Tristan Lecomte: Revolutionizing Supply Chain Sustainability & Climate Change

May 2023

Tristan Lecomte is a serial social entrepreneur, a pioneer in the fields of supply chain sustainability and climate change, and a public figure in the environmental space. Founder of Alter Eco, PUR Projet, Second Life and IPI, he has been recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

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“We need to reconcile with all dimensions of ourselves, our relationship with others and with nature... With climate change, we are confronted with the end of human life on the planet. This calls for deep work on our consciousness."
Tristan Lecomte: Revolutionizing Supply Chain Sustainability & Climate Change
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
by Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and founder of Taoism.

About The Episode

Consumerism and profitability are often prioritized over sustainability and ethical practices. It's refreshing to see entrepreneurs who are committed to making a positive impact on the planet. 

Tristan Lecomte, a serial social entrepreneur and pioneer in supply chain sustainability and climate change, is leading the way toward a more renewable future. Recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine, he shares his insights and adventures from selling Fair Trade products at Alter Eco to planting trees to offset carbon footprint at PUR Projet and cleaning up ocean plastic with Second Life

In this episode of The Founder Spirit, we'll delve deeper into Tristan's entrepreneurial journey and explore the challenges he faced while working with smallholder farmers around the world and tackling ocean plastic waste. We will also examine his belief in the importance of developing a collective consciousness towards simplicity and sustainability as the key to solving the environmental crisis. TUNE IN & be inspired!


Tristan Lecomte, a serial social entrepreneur, is a pioneer in the fields of supply chain sustainability and climate change, a published author of five books, and a public figure in the environmental space. He has been recognized by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, The Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, and TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Tristan is the founder of Alter Eco, selling Fair Trade and organic products in France, US and Australia. He also founded PUR Projet, a certified B corporation that works with companies to achieve their net-zero climate goals through nature-based solutions. Since 2008, PUR Projet has developed over 60 projects in 40 countries that sequester CO2 through reforestation, agroforestry, conservation and regenerative agriculture, and was successfully acquired in October 2022. 

Tristan also co-founded the International Platform for Insetting, a business-led organization advocating for climate action at the source of global value chains. Most recently, Tristan launched his fourth venture, Second Life, a social enterprise focused on ocean plastics, waste recycling and recovery projects.

A passionate leader and visionary in sustainable development and environmental economics, Tristan currently sits on the board of PUR Projet, the Advisory Council, as well as the Nespresso Sustainability Advisory Board

He holds a Masters degree in Business Administration from HEC Paris, and oversees the PUR Farm in Northern Thailand.

Episode Transcript


[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi, everyone, thanks for listening to the Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with Founder Spirit ranging from social entrepreneurs, Tech founders to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges but also who they are as people and their human story. You can find us on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts, as well as our website at

Our guest today is Tristan Lecomte, a serial entrepreneur, a pioneer in the fields of supply chain sustainability and climate change, a published author of five books, and a public figure in the environmental space. He has been recognized by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, The Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, and TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Tristan is the founder of Alter Eco, selling Fair Trade and organic products in France, US and Australia. He also founded PUR Projet, a certified B corporation that works with companies to achieve their net-zero climate goals through nature-based solutions. Since 2008, PUR Projet has developed over 60 projects in 40 countries that sequester CO2 through reforestation, agroforestry, conservation and regenerative agriculture, and was successfully acquired in October 2022. 

Tristan also co-founded the International Platform for Insetting, a business-led organization advocating for climate action at the source of global value chains. Most recently, Tristan launched his fourth venture, Second Life, a social enterprise focused on ocean plastics, waste recycling and recovery projects.

A passionate leader and visionary in sustainable development and environmental economics, Tristan currently sits on the board of PUR Projet, the Advisory Council, as well as the Nespresso Sustainability Advisory Board

He holds a Masters degree in Business Administration from HEC Paris, and oversees the PUR Farm in Northern Thailand. 

Hello Tristan, welcome to the The Founder Spirit podcast! It’s great to have you with us today, and thank you for taking the time.

[02:31] Tristan Lecomte: Thank you, Jennifer, (I am) very happy to be with you.

[02:33] Jennifer: Tristan, growing up in a French military family, what was your life like as a child?

[02:39] Tristan: (I was) quite happy. I loved to go in nature on a bicycle. I spent days immersed in nature where you can create some adventures.

[02:47] Jennifer: I understand that Catholic faith and Christian values were also a large part of your upbringing, even though you evolved away from institutionalized religion later in life, but as a teenager you used to participate in these silent retreats at a French monastery, can you tell us about that experience?

[03:07] Tristan: Yeah, I've always been very inspired and humbled by the monks in a Benedictine monastery in France, where they decide to live as a community and to pray seven times a day. There is such beauty, purity when you listen to their chanting in the church at 5am. I like this kind of testimonial of devotion; it’s extreme, in a way, for us, but it's very inspiring because it shows that we can transcend our own limitations.

And in my life, they came back to me a few times, or I came to them and, for example, they invested in my company Alter Eco; we had our head office located in one Benedictine monastery. These people are very inspiring because they are away from society, but actually they see society with very clear eyes, because they are not immersed in society, so it's very interesting to exchange with them.

[03:57] Jennifer: It's interesting because while you were studying business in Paris, you started a student association in Nepal called Association Solidarity France Nepal, and you opened two schools there. What prompted you to do something like that?

