Fifteen Trees is an Australian company looking to make it easy for individuals and businesses to address their carbon output through tree planting services. Impressively, the company is set to soon cross a major milestone; 300,000 trees planted by thousands of volunteers across the nation. Yet as founder and director Colleen Filippa explains, tree planting is only part of the story. The other side, fostering communities with a connection to nature, is just as important.
I’m here today with Colleen Filippa, the founder and director of Fifteen Trees, an Australian company dedicated to helping people and businesses reduce their carbon footprint through tree planting projects. Welcome to AMR.
Colleen: Thanks, Russell.
Let’s start at the beginning, what got you interested in sustainability?
When I was a young adult, I started to go camping with friends, and we used to go to Wilson’s Prom and go bushwalking. We used to go to Lake Mountain in Victoria to go cross country skiing. That was probably where it began, not so much my childhood. I grew up in Bendigo. And we were always outside. And from that I picked up a course at Melbourne, environmental science, I studied four years and became a science and biology teacher. The big turning point was the Franklin River campaign. Back in the early 1980s, the Franklin River was a huge issue. The papers were full of these beautiful iconic photos of the Franklin River, it was going to be dammed at the Franklin Gordon junction. I got involved with that and travelled over and got caught up with the camp activities. We were there for a couple of weeks, my husband and I. That was the real turning point for me, the Franklin River. And it was a great success as well, we stopped the dams! And it was a great thing to be part of.
It sounds like during those formative years being an environmental activist really laid the framework for what was to come. Was it a logical step to then found Fifteen Trees?
Well, that came a lot later. You get caught up in family and raising kids. So, things were quiet for a good 20 years. I was part of the local Landcare group. I was going out and helping, picking up rubbish or weed or planting trees. There was a good twenty years where I wasn’t doing that much. And then you get to another point in your family life where the kids are a bit older, a bit more independent. And by then the internet had come. So, while I was still teaching, I founded Fifteen Trees, and then about twelve years ago Kevin Rudd (the Australian Prime Minister), issued an $800 dollar per individual stimulus package (during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis). I used that to get my website up and it really kicked off from there. I had this cash, it was going to go into a business, it had to be sustainable. And having worked with Landcare it was the case that we worked hard to get the trees in the ground, but we also had to raise funds for the trees. That got me thinking, “well, why don’t we get companies on board to chip in?”. I guess that’s where it all came from.
So, from that small seed big things have grown, pardon the pun. “Fifteen Trees” – is there a significance behind the name?
There is. I wanted to make it easy on companies, and individuals. I did some research and learnt that it’s roughly fifteen trees, well actually between fifteen and twenty-four trees, planted every twelve months that will reduce your car’s carbon footprint. So, fifteen trees was a nice easy number. That was where the number fifteen came from. And you know, I started off with a baptism of fire! I had this idea that car dealerships would perhaps jump in. So, when they sold a new car, we could plant fifteen trees and then the car would be… I won’t say ‘carbon offset’, but you know, we’ve reduced the carbon footprint of that particular car that they’re selling. It was funny, those first couple of years we did a lot of cold calling, which I actually enjoy. I quite like the battle of the cold call, trying to get past the gatekeeper at the reception desk to talk to the dealership. It was slow, slow going for those first few years. But basically the idea was fifteen trees will reduce your car’s carbon for twelve months. We’d give the trees out to community planting groups across Australia in lots of fifteen.
You may have been a little bit ahead of your time there as you see that now across industries. If you’re going on a flight, airlines now offer carbon offset by planting trees. Clearly you saw something that was very viable and needed.
We link people with their trees. We tell their stories. That was something that I thought was important.
Yes and the nice thing about Fifteen Trees is we’re very credible. All the trees are planted within Australia. People and companies can go onto a website, type in their name, or the company name and their story, and their trees will come up. We link people with their trees. That was something that I thought was important. We can show the beautiful photos of people tree planting, we can tell their stories, we can talk about the nurseries. We purchased the trees on the behalf of the planting group, so we can tell the nursery stories as well. It’s also that support for small independent nurseries scattered around Australia as well. It’s honestly evolved over the years. We don’t just plant now for your car, we plant for flights, and that roughly works out to one tree per hour in the air. So, if you’re flying to Japan, eight hours, it’s eight trees, if you’re coming home, again, it’s another eight trees. It’s very easy to calculate, but you can get really bogged down in carbon calculators if you are doing strict audits of your house or your company. But if you just want to get things going, we have some easy calculations. If you’re having an event, it’s one tree per person at the event. Sixty trees per person, per year will help reduce your carbon footprint for that year as well. I just wanted to make things just simple for people. Fifteen trees. Twelve months. Done.
It really does put into perspective just how much or how great someone’s carbon footprint can be, especially if you are someone that is regularly travelling internationally. The sheer number of trees that you would need to actually plant to help to help offset that.
