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Interview with Caitlin Sachdev, Founder of CarbonForest




Hi, I'm Betty, the founder of Upright and you're listening to the Upright podcast, where we interview thought leaders and innovators who are making a positive impact in health, sustainability, and inclusion. Our vision is a world where health and sustainability are accessible to all. To get there, we're launching a high protein instant oat milk that is as nutritious as dairy, but without the cow, as well as this podcast series, where we highlight the amazing things that other founders and brands are doing to make the world healthier and more sustainable. In this conversation, I'm joined by Caitlin Sachdev, the founder and president of CarbonForest. CarbonForest helps consumers erase their carbon footprints by planting trees on their behalf. We talked about Caitlin's personal experience as a new mother in San Francisco, where the wildfires sparked her sense of urgency to be part of the climate change solution. The small act of planting trees is something that can be done right now to give us time to solve the big infrastructure problems necessary for a sustainable future. We also talked about the importance of community and resilience in building a new brand, and planting millions of acres of forests. With that, here's our conversation. 

Betty:

Hi Caitlin, thank you so much for joining me today. I was wondering if we could start off with you sharing your story. I'd love to hear about what inspired you to create CarbonForest?

Caitlin:

Thank you for having me, I'm so excited to be here. What inspired me was honestly my girls. I'm a mom of three little girls, and they're all under the age of eight. We were living in San Francisco, California during my last two pregnancies, so that was 2015. In 2018, the state had historically huge wildfires. I think since then, it's already gone past the size of those fires. The smoke was coming into San Francisco, and I am this very pregnant woman going to downtown San Francisco, trying my best to look like I've got it going on. And it's just smoky. I just became very, very real to myself, climate change is here, this is something that we need to do now. And it is absolutely a problem that we will see in our lifetime and are seeing and then the next generation, frankly, my daughters and anybody else who's listening who have children, like it's going to be a real problem, and then it's going to be something that they need to figure out how to solve. So I kind of felt that climate change was, at its core, a marketing problem, right, like here is a catastrophic issue that affects every human in the world. And yet, we're not galvanizing around it. To me, a lot of it was about the messaging and how we communicate, and also the simplicity of how we can solve it. We can talk about that more in more detail. But it was really my children, and the community that I live in. And then also the fact that I am a big believer that there is no day like today, and you might as well start going after it. So that's really what inspired me.

Betty:

100%. I would love to dig more into that. Can you walk us through how CarbonForest actually works?

Caitlin:

Yeah, so it's pretty simple. I always say simple is sexy, right? We plant trees to offset individuals' carbon footprint. So how does that work? The average American creates about 34,000 pounds of carbon a year. And the average tree takes 50 pounds of carbon out of the air per year. So 34,000 pounds divided by 50 equals 680 trees. And we do that assuming that the average human lives for about 80 years. So you can imagine that if you're 30, and you start planting today, you'll be finished. Depending on what product offering that you buy, you could be finished planting 680 trees in 10 years. And then those trees will actually live longer than you will, and you have a legacy impact. Those trees are constantly pulling carbon out of the air. The other pros of it is that it's measurable and transparent. We all know what a tree is, and you can calculate the carbon that's taken out of the year. We plant all of our trees here in the United States.The reason that we do that is for trip environmental protection and land rights, which is huge. The other thing is that there's fewer negative externalities. I'm a believer that it's going to take everything we've got to solve the climate change problem but a lot vehicles have batteries, and those batteries have a lifespan that we are going to have to recycle, not to mention all the materials it takes to make those batteries and trees, guests are some right, you have to bring the trucks up and plant the trees in the ground. But the net net of it is pretty limited compared to some of the other climate change solutions that are out there. So that's what we do, we plant trees! 

Betty:

It sounds so simple, but it's incredible when you walk through the math. I'd love to hear how you came up with that idea, when you knew you were pregnant with your daughters and all that. How did you actually get started? What were the first steps that you took to bring your vision for CarbonForest to life? 

Caitlin:

Yeah, so honestly, my background is in financial services. I don't have any environmental training, but I ran an innovation team out of a financial services company. One of the things that I learned is that every problem has a solution, you just have to figure out how to do it right. I didn't actually know that trees were the way I wanted to solve the problem or felt like it was easy. I spent probably about six months touring trash and recycle centers in the Bay Area, which was fascinating in itself. But I kind of landed on the fact that we have a lot of land here in the United States and frankly, in the world, and we use so much of it for agriculture. And some of it is still being used for that, but a lot of it is actually not being used for that anymore. I'm from rural New Hampshire, and I grew up with a dairy farm in my backyard. And that farm is probably about 100 acres, 200 acres or so, it's not a working farm anymore. It was when I was a kid, but it sits on top of a mountain in the middle of a forest. So why couldn't you take that land and replant those trees? And so that's sort of what inspired me, it was a little bit of seeing. Sometimes, simplicity is the best solution. Also, policy is a huge part of any climate change solution and making it work. What I saw is, who doesn't love a tree, right? And so for me, it was like, great, let's start tackling the trees now, and that will give us time to go figure out some of these big infrastructure problems, like how do we create an EV charging network? How do we put solar panels on every home in America, all of these other things that, frankly, just take time, policy, and capital? And we don't have time, right? The IPCC report came out, and we don't have time. So trees are something that we can do today. It's something that's measurable and transparent and simple. That's the essence of how I kind of narrowed in on this solution.

Betty:

That makes a lot of sense. And so I’m curious, how do you select which type of tree will get planted? And how do you select the sites where these trees get planted?