[04:13] Tristan: This was with my two best friends, it was 29 years ago. Next year, we're going to celebrate the 30 years of Solidarity France Nepal. This NGO, which remained a student NGO, where every year about 40-50 students go in the field in Nepal, in rural areas, to do latrines or improve cooking stoves or English class, whatever the villagers need. I'm going there next week, actually.

The idea was to develop a project that would be both useful and as part of the curriculum. By serendipity we went to a library, we found a book on Nepal rural development. We photocopied the last pages where there were names of service providers for development. We sent letters saying, if we get some money from a company, would you help us implement a project in the village? And one responded by letter. At that time, there was no email, and we received a grant from a French company at that time of 10-20,000 French Francs, so like $3,000. 

We left with my two best friends and landed in Kathmandu in a totally new environment. I was feeling lost with the money in our pocket and thinking, what are we going to do? It's crazy. But it was an amazing experience because it was entrepreneurial, and we did the mission in the village. 

At the end of this mission, when we came back, we said, okay, let's give the association to the students of the next year. Like that, every year for 30 years, it has been passed to the next ones. 

What I find interesting is that many of the students who went with this NGO later on, I hired them in my company, or they were working for other NGOs. So it's a great catalyzer for students who want to have an experience. It's both entrepreneurial and it has a great impact to make people aware that they can have a different type of job and that they can create their own job or be social entrepreneur(s). 

For my case at least, this was the trigger. Because after that, when I went to work for (a) multinational, I remembered that experience and I felt, well, it's possible with Nepal, that I can be an entrepreneur, I can live from that maybe, and be useful for the world. Today it's more and more the case, especially in Europe. So, yeah, that was originally the motivation, just to do a project and to enjoy with my two best friends.

[06:24] Jennifer: So you had never been to Nepal before?

[06:26] Tristan: No, I had never traveled outside of Europe. I remember the culture shock and we were doing this negotiation with the service providers we had selected to see, okay, where are we going to do, which village, what kind of training? 

It was a lot of responsibility, but I had taken the leap and so by doing this project I had developed my skills much beyond what I could do in any other part of my studies. And this is what I still believe, like when you're passionate about what you're doing, you develop your capacities much beyond what you would do in a normal company, where you are just asked to do your business as usual, more or less. 

[07:03] Jennifer: Sure, because you're constantly challenged with just doing everything, which is most of the case. 

Upon graduation, you worked for L'Oreal in South Korea, which is a large French multinational. What was your motivation to start Alter Eco two years after joining that company? I believe you were in your mid-20s.

[07:26] Tristan: I felt I needed more purpose, and I remembered that experience in Nepal and so I thought I need(ed) to quit L'Oreal and start my own company. 

That's when, by chance, my sister had given me an article and I discovered Fair Trade and I thought, wow, it's great, and there is a lot I can bring in terms of marketing, in terms of a more professional approach to develop a network of shops. That's how I started but with no experience.

[07:51] Jennifer: I'm guessing that's around 1998, which is when companies, at least in the US, like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, had really started to grow. What promises did you see in selling these Fair Trade products?

[08:05] Tristan: The idea was to talk about Fair Trade, which was very unknown in France in ‘98. I think the awareness about Fair Trade was around 2-5% at that time, it was really only some hardliners or very engaged people who had heard about it. 

It was a whole story to talk about what are the conditions of international trade, especially who are the small farmers, how many people do they represent? And finding out that more than half of the population is actually a small farmer who has 1 hectare of cultivated land and who earns $500 per year. With his family, he represents 4 billion people. It's most of the products we consume in the supermarket; so to give just a little bit more makes a big change. 

It was more developed in Holland, in northern Europe, and in Switzerland, for example, in the US, not at all, even less (than) in Europe, so we did all this advocacy. Then there were people against selling Fair Trade in supermarkets. I tried to sell it in shops, but my shops didn't work; I tried it on a website, but it didn't work as well. So I went to sell these products like coffee, tea, chocolate in supermarkets, where there was big demand, because that's where most people do their shopping.

Once we proposed (these) everyday goods to consumers with a good price, good quality, (and) certification, they really liked it. And then the market developed, so it was very inspiring to see that we could make a change in the middle of the shelves of the supermarkets, which were totally controlled by multinationals. When you look at the coffee, it's crazy - there is no coffee(-producing) country which has its own brand present in the supermarkets. It tells a lot about the kind of neo-colonialism there is in international trade and in the brands today. 

To give a place to the small scale farmers to say we respect the big brands, but let's give a space at least like 1 meter for all the small scale farmers who can sell their products through a brand that is defending their values and their stake, even though it's not enough, because what we could give with Fair Trade was very limited, it was like 10% or 20% more. If you earn $500 a year, it means you're going to earn $600. It's not going to change your life, it’s just going to be a small thing, and this is what we discovered. 

With Fair Trade, we don't really change the life of farmers, we bring hope by the sense that we help this collective dynamic, and by helping them to gather as a cooperative and to strengthen them, because a part of the premium is invested collectively in school or road or equipment or whatever the farmers want because they decide, how they use this premium. This premium brings back hope and a vision of development for the future.

I would say Fair Trade really brings this hope and this change of culture, progressively, otherwise the added value remains quite limited, unfortunately. That was what I discovered along the years.

[10:58] Jennifer: How did you secure the deal with Monoprix, the large French retailer?

[11:04] Tristan: Actually, I was ready to sell more Fair Trade craftwork product(s), when Monoprix called me back and said, we are interested by Alter Eco, but we would like food products. So I had selected a range of chocolates from Peru, coffees from South America and Africa. 

