Like me, you probably saw a mysterious sticker in your friend's Instagram Stories last week that said “we’ll plant one tree for every pet picture” on top of a picture of their adorable dog. Unlike me, you are probably not an unemployed freelance journalist on the autism spectrum with too much time on your hands, a sick dog, and a compulsive habit of reaction “but how tho” to everything.
What followed was my 24-hour deep dive into a seemingly innocuous social media trend. What it revealed was a Gen Z long con: a scheme to sell dropshipped 20 cent necklaces, a “Airbnb of parking” app and a classic data grab. Behind it is Zack Saadioui, a 23-year-old computer tech grad in Florida.
After its sticker was shared around an estimated four million times, Plant A Tree Co – a company founded by Saadioui in 2019 – held their hands up and said they were responsible for the trend. On their Instagram account, they said that they could not possibly plant the millions of trees promised, but that it had started a fundraiser – currently hovering around £22,300 – to plant as many as possible.
Mainstream media coverage, including ABC News and NBC News, responded along the lines of: “it got out of hand, ha ha”, with some even going so far as to direct readers to the fundraiser. “We simply wanted to check out a new Instagram sticker and thought we’d use it in a fun way that can benefit the environment. So we made the post not really understanding how ‘Add Yours’ works,” Saadioui told VICE.
But according to Exposing Instagram Scams, an account that investigates suspect IG activity, Plant A Tree Co have a history of using the social media platform to run questionable fundraising since their inception. “Let me make one thing clear, the sole purpose of Plant A Tree Co is to profit off of their dropshipping website,” the account posted on Tuesday, adding that Plant A Tree Co has “threatened to dox and sue me” for writing about them. Saadioui denies this.
On Instagram, the company latch on to viral humanitarian and environmental causes, telling its audiences that it will donate a cent every time a specific post is reblogged on social media. Users are urged to share it to their own Stories, like it, comment on it and follow them to “do your part” for causes as varied as the Australian bushfires, elephant conservation and Palestine relief.
So where do the trees come in?
Plant A Tree Co claim to have planted 6,500 trees on its website, and that they plan to plant a million by the end of 2021. According to an archived page from the site, the figure was first published in 2020. A year on, it has stayed just as it was: 6,500 trees.
So how do you plant a tree through Plant A Tree Co? Here, things get even more confusing. “In order to achieve our goal of planting one million trees, we sell necklaces,” the website said at the time of writing. “Each necklace funds the planting of one tree.” When VICE initially reached out to Saadioui for comment, the necklaces retailed for $29.95, but were discounted to be free – minus shipping, which cost $8.95. All customers had to do is pay that, and the necklace was theirs and the tree planted.
This is a classic dropshipping tactic, the type Instagram is riddled with. Here’s how it works, as explained in a video on Saadioui uploaded to his own YouTube channel: “Dropshipping is basically selling products you don’t own. When a customer purchases a product from you, you simply order it from somewhere else for cheaper and ship it directly to your customer.”
On Alibaba, you can see necklaces that look suspiciously identical to the ones once sold by Plant A Tree Co – like its Good Luck, Good Vibes Only and Free Spirit charms – retailing in bulk for $0.52. In 2019, Saadioui was also doing something similar on Indiegogo, crowdfunding a $10 bracelet-cum-reusable drinking straw – one that bears a strong resemblance to a straw sold on Alibaba for 15 cents to $2.20 – and also promising to plant a tree for every item sold.
According to Trees For The Future, the nonprofit Plant A Tree Co claims to be fundraising money for, the cost of planting a tree, including training, seeds, and labour, is roughly 25 cents. Even excluding shipping costs, you would be able to plant a lot of trees if your inventory costs less than a dollar.
“Trees for the Future is not affiliated with Plant A Tree Co,” a spokesperson told VICE. “When the fundraiser came to our attention, we immediately reached out to the group asking them to clarify the nature of the fundraiser and we reported the post to Instagram.”
At least some of the trees planted by Plant A Tree Co did not previously appear to exist. In a 2019 Instagram Story detailing the trees it had supposedly planted around the world, the company posted a photo of people planting 150 of them in Toronto. The picture used was taken from a 2017 article about a Canadian whiskey company’s tree-planting exercise.
When asked for comment, Saadioui told VICE over Instagram DMs that the company use “basically the same process as 99 percent of the products on Amazon”. He added: “We have a fulfillment centre that packages the jewellery and adds labelling and branding, which comes at a cost. The necklace gets shipped out from the fulfilment centre.”
“We host fundraisers for charities we love, donate what we promise, and sell necklaces to fund our business. Where’s the scam?” He also pointed to a Plant A Tree Co profile on Eden Reforestation Projects, which states that the company has planted 6,500 trees.
But Saadioui and Plant A Tree Co isn’t just getting a discount on trees – they’re getting a discount on engagement. Engagement, as any Instagram influencer will tell you, is both incredibly expensive and valuable.
In a now-deleted video from his YouTube channel, Saadioui talks about the importance of using social media to drive customers towards your store: “In order to find an ideal niche for your e-commerce business, you’re going to want to find a broad niche with an interactive crowd or community […] They are very interactive and engage a lot on social media.” Elsewhere, he praises Buzzsumo, a platform that helps marketers track online trends: “It helps you find the most viral products or topics in social media at the moment.”
In the past, Plant A Tree Co has directed its following to Saadioui’s other venture, Parkr, an app that allows people to loan out spare parking space, Airbnb-style, and, somewhat troublingly, asks for the last four digits of people’s social security number during the sign-up process.
By promising a cent donated to that week’s trendy cause for every share, like, comment, and follow, Plant A Tree Co is actually cutting itself an incredibly good deal. But why does it need to attract all those followers? “Every repost gets us more views,” Plant A Tree Co says on its Instagram. “The more views we get, the more necklaces we sell. Necklace profits are then donated to the cause of the campaign.”
Saadioui told VICE that "100%" of all the profits from the jewellery are donated, but did not provide a breakdown of costs. If even one percent of the Plant A Co’s million-strong Instagram audience had bought a bracelet, they would receive 10,000 orders. And, as Saadioui puts it himself in his YouTube video, he makes $5,300 a month on generating passive income from moneymaking schemes like dropshipping. “It’s basically retail arbitrage, but it’s very scalable if you know what you’re doing.”
Tellingly, he then adds: “Without proper marketing, you will never succeed in this racket.”
Of course, the true villain, if you will, is Instagram. This story is the perfect microcosm of how greed collides with vapid, surface-level activism and misinformation on the platform.
As for Saadioui, he appears to have pulled a classic business pivot. As of writing, Plant A Tree Co updated its website to emphasise the money it has purportedly raised for various social justice causes, and has yanked the jewellery from sale.
Perhaps he can take solace in the wisdom proffered by one of his 52 cent necklaces, like the one named Karma: “What goes around, comes around.”