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Future Forests

Read more stories from this November 2000 issue

'We Recycle Your Air.'

Social entrepreneur Dan Morrell is targeting a massive and complex environmental problem: global warming. But his solution is deceptively simple: The way to save the planet is one tree at a time. 

by Ian Wylie
photographs by Anton Corbijn 
from FC issue 40, page 334

Dan Morrell, 38
Founder and CEO
Future Forests
Somerset, England

It's April 26, and Dan Morrell flies economy class from Heathrow to JFK, then takes a cab to First Avenue and 46th Street. He straightens his tie, brushes down his suit, and strides into the United Nations building. He flashes his passport at security and scans the lobby for his welcoming party. No one. 

He checks his watch. He's right on time, but there's no sign of Kofi Annan -- or the tree that he and Annan are supposed to plant in Washington Square Park. Damn it, there isn't even a shovel. Not good. Maybe this wasn't such a smart idea after all. Photo ops with UN secretaries-general were the last thing that Morrell had expected when he wrote a hit-and-hope letter to the UN suggesting that its forthcoming commission on sustainable development and global warming ought to set an example by going "carbon-neutral." Flopping himself into one of the chairs in the lobby, Morrell begins to ponder how his fledgling ecocommerce business, Future Forests Ltd., might have made better use of his airfare. 

Derrick Osborne, cochairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, enters the lobby on his way to convene the conference. He allows Morrell 30 seconds to brief him about Future Forests. He likes what he hears and says, "Dan, this is great. I want you to address the forum." Morrell prepares himself for a room with maybe 50 or 60 people, tops. But the room that Osborne leads Morrell into is not one of the smaller chambers at the UN; it is General Assembly Hall. And few of its 1,969 seats are empty.

Morrell has no carefully crafted script, no PowerPoint slides. So in three minutes flat, he tells his powerful audience the simple truth about his work: We plant trees at $5 a pop to offset the carbon dioxide that you create. Morrell thanks his listeners for their time and then sweats in silence as the translators conclude their interpretations. A delegate stands and begins to clap. Then another stands and claps, and then another. Morrell leaves the room to a standing ovation, and Future Forests has won some very influential friends.

Tune in To CNN: Carbon-Neutral Now!

Ten trees will offset the carbon dioxide ( CO2 ) that one U.S. citizen generates in four months, says Future Forests. Nine trees will negate the effect of your family vacation in the Caribbean. Plant eight trees, and you'll cancel out four years' worth of garbage. Seven trees will offset five flights between New York and London. Six will neutralize all of the CO2 released by your refrigerator over its lifetime. Five will reabsorb your automobile emissions for a year. Four trees will let you carbon-neutralize your washing machine for six years. Plant three trees, and you can enjoy carbon-neutral train commutes for 10 hours a week for three years. Two trees will offset the CO2 generated in the production, delivery, and brewing of four pots of coffee a day for six years. And just one tree? That's enough to make an average citizen of Uganda carbon-neutral for a whole year.

It can't be that simple, can it? Of course it can't, and Morrell, 38, Future Forests founder and CEO, is the first to admit it. Photosynthesis is complex to a stultifying degree, and CO2 absorption depends on a multitude of biological factors. Such details are important to Morrell, who lives in Somerset, England, but if he has learned anything from his recyclable career as a nightclub operator, a video-game importer, a fashion retailer, and an advertising middleman, it is this: The simpler the idea, the better it sells. 

The major players of the Green Movement have proved adept at hand-wringing and alarm raising, but they have proved lousy at solution delivery and implementation. The momentum and optimism of the late 1980s and early 1990s appear to have been lost: The burden is too heavy, the scale of the task too great. But carve the global problem into chunks of individual responsibility -- and give people the power to repair the damage that they've caused -- and you stand a chance of turning the tide.

"People feel powerless about the environment," Morrell says. "But from what little they remember from their school biology lessons, they can make a connection between planting a tree and CO2 absorption. Slowly, people start to change their minds about driving their cars, using their dishwashers, recycling their waste -- just because they have a tree planted somewhere."

The average U.S. or UK citizen has a lifestyle that annually produces 11 tons of CO2 -- the main contributor to the greenhouse effect and to global warming. But trees naturally absorb CO2 and produce in its place useful by-products: oxygen and wood. 