And they took the range of products, and they tried it under our brand, and it was a success, we had great sales from the beginning. From there, the year after, we expanded to other retailers, and then progressively, we entered all the main retailers in France, so the company grew to $30 million (in sales) in less than 3-5 years. At the same time, we launched in the US and in Australia.

[11:46] Jennifer: You had expanded your product categories of different products and you were importing tea from India, sugar from the Philippines, rice from Thailand. What were some of your growing pains during this period?

[12:00] Tristan: A lot of pain, a lot of issues to manage the stock, not to have too much, not to have the chocolates melting in the containers, not to have some destruction on the delivery to the supermarkets. 

We were doing huge promotion(s), there was a Fair Trade week during which we were doing 30% of our yearly sales, but it was a big logistics mess. We had overworked the team, so we had some burnout - all the issues of being a startup in the field of food products. 

When you're a supplier of mass retail, it's a nightmare honestly, a lot of pressure. We had to pay in advance (for) the product because we were pre-financing, that was part of the Fair Trade rules. We were paid quite late by the supermarkets, so we need(ed) a lot of cash flow to run the company. 

We had many constraints - we had to pay a higher price, but we had to sell at a similar price to consumers, otherwise it's very hard to gain market shares. We had to be the best in each category - we had great chocolates, the consumers know when the products are better. Some products were more difficult, like orange juice is very complicated to make with good quality, so we experienced a lot.

[13:06] Jennifer: Alter Eco was in many ways not just an importer or distributor, but it was also a development company, and you worked very closely to help these smallholder farmers to get certified by Fair Trade, so that they can get a better price for their own products. 

As a result, you ended up traveling around the world to visit these cooperatives, from the far ends of Amazon to corners in Africa and Southeast Asia. You stayed with them in some of the most remote places in the world and perhaps the poorest communities, yet you had this amazing experience. Can you tell us about some of your adventures in your world travels with these people?

[13:53] Tristan: Yeah, thank you to mention it, because it's true it has been the driver of my motivation to work for and with these small scale farmers, because everywhere in the world I've been amazed by the message of hope they give,  how inspiring they are and how humble. 

They have so many values to share and to incarnate, especially in the co-ops we worked with, there (are) always a few leaders who are very inspiring and working a lot, not only at their own farm level, but for the community, for the co-op. They are usually the president or the vice president of the co-op, and it's with them that I've learned a lot. 

They are really local leaders, and usually with them we spend a lot of time, they go everywhere with us, they don't count their time. So it’s after 10 or 20 years of developing projects, and this is a good thing, both with Alter Eco and PUR Projet that we do very long-term projects. 

So I've come to know generations of people, young people who now work in our organization, or knowing them when they were a kid, and now they are an adult. There is a long interaction which I find very interesting. Indeed, for about 20 years, I spent half of my time traveling and staying often at the farmer’s house. 

It started one day in Togo when I was interviewing a farmer. At the end of the interview, he said, oh, why don't you stay at my home? And I said, okay, I stay. I remember his name was Kofi, and he was a pineapple farmer in Togo. We were buying his dried pineapple and he had many kids, but he let me sleep there, and I was honored.

From there, when the guys of the co-op left, he told me, oh, I'm going to show you everything now, tell you all the truth of my real business, what I'm telling, what I'm not telling. I found, wow, not only it's an amazing human experience, but as well, I go over on the other side of understanding the real life of this person. 

From there I thought, I'm going to always stay at the farmer’s place if they accept it, usually they're very happy and the conditions are quite rustic, but it's incomparable because then the relation with these farmers have changed when I've slept 10 or 15 times at their home.

In each cooperative or project where we've been traveling, I've always tried to go back to sleep at least one night in one village where I go back every year so that I can see the evolution of the impact of what we are doing or not. Whereas if you always change, you just see a picture of a farmer at one stage, but you cannot see the evolution; I think it's very important to set the project in time and to have a baseline. 

In Papua New Guinea, I remember the first time I went there and I would go back several times to see how we generate impact on that.

[16:23] Jennifer: And what things did you see? What change had you experienced?

[16:27] Tristan: In some cases, for example, Mr. Punchibandai in Sri Lanka he had only 0.37 hectare of tea and now he has almost 1 hectare of teas and of spices combined in agroforestry models, where he has access to water close from his house.  The cooperative comes to pick up his tea leaves when he harvests them and gives him a better price. His wife is doing some weaving as a complementary revenue. So the Fair Trade and organic certification of the product has helped him to double his revenues. 

The most interesting thing is the hope and vision and dynamics that the cooperative (instill) with the groups of farmers because they are proud of their cooperative and thanks to their cooperatives, they export their product, some visitors come from companies, they have a better price, they trust the future better. And from there they can start to diversify with other programs, eventually other sustainability programs, this is what works in Sri Lanka. 

In Peru, it's one of the projects I'm the most proud about, where I started PUR Projet because I started to plant trees to offset (the) carbon footprint of Alter Eco products with the suppliers of cocoa. We had the farmers plant 5 million trees and as well to protect an area of 800,000 hectares as forest conservation, which is now part of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - over 2.4 million hectares. 

So from a small Fair Trade company like Alter Eco, we developed, with PUR Projet, a regional project that has international ambition registered at the UNESCO World Heritage, both for its natural and cultural heritage. We have this amazing project that has developed to a very large scale from just the engagement of a few farmers and myself to offset the chocolate. 

