Treeapp: plant a tree for free, every day

Ioannis Ioannou and Nick Mickshik reveal how three LBS alumni devised a business to help consumers fight climate change


In 30 seconds:

  • App taps into consumer demand for greener products to fund tree-planting projects around the world
  • Brands pay for opportunity to market to a highly curated, eco-conscious audience
  • Simplicity of use combats “apocalypse fatigue” syndrome
  • Founders’ eventual aim is to sponsor planting of one million trees every day.

In the spring and summer of 2018, Europe experienced a period of unusually hot weather that led to record-breaking temperatures and wildfires in many parts of the northern hemisphere. In Greece, the heatwave combined with strong winds to spark wildfires in the coastal areas of Attica. One of the deadliest wildfire events in the 21st century, the fires led to the deaths of 102 people and the destruction of thousands of homes and other property. Researchers at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and World Weather Attribution estimated that global warming more than doubled the overall likelihood of the heat wave, and in some places made it up to five times more likely.

One huge wildfire took place right in front of the house of Athens resident Godefroy Harito MiM2018. People he knew lost loved ones and the anger he felt impelled him to try to combat the effects of climate change. The same year, Harito met Jules Buker MiM2018 at London Business School. Like Harito, Buker also had a strong personal interest in fighting climate change. Of French and Turkish descent, he was very mindful of Turkey’s 2019 attempt at mass tree-planting when, on a day that the government declared ‘National Forestation Day’, volunteers planted 11 million trees in more than 2,000 sites across the country. Regrettably, within a few months of planting, an estimated 90% of the saplings were forecast to die due to lack of water.

Harito was a serial entrepreneur; Buker had previously founded businesses in the services sector and the legal-tech space. Their LBS classmate Leo Ng MiM2018, who had acquired extensive product and software engineering expertise in his previous role at Google, shared their ambition to build a purpose-led venture.

Together, the three resolved to found a business that would both combat climate change and have a positive social impact. (The story of how the founders launched the business is the subject of the new LBS case study ‘Treeapp: Plant a tree for free, every day’.)

What sector?

Given the rapidly growing global appetite in both public and private sectors for reforestation/afforestation and its potential for climate-change solutions at scale, combined with the environmental and social benefits it has the potential to provide, tree-planting appeared to be the sector most likely to fulfil the founders’ dual aims, as Buker recalls: “We came to the conclusion that planting a tree is quite concrete – everyone knows what a tree looks like. It’s also one of the only ways you can have an environmental impact and a social and economic impact with your activity. It’s often forgotten when we talk about tree planting that it’s not just about carbon-capture – it’s also about the fact that local flora and fauna are restored and the positive economic impact it has on local economies. This was a huge factor in our choices.”

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“We came to the conclusion that planting a tree is quite concrete – everyone knows what a tree looks like”

What business?

In his seminal 2015 book ‘What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming’, Norwegian economist, behavioural psychologist and Green Party politician Per Espen Stoknes identified a central problem in getting consumers to combat climate change: the more that people are confronted with facts about global warming, the greater their resistance to the facts grows; a syndrome Stoknes termed “apocalypse fatigue”. This can lead to the paradox that greater awareness of the issue can actually make it harder to encourage the consumer actions necessary to combat climate change. As Stoknes subsequently observed (in a 2019 podcast): “Most people have recognised … that global warming is happening. The problem is making it relevant to our everyday actions so that it feels near, personal and urgent. So, it’s not really an issue of understanding on the cognitive level – it’s more an emotional and behavioural level that we need to address.”

Mindful of the need to address the problem at the emotional and behavioural level, the founders realised their solution needed to be simple and enjoyable to use to attract sufficient user numbers; a free-to-use mobile app met all of those criteria.

Creating a habit

Observing that the passion among consumers to act was there, but that they lacked the time, money and know-how to make a difference, the founders decided to create a platform that enables the marketing of eco-conscious brands to fund tree-planting projects around the world. Harito says: “We wanted to create a habit for users, so that every day you could create an impact and you did not have to go on a browser to do it – you could just wake up, go on your phone, and have an instant impact by tree-planting, while having a great user experience.”

Another key factor in designing the app, says Harito, was the lifestyle of their target demographic (millennials and Gen Z consumers): “We knew that it should be something that is on the move – that, wherever you are, you can simply open your app, do what you have to do, then just get on with your life. This was always the goal – having something that is simple, easy and free to do for anyone to have an impact.”