Exactly, yeah. We don’t offer carbon credits or carbon offsets. Because really, we want to help those small community groups with their tree planting projects. So if we wanted to go down the carbon offset line, we’d have to plant a set number of trees in a set place with a set amount of rainfall. And you know, there is a small little school over in Creswick, in central Victoria that may only want to plant fifteen trees. We wouldn’t be able to support them (if they had to plant more). We’ve purposely gone down the line of reducing your carbon footprint rather than provide complete carbon offsets.
Helping to make a positive environmental contribution, of any size, would you say that’s the overarching goal of Fifteen Trees?
Absolutely. It’s those small community groups that don’t want thousands and thousands of trees planted. They just want to plant maybe a couple hundred for the local creek or for the local reserve. We can support them.
I saw that you provide a range of options for individuals, community groups and businesses to get involved. Could you speak to any of the services that you offer?
For individuals, we have something called Plant One On Me so people can just jump in and buy or purchase a single tree. We had people saying, you know, I don’t want to buy 15, can I just buy one? And then of course, they can purchase fifteen trees for their car or any set number of trees as gifts. We have beautiful gift cards that we give. People can find their trees through the website. And then of course we have something called Friends of Fifteen Trees where you can purchase 60 trees every year to reduce your carbon footprint of your lifestyle. We have just over 100 people doing that, which means we’ve got 6,000 trees up our sleeves to plant around Australia, which is fabulous. And like everything, we have photos and stories about those trees; where they’ve gone, who’s planted them, so people can see that. For companies we have fleet options, so fifteen trees per car in the fleet, sixty trees per person in the office, one tree per hour in the air, so we can cover your flights. If you’re having a conference, it’s one tree per person who attends and that is something that’s really picked up this year.
We have corporate tree planting days, and we have been bombarded by that! So up until this year, I could probably count on two hands, how many corporate tree planting days we’ve had. This year, we’ve got twenty-five, on the books that we’re organising. We’re so delighted. If they all get off the ground, it’ll be brilliant.
Companies want to go out and do some tree planting, they purchase a minimum of 500 trees, we don’t charge to organise it, we just expect that number of trees to be purchased. Then they go out and plant as many as they can on the day and what doesn’t get planted then gets planted in the weeks following by the Landcare group, or the community group who are doing the planting. I guess that’s the big one that’s really stepped up this year. And post COVID, people are looking to get out to into the environment to go tree planting, team building all that stuff. They’ve been separated for such a long time. They’re looking for things to do with their teams, but things that are actually meaningful.
Sounds like a wonderful second order effect, fostering community. Be it with the other nurseries or the communities themselves, or as you’ve just mentioned, teams coming in and helping to build that social connection as a great byproduct of the service you provide.
And it all just ties in together, there’s nothing that is clunky, everything’s just organically grown with people asking for that service. Things are getting bigger, but it’s still in keeping with what we do. And as you say, it’s all important stuff and meaningful.
With the rise of ESG I can definitely see that continuing to take off. More than ever companies look to sustainability as a responsibility to deliver on in order to be a good corporate citizen.
Absolutely. Environment Victoria did a survey with the general public asking, you know, do you expect companies that you use to be environmentally sustainable? And to think something like 97% of people said yes! Companies are being smart. There’s probably two folds to it. This is what our customers want, but also it’s meaningful, hopefully to them, and meaningful to their teams. The people that are working for them want to see that the company is doing the right thing and making a difference. Absolutely.
Circling back to what we just talked about with services for individuals and groups and focusing on the latter, have you had any interesting groups or businesses put their hand up and get involved?
Pana (Pana Organic Chocolates) came in early in the piece and he was fantastic. We went out planting with Pana and his family for his birthday a few years ago. He’s supported thousands of trees with us and he’s great because he comes with chocolate as well! Also Moira, who is a Melbourne artist, who comes with a whole collection of eccentric artists, beautiful, creative people. She actually studied environmental science, the same course that I studied and moved from science to the arts. So she’s probably the other big personality in the game.
The biggest business group is GJ Gardner Homes and we’ve planted about 60,000 trees within Victoria and Tasmania with them, with participation from twenty-four franchises. They’re fabulous.
Great to hear a wide spectrum of people and businesses getting involved. What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
We have been in operation since 2009, that’s twelve years, and have been doing a tree count from the very start. The first year there were around 600 trees, and we certainly have got bigger over the years. We’re up to 275,000 trees and this year I reckon we’ll hit 300,000. Roughly, we’re planting maybe about 30 or 40,000 trees a year. And so Russell, these are trees that are going out to probably hundreds of different groups, and in all sorts of numbers. Some of the bigger groups over inland in Tasmania with Landcare might plant a couple thousand trees at one site. Tree numbers we keep track of and we have a counter on our website. We’re very proud of the plants that have gone in the ground for the last year and over the last twelve years.