It's typically where I find it inspiring to see the complementarity. For example, in this area there were coca farmers for cocaine production in the 80s, it was a red zone, only the army could go in because it was controlled by narco traffickers, Colombian ones. The Peruvian farmers were earning a bit with the leaves but the area was not safe and they really wanted to change their life. There was a program where they eradicated coca with a fungus, so it's an American joint program with USAID. There was a substitution program to bring them, for example, cocoa and coffee, which worked well, so they became cocoa and coffee farmers. 

From there they gathered as a cooperative, they got organic and Fair Trade certified. We started to buy their cocoa and then plant trees with them and to carbon certify them for the reforestation project, and now forest conservation. So they went from coca production, where it's hell, to organic, Fair Trade, carbon-neutral projects and now a UNESCO Biosphere vetted by the Peruvian government as a model of sustainable development. 

I think it's very interesting to see this evolution and it's exactly this dynamics that we want to create with PUR Projet at a regional level, because what we need today is to protect forest in collaboration with local farmers. 

We see a complementarity from organic to Fair Trade to carbon offsetting. It's different mechanisms that help the farmers to better regenerate their ecosystem and generate ecosystem services for the companies and for the world, for all of us.

[19:50] Jennifer: You said with Alter Eco, there was always an issue with the working capital, because you were paying the cooperatives first and then you would only get the money later from the supermarket, so that required large amounts of working capital, the margins weren't so big for you, how was the fundraising for Alter Eco as a result of this large working capital need?

[20:17] Tristan: We had a lot of press and were supported by the media. I was coming from HEC (a top French business school) and launching Fair Trade, so it was a peculiar story at that time because social entrepreneurship was not a reality. 

Because we were supported by the media, I got a lot of traction from investors. I had 70 investors, small ones, institutional ones like private equity funds in the field of agricultural sector, innovation, and even the monks who had their investment fund. 

And so I had these 70 investors. It's a bit tricky because when the company goes well, it's fine, but when you have problems, then you have both problems outside and inside the company to try to explain why it's not working well, etc. So that was a challenge.

The problem with Alter Eco is that when you do EUR 30 million sales and you sell to mass retail, you're too small to really weigh anything. And so you're dependent on their conditions - every year there is one supermarket that is kicking you out for a few cents that you don't want to give. Then you do maybe EUR 200 million sales, then you can support the pressure of mass retail, especially in France it's very concentrated, you have five or six supermarket chains who control 90% of the market, so it was very tough. 

The idea was great and the demand for Fair Trade was there for sure, but we were too small to continue like that, while the supermarkets saw that these products were selling, then they wanted to sell under their own brand.

[21:45] Jennifer: By 2010, Alter Eco France had contracted directly with 50 cooperatives from over 30 different countries. Yet in 2011, you left the company that you founded 13 years earlier to start PUR Projet. Can you tell us what happened there?

[22:03] Tristan: It was the moment to give Alter Eco to a bigger company that could defend it in front of the retail supermarket chains, which were very powerful. So we sold the company to Bjorg Distriborg, which was the biggest European brand of organic and Fair Trade products. The idea was to have Alter Eco develop to a wider extent by a bigger player. 

I think when you're a brand like that, there is a moment where you could continue to develop by yourself, but it's going to be very hard. I think I did my share of launching it and then it was time for a bigger company to make it more mature and stabilize its market shares in the supermarkets with a big sales force. So that's what we did, and then I focused only on PUR Projet from 2008-2009 on.

[22:51] Jennifer: What were some of the lessons learned from Alter Eco? 

[22:55] Tristan: I'm very averse to any business model that involves buying and selling products. I believe much more in asset-light models that sell services, I believe in a business that is cash flow positive, you get paid before you have to spend the money to do the project because then you will never need an investor, you never touch products. 

Because when you have a product, it’s a lot of material to transport and customs and shelf life and a lot of issues, quality issues. I believe a lot more in cash flow positive services, and selling mostly to businesses because it's much easier to develop, so that's the lesson I learned from Alter Eco. 

But I was lucky that PUR Projet came where all my problems were resolved - there was no more product, the clients were very nice. We are not discussing prices like the mass retailer because when it's a big brand and they buy trees, it's not the same negotiation. 

We were cash flow positive - so I started with EUR 100 PUR Projet and never had to ask any debt or investor. I remained fully on board and in capacity to orient the company as I wanted. It was significant margins against Alter Eco, which was low margin, so it was all solved.

And it’s funny because I help some entrepreneurs these days and sometimes it's too late, they already chose what they want to do and they are passionate, but otherwise I try to make them aware of that - be careful of the model which requires a lot of investment, which are cash flow negative, which involve products or B2C. 

B2C often seems to be the easy thing, but actually, usually it's the hardest. With Alter Eco for 5 years, we didn't succeed. And it's when you have many issues that you learn the most, I guess.

[24:39] Jennifer: I think it's also where you grow personally the most is through these difficulties. Can you tell us what PUR Projet does and how you came up with doing projects while you were working in parallel at Alter Eco?

[25:54] Tristan: Yes, so for Alter Eco, we started to plant trees with our suppliers of cocoa in Peru in a small village called Santa Rosa. We planted 5,000 trees and an agroforestry model combining these trees with cocoa trees. 

When I talked about it at a conference, someone from Nestle came to me and said oh, could you do it for us to offset the footprint of water bottles, both at Perrier and at Vittel watershed areas, but as well (as) in Peru to generate volume and to offset the carbon footprint of these products. And so that's how I started PUR Projet by total serendipity.

