Felix Finkbeiner is a busy man. Aged 19, he is over half way to graduating with a degree in International Relations from SOAS, has spoken at the UN General Assembly and started an international company that employs staff all over the world. Oh yeah, and they’re saving the planet…
How did you start Plant for the Planet?
“We have just celebrated our tenth anniversary actually. So it started just over a decade ago with a small school project in my 4th Grade class. I was asked to give a presentation about climate change, and when I started looking into it I found out about this lady called Wangari Maathai from Kenya who planted 30 million trees in 30 years. She started a whole movement. And that inspired me to start planting trees. So we planted our first tree at my school and then invited students from other schools to join us by planting trees at their schools.
“An older student set up a simple website for us which was essentially just a ranking of local schools in terms of who had planted the most trees. So we sort of started this competition, and more and more Bavarian, then German, and then international schools joined in the competition and that’s how we spread. I think, after the first year, we had planted around 50,000 trees. And after three years we’d planted around one million trees.”
Did you have any expectation when you started this project that it would have such an impact?
“No, absolutely not. It was just a little school project. We didn’t think or expect it to turn into anything like what it has become.”
Your website states that around 14 billion trees have now been planted…
“Yeah, so that number contains not just trees planted by Plant for the Planet (PftP) ambassadors but also by companies, organisations and governments that all report their tree planting to us. We are trying to set up a global tree counter. The end goal is a trillion trees.
“In addition to having lots of our ambassador’s plant trees in their countries, we have larger tree planting projects. For instance we have one in Campeche, Mexico where we have around 80 employees who plant on average a tree every 15 seconds.
“And then this other project called Change Chocolate. About five years ago we wanted to start a project with the German chocolate industry, but we didn’t get their support. So we decided to make our own. We launched about half a year later and it is now the most sold Fairtrade chocolate in Germany. It’s carbon-neutral and with every five bars of chocolate we sell we have enough money to plant a tree. So all the profits go to tree planting. We’ve sold 10 million bars so far which has allowed us to plant two million trees, and that’s just Germany. We are hoping to launch in the UK this year.”
I’d suggest the SOAS Students’ Union shop as a safe bet
“Yeah, I would think so”
You’ve been described by the media as a ‘global eco superhero’ and have addressed the UN General Assembly – what was that like?
“I was just incredibly nervous, but it was a huge boost for PftP. I was only 13 at the time. I spoke for roughly ten minutes without notes but came up with a general outline beforehand. It allowed us to spread into many more countries, young people all around the world heard about our project as a result of it.”
You are in your second year studying Politics and International Relations at SOAS – why that degree and why here?
“My high school History teacher would ask me once a week in my senior year whether I had applied to SOAS yet. So that’s how I find out about it. He studied somewhere else in the UK but had visited SOAS a number of times and loved it here. He constantly told me about SOAS, so I applied and I really love it here because there are so few other institutions where you would be able to study International Relations with a focus on the Middle East or Africa.”
Plans for the summer?
“Aside from PftP, I am interning for a management consultancy in Indonesia that does land use analysis for the Government. I will be out there for 3 months. It should be very interesting.”
Do you know what you want to do after your graduate?
“I don’t know exactly what it is I want to do with my life. I am considering going to Law School. I think these issues we are trying to tackle with PftP around climate change are not going to be solved for a couple of decades. I want to be involved in solving these problems but I don’t know how yet. That’s what I’m still trying to figure out.”
How can people at SOAS support PftP?
“We are actually setting up a PftP London Club relatively soon. So anyone who would want to support us or get involved can email me. It would entail helping us spread the message of the importance of tree planting in the UK by giving speeches about it, organising tree planting events, organising funding etc.”
You can also donate via the PftPm website.