Forestry, says Morrell, is an efficient way to absorb CO2 emissions that cannot be reduced at their source. As a rough average, five trees can, through photosynthesis, absorb 1 ton of carbon from the atmosphere over a period of 100 years. And there are other benefits: Forests can filter nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, and lead; reduce the spread of dust and noise; and create needed habitats for wildlife. They look good too. Yet the world's forests are being destroyed at a rate of 20 football fields a minute. That deforestation releases approximately 1.8 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. 

But you won't find Morrell rattling a tin cup under your nose, and he doesn't like being mistaken for some hippie eco-warrior. Future Forests, he says, is strictly an ESP -- an environmental-service provider. "We're like the people who collect your newspapers or recycle your tin cans," says Morrell. "We recycle your air."

The simplicity of Morrell's proposition has attracted support from actors, artists, businesses, governments, musicians, and more than 10,000 ordinary CO2-producing citizens around the world. Future Forests has planted some 148,000 indigenous trees in 55 forest sites in India, Mexico, and the UK and anticipates the projected absorption of 29,000 tons of carbon over the trees' growing lifetime. The organization plants long-term natural native species such as ash, beech, hawthorne, oak, rowan, and yew, and its natural forests are planted with local partners on public-access land. 

With some help from the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Ecology and Resource Management and from the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management ( ECCM ), Future Forests has developed a model for calculating the ratio between CO2 emissions and uptake of carbon by tree. Acting as an R&D arm for Future Forests, the ECCM assesses and inspects each planting site to calculate and to monitor levels of carbon sequestration per hectare planted.

"Becoming carbon-neutral by planting trees is no get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of emissions reduction," says Morrell. "If you want to reduce your negative impact on the planet, you need to think about using less energy. But don't underestimate the power of trees."

It's Only Rock and Roll

For traditional environmentalists, Dan Morrell can be a little bit too "rock and roll." It's the evening of January 28, 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Morrell is clambering into the back of a rented Volkswagen Golf with some of his showbiz pals. They've been nightclubbing in Bath and are heading back to Morrell's apartment to continue the fun. With him are a clutch of models and session musicians, including drummer Tony Thompson, who has just finished touring with David Bowie. Robert Plant is trying to hitch a ride too -- he needs a drummer to help with a Led Zeppelin reunion and is keen to talk to Thompson -- but there's no room. He'll have to find a cab.

En route, the driver loses control of the car on an icy bend and crashes. Everyone in the car sustains injuries, though, thankfully, none of the injuries are fatal. Thompson has possibly broken both arms -- so much for the Led Zep revival. Morrell has a fractured skull and will be unconscious for a week.

A three-year period of recuperation in the country followed, allowing Morrell to evaluate his checkered career. His work on a floating nightclub had been a laugh: Ferrying revelers up and down the river from Bristol neatly sidestepped licensing laws and mooring regulations. The video-game business that he had begun as a teenager with his brother had been lucrative, while his clothing factory had been a ticket to catwalks around the world. 

"The accident gave me a chance to decide what was important," Morrell says. "Did it matter if someone sold a shed-load of video games? Who gives a dime about going to a nightclub every night? Does anyone need to be convinced that this dress is sexier than that one? I knew I had to make a break to something fundamentally meaningful." Nursing his wounds in a cottage in the Somerset village of Castle Carey, Morrell used the time to dream -- and to generate a list of ideas for new ways to spend his time. One of those ideas was Future Forests. In 1989, a bleary-eyed Morrell and his girlfriend stumbled into morning after having attended a party the night before. Walking down London's congested Harrow Road, the couple found themselves gasping for air. Yet it struck Morrell as rather odd that the trees lining the route looked so healthy. "Must be something to do with photosynthesis," he mumbled to his girlfriend. "What if . . . "

Of course, Future Forests was just one of Morrell's new ideas -- and it would have to wait its turn. By 1992, he had cofounded a music-brokerage business, Fullview Productions Ltd., which flitted between record companies and advertising agencies to match prerelease material to TV ads for clients like Adidas, Guinness, and Honda. But the tree-planting bug was eating at him like a bad case of Dutch Elm disease. With backing from the Forestry Commission, Morrell took his idea to the UK's largest motoring organization, the Automobile Association, offering to plant forests to offset the CO2 generated by its members. The AA liked it, bought it -- then sat on it for three years.