When I planted these trees for Alter Eco, I never thought it would become a company to do it for others, and since then we've specialized in planting trees, forest conservation or regenerative agriculture projects within the supply chain of companies to help them offset their footprint.

Since it's inside their company, we call it insetting because it is transformative of the agricultural practices of the supply chain where they source their products from and it can be now regarded as a carbon reduction; not only an offset, because it means companies can put that within their reduction target. Today, many companies are looking for ways to reduce their footprint. Planting trees, because it's removal, is accepted as a methodology to reach net-zero. 

The framework for companies to engage for climate, usually you have to reduce your emission by 80%, thanks to this SBTi, science-based target initiative, which aligns the company with the Paris Agreement. And to do this reduction, you have to do it within your own value chain, and the rest that you can't reduce, you have to offset it, ideally again, within your value chain. So what we developed with Alter Eco first and then with PUR Projet became what is now the norm or the Holy Grail for companies who want to have a legitimate transformative carbon approach, so it has been an amazing endeavor.

I started it because I love nature and I wanted Alter Eco to have the perfect product, Fair Trade, organic and carbon-neutral. It turned out to become a company which, 15 years after, is aligned with the most qualitative carbon project. I feel very blessed to see the evolution, with Fair Trade - we started from only a hardliner market and nobody knows about it, to now, it's a bit integrated in the society. It's not yet what we dreamed about, but it's a start. 

With PUR Projet as well, it's only a few companies who have engaged for now, mostly B2C large brands. It's a pity that there is all this debate about greenwashing and that when a company does something, it's like scrutiny. But it's very encouraging to see the acceleration that has happened since I started PUR Projet in 2008. 

Who would think that insetting would become the norm? Whereas at that time, I remember when we found this pun of insetting, it was with someone from Fair Trade International, I came back to the office and I said, oh, we should call our offer insetting. Everybody was laughing, like, it's so funny, you're a joker. Now it's really how we call integrated offsetting within the value chain, so it's very inspiring.

[28:05] Jennifer: I just want to mention that you actually gave birth to the concept of insetting, it's different from offsetting because you're working within the supply chain of the companies.

[28:15] Tristan: With PUR Projet, we were definitely the first ones to implement it at large scale, because what we do is mostly insetting within the supply chains of cocoa and coffee farmers. We work with the biggest players in coffee and cocoa, both in West Africa and in South America, in Asia as well, that's where we find most of the coffee and cocoa supply chains. 

The cocoa sector is quite small, 80% of the cocoa is produced in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Because the major players have realized that if they don't do anything for cocoa to turn it into agroforestry, there won't be cocoa in the future. By addressing two countries, we can address 80% of the market, so there is an amazing dynamics happening there.

Maybe we're going to turn cocoa into 100% agroforestry or shade grown commodity, which would be a first, we could then apply to coffee, which is a much bigger market. But it gives hope that we can go from one commodity to another and progressively turn them fully agroforestry to make them more resilient to generate ecosystem services, to sequester carbon, help them to better adapt to climate change, enrich the soil/biodiversity/water resources, and diversify the revenues of the farmers. 

This is the main thing we discovered with PUR Projet; originally I was planting the tree to offset the carbon footprint of the chocolate, but I realized, wow, the benefits are holistic, much beyond just sequestering carbon, on soil/water/biodiversity, farmers' revenue. The trees are the best investment you can make today to foster socio-economic development and to make the supply chains resilient. 

Especially when we talk about coffee and cocoa, because these two crops are actually forestry species. When you go at the origin of coffee in Ethiopia or the origin of cocoa in Peru, these trees are found in the forest, so they need shade, and they are very well-adapted to agroforestry for that reason.

[30:10] Jennifer: In October last year, PUR Projet was actually acquired by Bregal Investments, which is a large international private equity group. Why did you decide to sell when things were going so well? I mean, you started the company with $100, you had no investors, not even the monks were allowed to invest in PUR Projet. Why did you decide to sell?

[30:30] Tristan: It was a decision we took with the whole management team because we were becoming what everybody wants to do. We have calls everyday at PUR Projet of companies asking, do you have more agroforestry carbon? We are sold out for three years already, we have so many opportunities that we have to pass because we don't have any money to pre-finance. 

It's, again, this issue of cash flow, so we are cash flow positive, but we can only invest in trees if the client starts upfront to pay us, and it takes the risk over 40 years that the carbon will be delivered. The idea (is) to have investors coming in to be able to transition towards tech, integrate a lot of tech like remote sensing, and to calculate the stock of carbon. As you know in the carbon sphere today, we use methodologies which are good, but made with measuring the trees at breast height in the field, which is a very time consuming and not always the most precise way to calculate the stock of carbon per hectare. 

Now, thanks to satellites, laser guns and various tools, we are assessing how we're going to be able to monitor all this carbon that we generate, thanks to planting trees or conserving forests or doing RegAg (regenerative agriculture) with the farmers. So we have this shift where we need a lot of investment, thanks to these new tools, we're going to manage the carbon in the scope 3 of companies at their supplier level. 

That's how our work is going to change, we're not just going to do projects, we're going to do a monitoring of all these fields where these companies buy their products from to see what is the level of carbon, of biodiversity, of the soil qualities, the water resources, the farmers revenue. There is a lot we can do to help to generate impact there. So, for this reason, we needed an investor to pre-finance many more trees to answer the demand, because what we need is a revolution. 

