Carlton Solle grew up in Marin County, surrounded by the beauty of the Bay Area. But it wasn’t until he spent time in Costa Rica that he saw natural beauty contaminated — beaches overgrown with garbage floating downstream. In response, he founded Treeson and created a Kickstarter campaign to raise launch funds. The new model for water bottle consumption provides an interactive alternative to plastic — it is designed with a mailing label on the bottle, so customers can easily avoid landfills by mailing the bottles back to the manufacturing plant. We spoke with Carlton about Treeson’s unique value proposition and why he started the social enterprise.
Why are you rethinking the water bottle?
One of the biggest environmental problems facing the world today is plastic waste, and we’re running out of landfill space. The answer now is to ship it all overseas, to landfills that are often built on the outskirts of urban centers near creeks and rivers. The overflow inevitably ends up in these waterways and gets carried out to sea where it threatens marine life or pollutes remote beaches. That’s what motivated the idea for Treeson.
The reality is that bottled water is here to say: it’s a $6.7 billion market and its explosive growth provides little incentive to change. Treeson presents an alternative: Mail the water bottle back to us when you’re done drinking it. The mailing label is right on the bottle! It’s free, easy and a fun way to be reminded of the fact that every small choice can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We hope that this inspires the industry to move to fully sustainable solutions.
How did you get engaged with environmental issues?
I grew up in Marin County and always actively enjoyed the outdoors. But I am ashamed to say that I never really understood how important those spaces were and the role they play in all of our lives until I traveled to Costa Rica. It is easy to take natural beauty for granted but being in Costa Rica changed me. That’s when I started getting involved with environmental organizations and saw the incredible achievements they were able to accomplish with little in the way of resources.
Do you feel that Treeson's sustainability component is enough to drive consumer behavior change?
To some context, the folks who buy plastic water bottles by the caseload every month are not bad people and it’s not that they don’t care about the environment — they just don’t really think about it and there’s not community pressure to do so. Bottled water is cheap, convenient and has become ubiquitous for those reasons.
I’ve found that the best way to reach the maximum number of people and motivate them to change their behavior is to offer a simple solution and provide a choice that people can feel good about without having to pay more for it.
As the category grows, there is a trend firmly toward private label. This suggests that there is little brand loyalty overall. Everyone is competing on the same terms with roughly the same product offering. What Treeson does is offer a choice that no one else is even contemplating. The shopper will still get to buy a case of water but our product will do something about pollution, create clean energy and plant trees — all for no extra cost. Now, you may not be a die-hard environmental activist but our hope is that this is an appealing proposition for your average consumer.
Walk us through how the water bottle is being designed.
It is a lengthy process but a creative one and a lot of fun to be part of. A huge part of it is the upfront homework that we do because it’s a project that’s never even been attempted — even the “green” packaging out there is generally produced in industrial facilities so there is only so far we can go with the existing infrastructure.
We want to use only plant-based materials. Bio-plastics are pretty common, but most are made from genetically modified corn — we want nothing to do with putting more GMOs into the ground. So we have to do extra sourcing work. We also have the labels to consider: paper, adhesives, inks and laminates are predominantly petrochemical-based, so we turned to non-GMO soy inks, for example.
Congratulations on a successful Kickstarter campaign! What’s next for Treeson?
Thank you! We raised an incredible $96,242 with the help of 648 backers. It was a truly amazing experience. We have big plans for this brand and bottled water is only the beginning. Other beverages are an obvious extension that is easy for us to roll out but we have plans beyond drinks. Our mission is to explore how packaging itself can be revolutionized and made less wasteful. We want our Treeson Drop & Tree logo to become as recognizable as the Nike Swoosh or Apple’s logo. When you see that icon, you will know that you have the greenest packaging possible for a product in that category and you will know that we are working on making it even greener!