Ricoh Tree-Planting Program Offers CSR Cautions

ricohBy so many measures, Ricoh, the Japanese office equipment-maker, is a leader in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can spend several hours on the Ricoh website reading about their numerous CSR initiatives, their environmentally friendly products and processes, as well as the many awards they have won over the past 20 years. The company places corporate citizenship at the core of their mission and makes the effort to integrate these core values through every part of their business. Well done.

But good intentions don’t always make for good results. The UK website is reporting on one Ricoh CSR program that has seemed to miss its mark, raising the questions:  how do you decide which CSR initiatives are most appropriate for your business, how do you monitor the programs, how do you measure their effectiveness, and are good intentions enough?

Carbon Offset Backfires

Back in 2007, the company kicked off a tree-planting program with their customers intended to offset the carbon emissions associated with the energy and paper use of their popular office copiers. The program monitored the printer and copier usage levels of businesses. For every 100,000 photocopies or prints generated by a customer, Ricoh committed to plant a tree in Africa through the non-profit, Seeds for Africa. Each time a customer passed the 100,000 mark, Ricoh would pay for a new tree and email the customer an e-certificate detailing the offset.

Tom Young, a reporter for the UK website has recently reported on the problems associated with the program. For instance, the original intention was to get customers to decrease energy and paper use, but Ricoh discovered the feel-good effect customers associated with planting a tree in Africa actually served as a motivation for businesses to print more. Whoops.

This unintended motivation along with concerns over tree-planting as an effective carbon offset, caused the company to retool the program. It re-emerged with more emphasis on the CSR angle, as opposed to carbon-offsetting, and the company re-engaged with Seeds for Africa.

In their operations in Tanzania, Seeds for Africa uses a local organization, Jema, to distribute and plant the trees, which go mostly to schools and mostly around cities. Jema plants three types of trees: shade, decoration, and fruit trees. The fruit trees are the primary focus of the program, but shade trees are needed to trap moisture and protect the soil, allowing fruit trees to grow underneath.

SFA-One-Tree-Card-03But according to Young, who recently visited some of the communities supported by Seeds for Africa, the project is still facing difficulties.  Major problems with water supplies and security have resulted in mixed success in the schools he visited.  The fruit trees that have been planted tend to require more water to survive than can often be found in the local environment.  Typically less than half the trees planted have survived due to lack of water.

Moreover, the trees are relatively valuable and are often stolen from schools without security measures in place. In one district Young visited, only one fruit tree remained of the 50 that were planted by Jema.

Are Good Intentions Enough?

Ricoh is currently evaluating whether or not to continue the program. Matthew Smitthurst, who works in marketing at Ricoh, admits “It is better to have something that works, rather than something we talk about but doesn’t work properly.”

The program’s ongoing problems and mixed results raise pertinent questions for any firm considering high-profile CSR programs. Would Ricoh have been better off scrapping the program completely after it first ran off the rails?  Ricoh also seemed to overlook the ongoing controversy over the effectiveness of tree-planting as a carbon offset. Is it wise to implement programs through a multitude of downstream partners, which complicates the monitoring process?  And is tree-planting really relevant to Ricoh’s core business?

Ricoh operates by the code “good corporate citizenship is good business,” but what should a good business do when being good backfires or provides minimal positive impact?  Are good intentions enough?

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at

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