Everyday, 10 million trees are cut; with PUR Projet, we planted 20 million trees in 14 years. So we need to have many PUR Projet startups developing not only in the field of climate, but as well (as) in the field of biodiversity, plastic, soil, water, (and) culture. This is how I see it and this is why we decided to sell PUR Projet to Bregal because now it needs expansion.

The market is already merging and different players got together and we believe a lot to unite the forces between investors, social enterprises, companies, to scale. There is a lot of destruction still happening; so forest conservation is part of our project but it’s very tricky; it’s the way we go now towards very large-scale projects. 

We see that in the field of NGOs, they have more and more difficulty to fund themselves with grants because companies want to do the job within their value chain, and want to have service providers like us who help them to integrate it. For example, Nespresso already has more than 800 people working in the field supporting the 50,000 farmers that are supplying them with coffee, with training program that exists for 20 years now or more on the quality, on the sustainability and on the productivity of the farms. 

When we develop tree planting projects, we work with these 800 agronomists who are already supporting the suppliers of Nespresso and we see that our work is really to integrate the regenerative agriculture project within the model of the companies. The companies have more and more agricultural departments where they have programs to improve the conditions, so we are really an integrator of solutions within the company. 

That's the vision we have of insetting, not only the project within your value chain, but how it's going to be transformative of the values of the company because it's going to be undertaken by the company itself. They will still need us for having a third-party saying yes, there is this amount of carbon that is stored or this benefit that has been being   generated, but it's really within their responsibility. 

It's like for recycling, it's what is called extended producer responsibility. I think the producer responsibility is going to be extended towards climate. It's already going on, but as well (as) soil, water, biodiversity, social, livelihood, the impact on culture, plastics. Progressively, the companies will have to internalize the externalities to reconcile with nature and society, or they will disappear.

Each of us, I think that we are invited to reconcile with all these dimensions of ourselves and of our relation with others and with nature. This is a necessary progression and I think we're going to go in this direction.

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[36:42] Jennifer: While you're at PUR Projet, you also co-founded your third startup which is called Second Life. It's a social enterprise dedicated to developing circular plastic waste supply chains and you co-founded it with the founders of the French cosmetics company Caudalie. Can you tell us the story behind the creation of Second Life?

[37:04] Tristan: Yeah, again, it's kind of serendipity. Caudalie is a big partner of PUR Projet, we planted more than 10 million trees for them. They are part of the 1% for the planet, they give 1% of their sales to planting trees. The founders are quite sensitive to the fact that they are using plastic for their cosmetic products, they had seen, in particular in Asia, in the sea, a lot of plastic floating, marine debris. 

They asked me what can we do? I started to make a study in Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and then COVID happened, so I was stuck in Thailand and I decided to start to help a small recycling center on the shore of Ranong on the coast of Thailand - a very nice project developed by a Swiss NGO called Jan & Oscar where they were helping the fishermen and the islanders to collect, transport and recycle plastic. 

So from there I developed a model of plastic credit in the same way as a carbon credit to help these collectors in remote coastal areas to collect plastic, especially during the monsoon, there is a lot coming from Indonesia, India, Burma, that the islanders are not in capacity to transport and to recycle because the price is not there. Usually they burn it, or landfill it. By giving a price for it, they can collect it, transport it and then with partnership with a regional recycler, ensure that this plastic is being recycled into pellets to produce new bottles.

We started Second Life 3 years ago and it developed very well with Caudalie, and other companies like Clarins, which is another famous cosmetic company engaged in reducing their plastic but as well (as) extending their producer responsibility beyond what they're already paying in Europe. But the idea was to go in countries such as Thailand, and with Second Life, the first project to be Verra-certified in the world. So Verra developed the carbon standard for carbon offsetting and developed a standard for plastic.

We're really generating an impact that is additional, meaning collecting the plastic that otherwise would be burned in the open air or landfill or left in the ocean. Usually the people who collect on the beach are among the poorest, and this is where I found always my legitimacy is to work with groups of disadvantaged communities, whether with Alter Eco or with PUR Projet or with Second Life, because companies have difficulty to work with (the) informal sector, but it’s exactly where we bring an added value.

For Second Life, for example, we ensure that the money that is given by Caudalie or Clarins to collect and recycle the plastic goes to the community, to the guy on the beach. This is what we do to make the circular supply chain work, but at the very grassroots level.

This (is) the backbone of my projects, to work with small-scale farmers or disadvantaged communities and to connect them with big companies who want to generate an impact and who don't know how to connect to this other side of the world. It has been my specialty. 

The limit of what we're doing is that we work at the end of the chain when everything has failed before. There was always this debate of are you helping to greenwash the companies and to help them to continue to dump product or plastic on the market. Indeed, I was always working at the end of the chain and more on the consequences.  

The cause would be to work on reducing, avoiding the use of plastic, buying directly from the farmer, and not emitting any CO2 instead of having to plant a tree for offsetting it. I've always been, of course, very sensitive to this cause to go upstream, but because I've always been focused on grassroot communities, I've always been at the end of the chain to develop a solution that helps them and that helps to compensate (for) the problem. So now I want to work at the origin of the problem.

[40:48] Jennifer: Your 2025 goal, according to the website of Second Life, is to recover and recycle ocean plastics on all islands and coastal areas in Thailand. How do you plan to achieve that? And is this an achievable goal for you? That's two years from now. 

[41:07] Tristan: Today we are at 2,000 tons per year of ocean waste collected on beaches. We've proven that we can scale at the production level, we basically pay double the price to the collectors, and we give a price to the plastic that is non-recyclable, that doesn't have a value. 