Treeapp was launched in the UK and Ireland on 22 April 2020 to coincide with Earth Day, and met with immediate acclaim. The app generated more than 1,000 downloads in the first two weeks after launch and, as of February 2021, had acquired more than 30,000 users – purely through organic user acquisition – and more than 100 brand partners. The app enables anyone with a mobile phone to plant a tree for free, in under a minute, simply by watching three short ads or messages from one of Treeapp’s branding partners. The brand partner gives £1 to Treeapp, who then arranges planting the tree in its user-chosen site.

App users have the option to fund additional planting voluntarily, and can calculate their carbon footprint via a personal dashboard showing them on which days they have planted trees and how the planting has offset their weekly, monthly and annual carbon footprint.

The business model

The Treeapp platform exploits ‘network effects’ (in this case, the indirect network effects characteristic of an online platform), whereby every additional app user generates more value to the platform because the available target audience for the brands grows, with the brands paying for the opportunity to market to a self-selecting and highly curated audience.

Similarly, the greater the number of eco-products available to users, and the greater the number of trees planted, the greater the utility of the app to them. Free to users in financial terms, they ‘pay’ by donating time to watch the ads.

Working with brands also gives Treeapp access to the brands’ networks – the more brands it works with, the more exposure it gets, and the more exposure it gets, the greater the number of brands that want to work with it.

The rush to plant

At its annual meeting in Davos in January 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched the ‘One trillion trees initiative’ ( to mobilise commitments from corporations, governments and NGOs to “conserve, restore, or grow” one trillion trees by 2030 to restore biodiversity and help fight climate change. One effect the announcement had was to inspire fresh efforts by entrepreneurs to develop products aimed at consumers to encourage tree-planting, and there are now many apps and platforms on the market that do so, either in return for direct product purchase or as a ‘reward’ for consumer activity. The range spans free websites, such as Ecosia, to games such as Ant Forest (a game that has become China’s largest private-sector tree-planting scheme.)

There is a great deal of evidence around that suggests consumers are increasingly ‘voting with their wallets’ in choosing sustainable brands, but while the growing consumer appetite to combat climate change is a positive development, what sometimes appears to be a headlong rush to capitalise on it by business is not always so positive. Many apps and platforms reward consumer behaviour by sponsoring tree-planting, but may not themselves have business models that are based on circular-economy sustainability. For example, a free-to-use search engine may be effective in channelling ad income from searches into tree-planting activity, but may not discern between ads for eco-conscious products and those that are not (hence it does not discourage the purchase of ‘non-green’ products).

The planting side of the equation is also highly problematic: history is littered with afforestation and reforestation projects that have failed spectacularly, sometimes over the very long term. For example, China’s massive ‘Great Green Wall’ programme, launched in 1978, was intended to grow 35 million hectares of new trees by 2050 to combat desertification. Over the next four decades the adage “Any tree is a good tree” became axiomatic in both private and public sectors in China – but unfortunately, the fast-growing poplars that could withstand north China’s cold, dry winters were less able to withstand the rapacious attentions of the Asian longhorn beetle, whose numbers subsequently exploded. As a result, the poplars started dying off in vast numbers in the 1990s.

Well aware of these twin pitfalls, Treeapp only works with brand and local planting partners that satisfy strict ESG criteria. Brands typically have to have some form of nationally or internationally recognised validation, such as B Corp Certification; while planting partners are also very carefully vetted by academic experts in tropical forestry, who ensure the company is sponsoring the planting of the right species, in the right places, at the right time of the year. Buker says: “It’s very easy to throw a seed into the ground and just forget about it. We believe this is wrong. A tree must be cared for, long after it has been planted.”

The challenges ahead

The refusal to compromise on the basic principles of sustainability and the circular economy have helped set Treeapp apart from many other products on the market and helped propel its successful launch – but great challenges lie ahead.

To date, it has planted 600,000 trees in total. The founders now need to grow the business globally to deliver environmental and social impact at scale. To do so, they have set themselves the ‘stretch’ target of planting a million trees every day. Achieving that target in a sustainable way is a huge ambition.

But, as Harito says, it’s about helping everyone to help make the world a better place: “We set out on this journey to enable anyone to plant a tree and have an impact in making our planet just a bit greener and contribute to global reforestation. We just want to improve the world we live in, and the one we leave for future generations.”

The LBS case study ‘Treeapp: Plant a tree for free, every day’ is available at


Ioannis Ioannou is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School


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