Caitlin:

Yeah, this concept of tree planting is not new, right? I mean, the whole hug a tree movement was sort of like back in the 60s, or 70s. A lot of countries have actually looked at this as well. Chile actually paid its farming community to do exactly what I was talking about, but they came up with a program where they basically picked one type of tree, and they just planted it everywhere. And the reality is, with natural solutions, you're part of an ecosystem, so you can't just plant any tree anywhere.What we do is we actually, for all of our members, or for where we figure out how we plant trees, we ran a proprietary model where we looked at where forests most likely just arrived in the United States. When I say most likely just arrived, it  means they're not at risk of drought, they're not at risk of fire, they're not at risk of decay in biomass health. We look at all these different things. And then we say, okay, these are the regions that we want to plant in. Now, what are the species that survive there? Then another thing that we do, and actually, it's on our blog, is that we have somebody that's helping us with this. There's a whole strategy around defensive tree planting, right? So climate change is happening, we're trying to slow it down, but it's still happening. What do we do that's going to affect the ecosystems that we live in? How do we plant a certain kind of shrub? If it rains more that year, it doesn't kill out all the trees, right? It's looking at the problem holistically, and then having respect for the natural environment, and working with the environment to create the maximum carbon sequestration that we can get out of a piece of land.

Betty:

That makes a lot of sense and you know, it does sound simple but also there's clearly a ton of thought and research that's going into all this as well. That's the most impactful solution. 

Caitlin:

I always foresters are like the unsung heroes of America and this problem, right? It's being thought of as planning for anything, right? You have to have a plan, it has to work, you have to look at all the different risks and variables. That's how CarbonForest goes about planting, it's not how everybody does it. But you know, making sure that our members' trees are going to be around and survive for a long period of time, is our commitment to all of our members. That's why we put so much thought into how and where we plant.

Betty:

That sounds so great that you're thinking about all this. I'm curious you know, and I think you've already touched on this a little bit, but can you articulate your vision and mission for CarbonForest? What message are you sharing with the world through your products and services?

Caitlin:

Our vision is to create millions of acres of new forests for future generations to enjoy. I think how we do that is “community”. I am a huge believer in the power of humans, and the power of community. If we just look back at history, frankly, if we even look back at the last two years, on COVID, there are stories; there's a lot of sadness, but there's also stories of incredible inspiration, where people just dug in and worked together and solved the problem. I think that small changes really do make a big impact. We saw that as it relates to COVID, and we see that as it relates to climate change. And so our vision is to create millions of acres of forests, and how we do that is by giving people the opportunity to make a small change that in the long run will have a big impact. We're looking for people to join our community and to join us on this cause. We can't think of anything more important to do in terms of the future, our future, our Earth, and everybody who lives on it.

Betty:

It's super inspiring how you've been able to empower other people to take climate control and climate impact into their own hands. 

Caitlin:

I'm so inspired by some of the people who are members, some of the stories that you hear, I mean, there was a grandma in Wyoming who reached out to me, and then you've also got this super passionate environmentalist from the East Coast. It's such a huge gamut of people. I think that's the other thing about climate change is, lots of times we think, oh, it's a certain archetype. Well the reality is, most people care about this problem. 70% of Americans care about climate change. I think that's the other thing, connecting people and connecting them to a solution that will bring people together in a way that they may not have thought they had a connection point. To me, that is what inspires me about our members and about our community.

Betty:

Absolutely, we all live on this earth together, we all have to share it. All right, so you're so far along on your journey, you've accomplished so much, and I'm curious to know: what is the best piece of advice that you've received as a founder that you would give to other founders who are earlier on in their journeys?

Caitlin:

You're kind to say that I'm far along, I feel like I'm learning and a newbie every single day. But honestly, I hope I'm always learning from other people. I don't know if I am necessarily the best person to give advice on it, but I can only share what I've learned. I think those things are obvious: stay resilient. I think that one you hear that time and time again, in life, I can remember my grandfather. 95% of succeeding is showing up or something like that, right? But the reality is just sticking with it, like one foot in front of the other can help you punch through a problem, help you punch through an insecurity, can help you just get to the other side, and sometimes in that you get the ability to have perspective. Just keep going, I think, is one of the biggest things. Then the other one, and I think this is really true to myself, but hopefully somebody else can relate to it, is that most people have anxious moments. When you get into that vortex, phone a friend, call somebody or talk to somebody, contact a complete stranger. Sometimes for some things that feels so hard for you, you just need a perspective shift, and you're not going to be able to give it to yourself, so just phone a friend. Reminds me of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where Regis would be like, who do you want to call, and it's exactly like that when you're in a moment of panic and tears and frustration. Ask for help, and I think that's the thing that I would suggest to anybody, because it'll make you feel less lonely. It will actually help you push forward on that resilient piece, because you'll just be so inspired again to tackle whatever you're trying to solve. 

Betty:

Absolutely. I completely agree with those two pieces of advice as well. Caitlin, thank you so much for joining me today, and for the listeners who are interested, can you plug where they can go and find CarbonForest to learn more about your brand and your products?

Caitlin:

We are at carbonforest.org. Or you can find us on Instagram at @carbon_forest. You can always email us at info@carbonforest.org. We are actually doing a drive for 300 customers, so we’re trying to build our community in this first quarter and would love to have more people join and just learn from all of you and solve this problem together. Thank you and to your community of listeners for hearing what we have to say and for doing your part!

Betty:

Of course, thank you! This was such a fun conversation. I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes in 2022 for both of us.

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