When you do that, everybody wants to collect the plastic on the beach because you give a value to something that had no value or little value. The only bottleneck today for us is to find more clients. That's why we are focusing on finding a few multinationals that can help us achieve our goals. The evaluation we did on all the remote coastal areas and islands of Thailand, we estimate we could collect 50,000 tons per year, for that we just need more clients, so it’s totally achievable.

What we realize with development stakes, it's often not so much a question of money, but more a question of network and set up. How do you reach out to the people who need to be helped?

[42:03] Jennifer: What do you do with non-recyclable plastic?

[42:06] Tristan: There is indeed about 20% of the plastic that we collect that is too dirty to be recycled. In this case, we mix them with biomass and they are sold as RDF, refuse-derived fuel, a combustible for cement and an electric power company in Thailand to generate electricity. 

So in this case, they are not recycled, but they generate an environmental benefit because we reduce the use of virgin oil to do this electricity or this cement. We have funded a small factory for land plastics in Chiang Mai, where we transform non-recyclable plastics into pavement blocks (and) public benches. 

[42:46] Jennifer: where are you looking to expand?

[42:48] Tristan: We support a project in Indonesia and another one in Vietnam. We think we're going to stay in Asia because 80% of the 13 million tons of plastics that go in the ocean each year come from Asia, so it's really an Asian problem. 

Our idea is to develop the model at the national level in Thailand and then indeed to develop it in the same way in Indonesia and other countries. I'm very interested to bring a systemic approach to a problem, otherwise what we do is greenwashing. We are condemned to find a solution at large scale, go big or go home.

[43:22] Jennifer: You had mentioned that you're now working at the source of the problem. Now is there a better way to build a systemic model? 

[43:30] Tristan: When you see the Paris agreement, we have to reduce our footprint by 80-90%. With COVID we've screamed, but we reduced it by 4 or 5% only, so imagine the change we have to make in our life to reach (the) Paris Agreement at an individual level.

To reduce by 80 or 90%, whether we impose very restrictive laws or we decide to change by ourselves, and for that, it has to be a consciousness change from the inside, not to consume, not to travel by choice. To me, yes, to work on the cause, it's to work on the internal drivers of change, so we can call it consciousness. 

Because I believe we're not going to solve the problem with a packet of Fair Trade coffee or a tree or a kilo of plastic collected on the beach. It's great to do it, but as long as we continue to want to consume so much and develop so much and if we are 9 billion (people), and if we all eat beef 2-3 times a day at McDonald's, it's over. There is no more forest, that's for sure. 

We really have to make a big shift; I believe this shift will come from the inside because the issues we see on the outside are the manifestation of our dis-balance inside. But then the question is how do we help the consciousness change? How do we do it? How do we do it in an inviting way? I'm very interested to explore and I believe that the future of social enterprise(s) will be about this kind of companies which will help us to shift from the inside. 

With climate change, we are confronted with the end of human life on the planet, more or less, when you read the IPCC report, it's the end, except (for) a few billionaires. This calls for deep work on our consciousness. And how do we relate to that? Because when I ask my son how he sees the future he says it's going to be a dystopia. So how do you live with that? How do you stay happy, how do you stay hopeful? 

For me it's very important. This is what we can bring with this new kind of social entrepreneurship which will be about spirituality or well-being, about experiencing, maybe cross-disciplinary approaches like going in the forest, dancing, expressing yourself with art. 

I don't have the solution yet, but I believe it's going to come. And we can observe already that it's coming, for example, intermittent fasting, self-development activities such as yoga. Society is going more towards being rather than having, and enjoying more with less. This movement is already underway and it's going to be the next evolution. I see that among the people who are engaged in sustainability, this trend is very strong. 

This is how we transform society. I've seen it evolving before with Fair Trade, with organics and it's coming. So it's like a Maslow pyramid - for now it touches only Europeans, but progressively as well Americans, rich countries and later on, developing countries. 

[46:26] Jennifer: Well, the movement that you're talking about, we call it SBNR spiritual but not religious, it's the fastest growing non-religion in the world. 

Speaking of your second life, you've adopted more of an Eastern philosophy now and among other things, you followed the teaching of Theravada Buddhism. Can you tell us what it is and can you share with us some of the learnings? 

[46:50] Tristan: Theravada Buddhism is what is practiced in Thailand, and I'm particularly sensitive to a tradition called the tradition of the forest. The forest monks base their teaching and their learning by staying in long periods in the forest (for) several years. Because the Buddha found enlightenment in the forest under a tree. And the teachings of the Buddha are translated as the laws of nature in Thai. 

The forest monk will basically invite you to go in the forest and to observe nature, and to realize, for example, non-self, interdependence, impermanence, suffering, all these key principle(s) of Buddhism. 

I like the fact that this teaching is based on observing nature and very simple. It's not a dogmatic teaching because you have to experience it by yourself to believe in it. This is one of the strong principle(s) of the Buddha, like don't believe in anything that I tell you until you experience it yourself. 

I was brought up in a Christian family and I practiced, but I had a bit (of) this love and hate relation with Christianity because there were very strict rules and I like to break the rules or to question the rules, especially (for) a social entrepreneur, we want to change something. 

I really enjoy in Theravada Buddhism this freedom of believing only in what you believe because you have experienced it. This spirituality is very much aligned with what I'm doing as work, because I'm doing reforestation with PUR Projet. I found it interesting to see these two lines between spirituality and work more and more intertwined. And I think spirituality will be a key element to help companies become more sustainable or reconcile with their purpose.

