’s 2011 and a lot of people still associate “tree” with the word “hugger” and have visions of 70’s era hippies chaining themselves to redwoods in protest.  In fact, trees truly are a fundamental element of the ecosystem – for a lot of people in a lot of corners of the globe, they provide shelter, fuel and food, help to slow down and contain runoff from heavy rains and prevent mudslides, and bear the brunt of hurricane-force winds to protect villages from being blown off the map.  That’s not hippie tree-hugging stuff, that’s trees being critical to survival, for a pretty significant population of our world.

So great, then, that the UN has deemed this the Year of Forests – but what am I, or any other individual on the planet, supposed to do with that information?  The declaration isn’t enough – that alone isn’t going to save any trees or solve the problem.  If what we want is for people to think the cause is important enough to take action, how can we make that happen?

With all due respect, I think posting a lot of reforestation facts on a website and expecting people to go there and learn and get so fired up that they go out and plant a lot of trees probably isn’t realistic.  What we need isn’t pie-in-the-sky, save the world messaging with no ideas about how to execute – we need real action that’s easy and that everyone can be invited to take part in.

There are two ways to get people engaged in a cause: you either have to make it so overwhelmingly compelling and emotional and meaningful that people simply can’t help but get involved, or you have to integrate it into what people are already doing in their everyday lives.

The latter is a more promising strategy, because you never know exactly what will resonate or be relevant to any portion of the population … there’s something about the hippie treehugger mentality, for example, that most of the world fails to connect with.  Similarly, the idea of a group of international elitists sitting around talking about why trees are so important might compel some to get engaged, but probably isn’t all that appetizing for most.  To move on the issue of deforestation, even marginally, we’ve got to translate the cause into something that’s easy for busy consumers to act on.

Case in point: I have a debit card.  I buy stuff with it.  It has a built-in contribution to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  When I buy something using the card, apparently I also make a donation to Make-A-Wish.  Would I otherwise support Make-A-Wish?  Maybe not – not because I don’t like the organization or what it’s doing, because I think it’s super … but because I’m just too busy to think about doing it.  I can’t remember to charge my Blackberry or take out the garbage or buy my wife a Valentine’s Day card (actually, I did remember that one) – never mind remember to support an organization I think is important.  My debit card makes it ridiculously easy for me to do that — and in turn, makes me hate my bank just a little bit less.

And in this day of digital communication and connection, it shouldn’t be that hard to find opportunities for easy engagement.  Think about all the different kinds of groups that get molded together online – you go to a website, you type in your password, you’re connected to a whole network of people from around the globe who share your affinity for running, or photography or Kim Kardashian.  It’s that easy.  And when you combine easy with fun, people want to be a part of it.

We’re applying that formula – easy + fun = engaged consumers — to support Timberland’s reforestation efforts.  Working with a local NGO, we created Yele Vert – a program promoting sustainable agriculture and reforestation in Haiti.  Over the last 18 months, Yele Vert has established six community-based tree nurseries, operated by local farmers, and resulted in the planting of nearly 300,000 saplings from those nurseries in the local region.  It’s a good effort, and it makes good sense to us – Timberland is an outdoors company, and so our commitment to preserving the outdoors is a form of enlightened self-interest; no trees means no business, so we care about trees a lot.

What the program lacked was a consumer engagement element – how we could connect people in a fun, easy, meaningful way with a tree-planting initiative they couldn’t touch or see.  So we created the Timberland “Virtual Forest” on Facebook.  We’re using a platform many consumers are using already, created a program where they can build their own virtual forest – name it, plant it, watch it grow — and for every increment of virtual trees planted, we plant more trees in Haiti.  Our Facebook application isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it’s a start – we’re connecting our consumers to an issue they care about on their terms.

Declaring 2011 the Year of Forests is a good start, and we’re going to support it however we can … but in the end, actions are much more meaningful than declarations. If we could put more emphasis on creating consumer-relevant engagement programs that are easy to execute and appealing to the masses, we could really make some progress.