THE BLOG

China's Reforestation Commitment: Imperfect, Important Progress

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So China goes to the UN and declares their commitment to greater environmental responsibility. Isn't this what ordinary citizens like you and me have been demanding from world leaders? That nations come together with common desire to create greater good; that effort and innovation and resources are brought to bear against a global crisis ... for goodness sake, the leader of the largest polluting country in the world has now publicly declared accountability and committed to redemption. Yes, it's an incomplete commitment -- in a time when we're full of rhetoric and starving for action -- but it deserves to be recognized as meaningful, if imperfect, progress. Because while we're so busy tearing apart each others' plans and waiting for someone else to serve up a perfect solution, the climate crisis marches on.

In response to one specific commitment President Hu Jintao put forth, to reforest an area of his country the size of Norway, I've heard little more than bemused disbelief: "That's the global warming solution? Plant a bunch of saplings and pray for rain?" The elites have never heard a proposal that they can't debunk--the perfect is an able enemy of the good. But in climate change, this is a moment for less hot air, and more action.

I'm a third-generation bootmaker whose company's headquarters are half a world away from China, in New Hampshire. 2009 marks the 8th year of our partnership with GreenNet, a Japan-based NGO that has helped us reforest desecrated land -- not in New Hampshire, not in Japan, but in Inner Mongolia's Horqin Desert. How is it a US-based bootmaker's business to plant trees in a Chinese desert? For starters, we pollute in Asia -- we manufacture in Asia, and we retail in Asia, and the engine of commerce creates carbon emissions. And so, with the privileges the marketplace accords us comes the accountabilities for responsible business behavior. Further, we make boots for people who love the outdoors; destroying nature is bad for our business. What hiking boot goes best in a dustbowl?

So for the last eight years, we've sent small teams of employees to the Horqin Desert to plant trees in what has become the "Timberland Forest." This is real grassroots environmental accountability -- a small group of volunteers, and the gritty work of digging holes and planting trees.

Small teams and gritty work adds up: By the first half of 2010, we will have planted one million trees in the Horqin Desert. What's more, the program has inspired us to engage with our consumers around the notion of reforestation -- both online, through a virtual tree-planting community (they reached the milestone of planting one million virtual trees in mere months) and on the ground, through community service projects centered around reforestation. Tree planting has proven to be a unifying proposition; unlike carbon calculations or emissions standards, it's a comprehensible, tangible proof point of our commitment to environmental responsibility. Consumers get it, and they like it, and they want to share it with us ... that's bottom-line benefit for our brand if I ever saw it.

Scale that example to size, and I believe reforestation can work the same way for China. As a testament to accountability and an inspiration for others to take action in their own way, I believe reforestation holds more weight in the climate conversation than detractors would like to think. To change the world you've got to move the masses -- and to move the masses, you've got to give them a reason to believe. Plant a tree, grow the forest -- there's more reason to believe in there than in the critical voices of those who offer critique but no solutions.

Goodness grows; China plants a Norway-sized forest today, maybe discovers greater strength and innovation to apply to the climate issue tomorrow. And in the meantime, there's a little less pollution, a little more green ... incremental progress gets made.

If there's one discernable truth in the never-ending rhetoric about global warming, it's that we're out of time. Rather than ask why or question how, we need to follow China's lead -- quickly -- in accepting accountability and taking action. Not carelessly, but with confidence and assurance that even imperfect plans create impact. Don't tell me it can't be done...