Undeterred, Morrell bought his idea back and took it on the road. His one-day-a-month hobby turned into a two-weeks-a-month mission, as he milked his contacts for introductions to every CEO and marketing director that they knew. British Airways, Ford, Virgin -- Morrell tried them all. "When you know that something is fundamentally a good idea, then there's no way out." But while no one said no to Future Forests, no one said yes either. A breakthrough came in 1996, on a train journey to London, when Morrell found himself sitting across from Rodney Bickerstaffe, secretary- general of the UK's biggest trade union, Unison. The two men had never met before, but Morrell did what came naturally. "Poor guy, I gave him one and a half hours of wall-to-wall Future Forests." 

Bickerstaffe made no promises, but a month later, Morrell received a check from a union member who wanted to buy a tree. Another check arrived a day later, and then the floodgates opened. Bickerstaffe had sent a memo to all of his members urging them to support Future Forests. "We had been spending all of our time appealing to the big wealthy brands, but it was the low-paid public-sector workers who really got us going."

Cleaning Up Business

"Dan has managed to create a tangible benefit from an invisible problem," says Sue Welland, 40, marketing director of Future Forests, who quit a high-profile job with Eurotunnel to work with Morrell. "He can make you believe that anything is possible and that you are the person to make it happen. He has the kind of lateral thinking and slight eccentricity that can make the difference between an okay idea and a piece of magic." 

But without a proper scientific foundation, Morrell's magic could still appear to be an illusion. Unexpectedly, Future Forests had found a sympathetic ear in the motor-sport industry. Max Mosely, president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, invited Morrell to a Brussels, Belgium forum on CO2 emissions. It was there that Morrell first met Richard Tipper, a world authority on carbon sequestration and an environmental adviser to the UK government. "We hadn't really known what we were doing, to be honest," says Morrell. "But through Tipper, we were able to work out exactly how many trees would absorb the emissions of one car, one aircraft flight, one toaster, whatever. Getting the figures to stack up was fundamental to our credibility. We know that what we are claiming to be true is 100% true."

With Tipper punching in the figures, Future Forests developed a CO2 audit program, measuring how many tons of CO2 a company generates and then calculating how many trees would be needed to offset those tons. In the past two years, more than 40 clients have been through the audit, and such companies as the design group Imagination, the Independent, J. Walter Thompson Co., Mazda UK, and TRW Aeronautical Systems can now claim to be carbon-neutral. 

Avis Europe PLC is one of Morrell's most enthusiastic fans. Last year, Avis planted more than 26,000 trees throughout the UK, in such locations as Birmingham, Manchester, and Tunbridge Wells, to help compensate for CO2 produced by its UK head office and 160 branches. And it's not just about upstaging rival Hertz, says Katharine Johnson, 36, the company's communications coordinator. "The impact has gone beyond tree planting," she says. "Working with Future Forests has given us a platform to have a debate within the company about our environmental responsibilities. It has started lots of conversations here and has made us think more carefully about the way that we and our customers use our cars. For example, we're setting up car-sharing clubs for our clients and looking at ways that we can work more closely with public-transport providers."

Mazda UK believes that its $25,000 investment in forests has yielded $3 million worth of PR. Tower Records is hoping for similar results when it makes its online sales service carbon-neutral this fall. Clients get a brand differential from carbon-neutrality, but they also get a kick out of the celebrity support that Morrell -- a prodigious networker and a member of London's exclusive Groucho Club -- has reeled in. Afrika Bambaataa, Stella McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys, and Joe Strummer all find room in their schedules for Morrell.

Future Forests has made enemies as well. Some environmentalists say that planting trees is a distraction that allows business to shirk responsibility for cutting CO2 emissions. But Morrell says that his clients know his prescription is no cure-all: "The problem of greenhouse gases is way too big for us to solve with tree planting, but our mission is to challenge mind-sets. Forestry is not a panacea. It's not the answer to climate change. But as part of an integrated carbon-management program, it's an important part of the answer."

