‘Democratizing forests’ is what this ESG-based company is all about

Editor's Note

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 Giving Guide. Check out the full publication here.

Sustainability — it’s a buzzword we’ve all heard a million times. As the climate crisis worsens and uncertainty about the future grows, companies have never been more sensitive about doing their part for the environment. At the same time, the path to sustainability has never been more murky and confusing. 

For Smart Living Properties, a local real estate developer offering turnkey rental solutions, sustainability is more than a buzzword. Earlier this year, the principals were searching for new ways to demonstrate to stakeholders that the company was serious about reducing its carbon footprint. That was when Smart Living discovered Smart Forests. 

“We wanted something tangible, where you are actually contributing by actions towards net carbon zero,” says Ryan Denyer, who joined the company in 2011 and now serves as director of product and brand.

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“Our construction practices and the way we operate our buildings are environmentally friendly and sustainability-driven, but we know more can be done. So when Canada Forest Trust was founded, it aligned well with our goal of becoming a net zero employer. We trusted their vision and execution, so we jumped on board,” Denyer adds. 

Canada Forest Trust (CFT), founded in Ottawa by well-known entrepreneur Gary Zed, is a nature-based environmental, social impact, governance (ESG) company that connects the dots between the rapidly increasing needs of businesses and organizations to get to net-zero emissions and a tangible solution that creates practical results. 

In plain language? CFT builds forests for its clients to help them get to net zero.

According to Zed, it is a next-generation ESG solution born from his roots in New Brunswick, where Zed has maintained a salmon lodge for more than 25 years. “Salmon fishing has always been where I do my creative thinking and hone in on my values and purpose,” Zed explains.

During this time, he often heard complaints from locals on the devastation of forests. Then he saw it with his own eyes: vast forests being prematurely cut for lumber and other commercial uses rather than preserved and nurtured for future generations. 

So Zed, now one of the largest landowners in Atlantic Canada, started to connect another set of dots. He began buying both deforested and forested land in the area, simply to manage, preserve and protect it. Then, during his professional career as a tax lawyer and family advisor for corporations and high-net-worth families, he noticed firsthand a growing desire for ESG. 

“The power of nature, the climate anxiety experienced by our youth and the demands from consumers and capital markets for businesses to be net-zero-focused opened my eyes to something more meaningful,” he explains. “And frankly, I am an entrepreneur at heart. So it got me thinking: I have seen ESG take off around the world and the compelling need around climate action. Meanwhile, there is now a necessity that corporations take steps toward a net-zero world. If I am already buying deforested land and I am going to reforest it, why wouldn’t I get corporations and individuals involved? It kills three birds with one stone.”

CFT, having spent the last two years building and refining its offering and beta testing its platform, is growing rapidly. With 25 members now on the team, the company has built strategic partnerships and attracted leading experts to its board.

Using the company’s proprietary carbon calculator, companies and individuals determine their impact on the environment and then CFT guides them to the type and size of forest they need to build. From there, it is a five-step process to achieve the stated goals, beginning with procurement of the land.  

Zed recently launched a sister company, Canada’s Land Trust, for farming and forestry families wanting to sell or lease their land for the purpose of reforestation. “We need to have a portfolio of land available across the country for our customers wanting to participate in forest building exercises to get them to net zero,” Zed says. 

Some clients are focused on reconciliation and keen to have meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities. In those cases, partnering with Indigenous communities is often crucial to the process, both for the generational land knowledge, but also for CFT’s potential to create economic opportunities and provide skills development for Indigenous youth wanting to remain on their lands.

“When we meet with Indigenous community leaders, we talk about partnership building, sustainable employment, skills development, education, knowledge-sharing and revenue-sharing,” says JP Gladu, a prominent Indigenous leader and former CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business who now serves as the chair of CFT’s board of directors.

After procurement, the next step is land preparation, or getting the land ready for its environmental makeover. That includes scarifying the land, performing a species assessment, and getting the client up and running with a private portal on the CFT website known as a “Smart Forest Intelligence Dashboard.” 

This platform puts the “smart” in smart forests, according to Zed, by providing a wealth of information for clients, such as the location of the forest, its type, its age and a breakdown of the species and biodiversity found there. Most importantly, the platform offers statistics on the path to net zero.

Smart Living Properties is just beginning its journey. The company has agreed to grow and preserve 200 acres in New Brunswick and Ontario. Denyer says Smart Living Properties is keen to offset the carbon footprint it creates when renovating and operating its buildings. Deciding how much forest to protect depends on a company’s present and future impact. Smart Living Properties has a sizable portfolio, more than 100 employees and about 1,500 tenants spread across Ottawa, with plans to double the number of tenants in the next few years. 

With its carbon footprint determined and the land identified and prepared, it is then time for everyone’s favourite step: planting. 

“One aspect we value is the stakeholder’s involvement in the process,” Denyer adds. “Both our staff and tenant base are of a younger demographic and they are very concerned about the environment. So, where we can, we want to actually involve them in the tree planting process.”

Although planting tends to get the most attention, Zed points out this step means little without the final two steps: preserving and protecting. Trees might be in the ground, but CFT must measure, monitor and maintain the forest to ensure the mortality rate is low through professional inspections and management. These results are reflected in real time on the client’s  dashboard and in an annual audited report.

“When you come on board, you end up with a forever forest guarantee. Which essentially means, once we build the forest, we will apply proper forest management to ensure the long-term health and maximum carbon sequestration,” Zed adds.

Clients need to be realistic about their respective climate pledges — most are looking to 2050 and beyond in terms of their goals to be net zero.  

The vision, Zed explains, is to create a tangible and personal solution all Canadians can feel invested in. That means a forest for everyone, whether it be an individual, a small business, a large corporation or even a school. According to Zed, developing partnerships with educational institutions has been another area of growth for CFT. Students can raise funds to create and support a forest for their school by selling seedlings. The forest’s growth and preservation can be incorporated into the curriculum through field trips, digital monitoring and volunteerism. 

Zed adds that CFT hired several student interns this past summer and has committed $250,000 for student scholarship programs. The overarching philosophy, he says, is improving the impact, reporting and storytelling around carbon and biodiversity and the important role each of us can play to bring nature to the forefront as a solution.  

“Democratizing forests to make them accessible to all Canadians so we can all do our part to get to net-zero emissions,” he explains. “Many social impacting investments can be out of sight, so the biggest fear is whether you are truly having a measurable and transparent impact. So, CFT is about an authentic turnkey program where you can experience forest building in a transparent way.”

Jeff Todd is vice-president of marketing and communications at Foundation WCPD and president-elect of AFP Ottawa.

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