Nico and Elkie Nicholas
The sustainability champions and founders of Trees4Travel and Zeero chat to Bev Fearis about their start-up ‘baby’ and what drives them to want to make a difference
We’re very much yin and yang – opposites in many ways – but that’s what makes it work,” says Elkie Nicholas, co-founder of Trees4Travel and its offshoot, Zeero.
Her husband, Nico, is the CEO (Chief Eco Officer), the techpreneur and customer-facing front man, while Elkie – who has a background in fashion – works more behind the scenes as CTH (Chief Tree Hugger), heading up the marketing and creative side.
“Of course, we don’t always see eye to eye – we have some fiery moments – but we’re both very passionate about what we do and we have the same goals,” she adds.
“We’ve both been business travellers for the whole of our adult lives and have an enormous carbon footprint”
The couple, who met on a blind date aged just 17, live between the UK and France and have two 20-something sons – one a trainee stuntman and the other an extreme kayaker. “Both have clearly inherited our love of adventure – and taking risks!” says Elkie.
Their third child, they say, is their sustainability start-up. “We’re a small team and we’re global, so we don’t have much time off,” says Nico.
“It literally is like having a baby. If it cries at night, you have to be there. Elkie was just this week up at 4am on a call to Australia.”
Running an international business also means international travel, but that’s something this pair are experts in. As founders of a sustainability company, it’s an irony they’re willing to acknowledge.
“We’ve both been business travellers for the whole of our adult lives and have an enormous carbon footprint,” confesses Elkie.
“We are international people and have always had friends and connections all over the world,” adds Nico. “I’ve always loved getting on a plane and going somewhere new.”
Previous entrepreneurial ventures have seen Nico rescue his mother’s failing wedding dress design business, develop accountancy software for global retailers, create an alcoholic drink (namely Spritz) and packaging for chocolates and champagne – all of which involved significant long-haul travel. Together the couple have also launched various travel-related businesses, including technology to help travel agents book villa rentals, which was adopted by Sabre.
The inspiration for Trees4Travel came from an idea for another travel start-up – Sun Searcher – where holidaymakers can use the weather to find the best destination for their dates. Elkie recognised the concept was closely linked to climate and suggested planting a tree for every client.
“I had just come back from India, where I was learning to be a yoga teacher, and I had seen firsthand the mountains of waste and the pollution,” she explains. “I knew we had to do something.”
The pair registered the name Trees4Travel and began sharing their idea with friends and colleagues in the travel industry.
“We had an amazing response to it, so we put Sun Searcher on hold and focussed on developing Trees4Travel,” says Nico.
The concept is simple. For each business or leisure trip, Trees4Travel calculates and translates the CO2 emissions into a number of trees. Taking the train from London to Paris and staying in a hotel for three nights equates to one tree, for example, while a flight from New York to Cancun and spending a week in a villa requires the planting of six trees.
Each tree and its connected certified carbon credit costs around $3, less than the price of a coffee in many destinations.
Trees are planted in carefully-chosen reforestation projects in countries such as Nepal and Kenya. The projects always ensure local communities can live from the forests but are compatible with their restoration and conservation. The focus is on long-term strategies to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises but also meet livelihood needs, therefore being able to support 13 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“The tree planting concept works with most people. It’s simple and tangible,” says Nico.
‘The problem isn’t the fact that we’re travelling, it’s that we’re putting the wrong stuff in our planes, our boats and cars, and we’re not respecting the destinations we go to”
But disillusionment with the carbon credit market, particularly due to lack of regulation and high and widely-fluctuating prices, led to the launch of ZEERO early this year.
Heading towards being a joint venture, crowdfund platform, ZEERO is an additional option where instead of carbon credits, participating companies and travellers can earn shares in ZEERO with every tree planted.
ZEERO will become an investment vehicle to fund the research and development of innovations to produce clean energy. A key project already being developed involves the production of saltwater algae to convert into sustainable aviation fuel.
“I believe the way we’ve been tackling responsible travel is wrong,” says Nico. “The problem isn’t the fact that we’re travelling, it’s that we’re putting the wrong stuff in our planes, our boats and cars, and we’re not respecting the destinations we go to.
“The fact is that people are always going to travel – travel is not reducing – and what we’re doing with Trees4Travel and Zeero is enabling people to continue to travel and enjoy our amazing planet, but to give back.”
The travel industry, he believes, needs to work on its environmental impact, now. “There is still too much talk but not enough tangible action,” he says.
“Measuring your emissions and switching from premium to economy class or to electric cars is a start, but it’s not a global solution and doesn’t cover the billions of people who will still burn fossil fuels in 50 years, unless we empower them with an alternative and build the funding vehicles that can help them reach those goals,” he argues.
“To do that, we need everyone to be a part of this, and to achieve that we need our business to be public, multi-national and to be a mix of a tech for good company and a financial institution. We’re a small business and so we need to build a strong global team to take ZEERO to that level.”
When did you first become aware of the issue of climate change?
Elkie: The first time I thought about it was back in 2006 when I saw the Davis Guggenheim movie An Inconvenient Truth, which follows the former US presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit to raise awareness of global warming. I thought ‘oh my god, that’s just insane’, but then I thought ‘it’s OK because politicians will take care of it’ but clearly that didn’t happen. Then, of course, Greta [Thunberg] came along, a child shouting at us all, and that was a real wake-up call.
Nico: Even in my early days of travelling for work, I was very much aware of mistakes being made. I would get upset when I saw bottled water, often imported from the other side of the world, in countries where it’s perfectly safe to drink the water. On our travels, Elkie and I were always looking around us at everything and thinking how we could do it better.
You launched Trees4Travel during the pandemic. How was that?
Elkie: On the downside, we were trying to get attention when a lot of businesses were simply trying to survive, but the pandemic also made people realise we’re not as invincible as we think we are and it allowed people to stop and re-evaluate.
Nico: There was a definite shift in the mindset. What we were proposing to the industry was giving people a sense of hope that when travel came back, we could do things differently. ESG is now, thankfully, top of the agenda.
What’s your favourite tree?
Elkie: Mine is the mangrove. They are just fascinating and so powerful. One of our reforestation projects is a mangrove forest in Kenya and we are about to start a second one there.
Nico: Mine is an olive tree. My family ‘roots’ are Mediterranean and I absolutely love olives (I eat them every day), and olive oil, and I Iove that olive trees can live for thousands of years.