Planting trees for individuals, says Morrell, is simply good fun. More than 10,000 people own trees through Future Forests, from the police chief in Hartfordshire who made all of his patrol cars carbon-neutral to the college kids in Southampton who persuaded their local Kentucky Fried Chicken to go carbon-neutral.

Morrell is casting his net wider through Future Forests's innovative ecocommerce Web site. Enter miles driven, vacations taken, information from your utility bills, and so on, and a calculator determines how many tons of CO2 you generate. Then go online and buy the exact number of trees needed to offset that amount. Choose where you would like the trees to be planted, and Future Forests emails back a certificate and a map showing the exact location of your trees.

Climbing High

The first tree that Morrell planted -- a cherry tree planted along a railway path outside Castle Carey station -- is now tall enough to climb. He walks past it each time he takes the train to London's Paddington terminal. "Our forests are not just about carbon offset. They're about biodiversity, natural habitats, and having a cool place to go."

Morrell believes strongly enough in planting trees that he's willing to put it first in his life. He has reduced commitments to his music business and works almost exclusively for Future Forests. Now that Future Forests is bringing in nearly $3 million a year, it no longer needs Fullview to pay the rent on its Castle Carey and London offices.

From its Web site, Future Forests intends to offer renewable electricity and carbon-neutral holidays. In a deal with Green Globe 21, the company hopes to be able to advise flight passengers of carbon-neutral air routes. The plan would allow you to fly from Atlanta to Adelaide, or from Seattle to Singapore, and have trees planted for you that would offset the flight's carbon emission. And Morrell and his celebrity chums have already booked some time at a studio next year to cut a CD titled Global Cooling.

The zeitgeist is on Morrell's side. Climate-change levies are looming, and when the Kyoto Protocol is ratified ( perhaps as soon as 2002 ), offsetting CO2 will be mandatory in the UN. But that has Morrell a little worried: "There could be an unacceptable face of carbon-offset forestry, an ugly side that fells rainforests and replaces them with fast-growing trees such as eucalyptus just to gain quick carbon credits."

Governments and such environmental pressure groups as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have expressed concerns about irresponsible forestry, and Morrell is keen to differentiate his brand. "Future Forests is about putting something back into communities. We plant indigenous natural species for local people. In India and Mexico, for example, we plant fruit trees so that the local people can gain a living from looking after them. There is public access to all of our forests, and we do a lot of urban planting. We also work with schools, helping kids to understand the issues."

It takes as many as 100 years for trees to fulfill their carbon-offset potential, and Morrell says that his clients are fully aware that they're entering a long-term commitment to the environment. "I like trees. They're simple and easy to explain. But there's no time for quick PR fixes when you're helping to save the planet."

Ian Wylie, ian at, a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in London. Contact Dan Morrell, dan at, or visit Future Forests LTD. on the Web ( ).

Sidebar: Who's Fast

Dan Morrell, founder and CEO of Future Forests Ltd., applies market incentives and marketing savvy to an intractable environmental problem -- climate change and global warming. Here are some of his marketing techniques for winning people over to his cause. 

Keep it simple. "Humans have a massive capacity for digesting hugely complicated packages of information. But to make an idea memorable, you have to keep it simple. That's why we came up with the idea of one car, 5 trees per year -- one citizen, 15 trees per year. The reality is much more complicated than that, and it depends on the species of tree, soil type, rainfall, longitude, latitude, and all sorts of other factors. We average it all out so that the figures stack up, so why complicate the message?"

Don't go to the barricades. "It's far better to interact with people than to protest against them. Of course, we respect a lot of the environmental campaigning that takes place, but whom would the chairman of Avis rather talk to -- the campaigners who are protesting outside his building telling passersby that the business is damaging the environment or the tree planters who are offering him a means to repair the damage?"

Ditch the phony caring, sharing bit. "The future belongs to single-issue-focused groups who can make themselves attractive to CFOs as companies prepare for environmental taxes and regulations. At first, we found ourselves in companies' marketing budgets. Now we're migrating into their operations budgets -- because clients recognize that environmental planning is a core function and that tree planting is a long-term commitment."

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