And rightfully so. Congratulations, nearing 300,000 trees is a massive accomplishment. That’s roughly 20,000 people who have planted fifteen trees. Do those numbers line up with what you’ve seen?
It would probably be thousands, at least eight thousand people have planted over the years, across around five thousand sites. We should calculate the total carbon saved and put it up on our socials. That’s a great idea.
Within the context of sustainability, we’ve been talking about individual contributors. How do you see things at the macro level, in terms of the current state of how things are trending in Australia? Could we be doing things better to help the environment?
I waiver really, between hope and despair, I really do, I think we need to move a lot faster, we’re so slow moving. There’s fantastic groups out there. And I’d encourage any of your audience to join a local group. That would be my one recommendation. If you want to do anything, find out who your local Landcare group is, find out who your local friends of the park group are, and go and support them. As you know yourself Russell, there’s a lot of things happening at the grassroots level, lots of organisations out there in all the states and territories. Companies are jumping on board, but I just feel like we’re moving so, so slowly. Without governments getting on board, I just despair… yet if I think about what groups are doing, what organisations and some companies are doing, I feel hopeful. It really does fluctuate. I swing between one or the other.
Your saying that people can make an impact if they get involved at the grassroots level?
Unless you’re out there, and you know what’s going on in your local community, your local park and your local national park, you’re not going to be able to help protect it.
Absolutely, absolutely, because then from there, everything else comes. Those groups will also be part of other, bigger groups. And that’s just how you become a little bit more active. There’s a beautiful book by the author, Richard Louv, called The Last Child in the Woods, which talks about getting kids and people out into nature, and this idea that we do have this ‘nature deficit disorder’. There’s a beautiful quote, where he says, “we cannot protect something that we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know. And we cannot, cannot know what we do not see, touch and hear”. By that he’s saying, unless you’re out there, and you know what’s going on in your local community, your local park and your local national park, you’re not going to be able to help protect it.
And people know that themselves, they know that when they’re outside, in the environment, they feel happier within themselves. Mentally it helps your stability. People know that stuff. It’s just a reminder to make time for nature, and then look around to see what groups are out there and what groups you can support.
Beautifully put. It really is all about that connection with nature. If you want change to occur, well, you’ve got to have that self-assessment to begin with, don’t you? As you said, if you don’t know the current status, how can you expect to improve it? I agree that awareness is massively important. Absolutely. So, what’s next for Fifteen Trees?
Good question. I think we’re going to really start pushing the corporate tree planting. As I said to you before, we’re getting people contacting us now, which is brilliant, it’s a lot easier. So no more cold calling! Bit of a shame as I really do enjoy it, putting people on the spot, and making them think about things. We’ve had our first corporate tree planting over in Perth, just last Sunday. And we’ve started to write up the report for that one, we had 50 people turn up. It was DHL, Perth, who went and planted with a group called Kraken Black Cockatoo Reserve. That was just brilliant. And we’ve got another one in two weeks’ time.
That’s fantastic. We will have to check in and see how things are progressing. In the meantime, is there anything you’d specifically like to highlight or put a special focus on? Any big projects or events you have coming up?
There’s a couple of things. For individuals reading this, have a look at Fifteen Trees and especially the Friends of Fifteen Trees – that’s sixty trees per year. There’s a couple of ways in which you can purchase the sixty trees, you can do it over the course of a year, or you can pay up front. But that’s a really nice one. Because we know for us how many trees we’ve got and can offer. That would be fantastic.
Also, if you want come tree planting with us, we do have a tree planting day for our supporters or those that want to come along. Our next one is on National Tree Day. That’s Sunday, August the second and it will be at Westgate Park. We will put an Eventbrite link up on our socials for people. If they’d like to come, connect with us on either Facebook or Instagram and it will also be on our website. There’s no charge o come along and there might even be some gluten free cake.
We will be sure to get the word out for that one. Where else can people find you?
We also have a monthly email newsletter called Out on a Limb, and we are always out planting trees, so feel free to come and join. For every newsletter subscriber every year we plant native trees. I think we’ve got about eight hundred subscribers and we’ll plant another eight hundred trees again this year for them. And of course, as mentioned we’ve got, we’ve got Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
A tradition around here is to ask our guests how we can make a positive impact for people and the planet. So, I’d like to ask you, what do you see as a modern remedy for the challenges facing us today?
For people to get outside, it’s so important. Find your little patch of nature, wherever it is. Find your spot, find your people.
I think COVID has shown how important it is to get outside. For people to get outside, it’s so important. Find your little patch of nature, wherever it is. There will be something in your neighbourhood. Maybe it’s a train ride away, but there’s something there for you. So, find your spot, find your people and get yourself outside.
What a good point to finish on. Thank you so much for your time, it was very informative. I feel like we could probably talk for another hour. All the best with the upcoming event.
My pleasure Russell, hope to see you there. Cheers. ■