[48:34] Jennifer: I would agree with you on that 100%. Something else that you do on a regular basis is called contact improvisation. To the best of my knowledge, it's a form of improvised dancing that you do with a partner. Can you tell us what it is and why you do it?

[48:52] Tristan: Yeah, it's a great exploration. Contact improvisation started in the US in the ‘70s by contemporary dancers who were mixing it with aikido (a Japanese martial art form) based on the contact of two people. Contact is one of the senses that we should use, but unfortunately we've lost a bit of its use. 

The idea is to rediscover this sense by dancing together in groups of two or more people in free form, to let your body talk and to leave your mind aside. I really like it because it's a dance and a meditation, which is great for the body, for the mind and the spirit. It's practiced with a group of people where there is trust, to do what is called authentic presence and to be in noble silence, to be nature rather than to look at nature. 

Because it's by being nature that we realize our divine nature, where we are fully connected, we are one with nature, there is no separation. It's very powerful to experience that with other people via these practices.

[49:51] Jennifer: Interesting. In our quest to reduce carbon by 80% by 2050, what do you think we could do as individuals related to climate mitigation?

[50:06] Tristan: Personally, at our own level, we can reduce our consumption like transport and meat consumption.

According to Paul Hawken, who has written Climate Drawdown where he lists 100 solutions for climate, he says that it's at the community level that we can have the biggest lever of reducing our footprint and then collectively or at the national level or international. But we can offset, we can reduce our footprint and offset. I don't believe there (are) many people who are offsetting their footprint today and very few companies. 

But it's basically what we need to do on climate, biodiversity, soil, water, livelihood, so it's a whole journey that we are just at the start today. We have to reconcile with nature and evaluate our footprint for each indicator and then we have to offset it, to balance with nature. The best way being to reduce and to avoid to consumer anything we can. 

[50:58] Jennifer: Tristan, we're soon coming to the end of this episode, tell us what your favorite books are over the years, besides your own, of course.

[51:06] Tristan: So, I love the Revolution of (One) Straw by Masanobu Fukuoka, it’s from 1973. It's agronomic and philosophical, it’s the ancestor of permaculture and it's so beautiful. He already tells all the problems that we're going to create with intensive agriculture.

There is a book from (E.F.) Schumacher “Small is Beautiful”, written as well in 1973, and it’s very visionary of what's going to happen.

And otherwise, I love the autobiography from Gandhi or Bhagavad Gita, it’s an Indian sacred text. Bhagavad Gita is very interesting, it's very much the principle that drives entrepreneur(s) and in particular social entrepreneur(s) - to work without thinking of the benefits that come to us because it's very liberating, empowering.

[51:56] Jennifer: And where can people find you, your books, Second Life and the International Platform for Insettings online?

[52:01] Tristan: So to find Second Life; for the books, it's on Amazon; and for PUR Projet,; and IPI, the insetting platform,

[52:16] Jennifer: And what about you? Where can they find you?

[52:18] Tristan: On LinkedIn or…

[52:20] Jennifer: In the forest or the next contact improv performance festival.

[52:25] Tristan: Exactly, exactly.

[52:27] Jennifer: Last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?

[52:31] Tristan: Founder Spirit, it's an explorer, it's breaking the rules and it's a spirit, so it's beautiful. Everybody has it and everybody would like to be a founder of something in his life. I really encourage everybody to try because it's the most beautiful thing you (can) do, and there is no way back and you can't fail. 

Maybe you found(ed) something that is working or not, but at least you can't regret. I never met a founder, who said I should never have done it. No, we are always happy even though we fail sometimes. That's the Founder Spirit, to want to create something different.

[53:04] Jennifer: We're now coming to the end of our interview. As we end every episode with a quote. For this episode, we have Tristan's favorite quote by Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and founder of Taoism. 

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” 

Tristan, I want to thank you for joining us today and taking us into your consciousness, as well as your journey as a successful social entrepreneur. Thanks for joining us!

[53:31] Tristan: Thank you very much, Jennifer.

[53:46] END OF AUDIO

Show Notes

(02:33) Tristan's Upbringing and Early Life

(03:57) Setting Up an NGO in Nepal

(08:05) Impact and Limitations of Fair Trade

(13:05) Tristan's World Travels with Alter Eco

(19:48) Fundraising for Alter Eco

(22:50) Lessons Learned from Alter Eco

(25:54) Founding of PUR Projet by Complete Serendipity

(28:15) Insetting - Offsetting Carbon Within Your Own Supply Chain

(30:30) Successful Exit to Bregal Investments to Further Scale PUR Projet

(37:04) The Creation Behind Second Life

(42:48) Working on the Internal Drivers of Change for a Sustainable Future

(46:49) Theravada Buddhism and Its Alignment with His Work

(48:53) Contact Improvisation & Why He Loves It 

(51:05) Tristan's Favorite Books

(52:31) What The Founder Spirit Means to Tristan

Social Media Links:

PUR Projet:

Second Life:

LinkedIn: Tristan Lecomte

Facebook: Tristan Lecomte

Twitter: Tristan Lecomte (@tlecomte)

Links Mentioned:

Tristan’s Books:  on (in French)

Tristan's Favorite Books:

- The One-Straw Revolution: Introduction to Natural Farming (by Masanobu Fukuoka)

- Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (by E.F. Schumacher)

- Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography: The Story Of My Experiments With Truth

- Bhagavad Gita

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