Tristan Lecomte

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2009
This description of Tristan Lecomte's work was prepared when Tristan Lecomte was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Tristan Lecomte is enabling companies and consumers to contribute to large-scale carbon reduction and is developing the market for carbon neutral products. Understanding that associated costs for traditional industries and the complexity of carbon markets hinder the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, Tristan has created a unique cycle integrating fair trade with the assessment, reduction, and offsetting of carbon emissions. By making this cycle accessible to all, he is both providing incentives for companies to be more competitive in reducing their carbon footprint and forcing carbon operators to be more effective and transparent in their practices.

The New Idea

After years of developing fair trade channels for organic produce around the world and pioneering the retail distribution of fair trade products in France, Tristan is now opening the market for carbon neutral products. While his cradle-to-grave approach to assess, reduce, and offset carbon emissions is initially costly for companies seeking to achieve the zero-carbon target (ZCT) label for their products, Tristan is leveraging powerful market incentives. The ZCT process dramatically reduces production costs and increases the perceived value in the eyes of customers. Tristan and his pioneering cooperative of Pure Project Entrepreneurs have already convinced major corporations and brands to go ZCT. This success is setting a benchmark in the market of carbon operators and is forcing other players to be more rigorous in their assessment of carbon emissions, to reduce before they offset, and to be more transparent in setting the price of carbon tons. The fluidity and effectiveness of carbon markets are improving rapidly. Carbon neutrality for mass-market consumer goods requires offsetting large-scale, transparent carbon emissions. This calls for direct ties to offsetting projects with an increased capacity to capture carbon effectively over the long-term. With a UN-certified partner specializing in reforestation, Sistemas de Circulación Ecológica or Ecological Cyclical Systems (SICIREC), Tristan leverages the reliability of fair trade cooperatives and the similarities between organic farming and creating forests to multiply high-quality, sustainable agro-forestry projects. In doing so, he is building carbon wells through a sustainable, concerted, and transparent co-development system, with high economic, social, and environmental returns. At their current performance, Tristans forest projects will have offset nearly 30 million tons of carbon by 2013. They are setting a precedent on how to multiply carbon wells in tropical regions with limited risks and at a lower cost.Carbon neutral products will only become mainstream when consumers understand the source, impact of, and solutions to carbon emissions. With his first ZCT products, Tristan is using marketing techniques and smart packaging to simplify the message and to effectively educate customers about sources of carbon emissions, the realities of global warming, and responsible stewardship of the environment. Tristan also enables customers to track online the growth of forest projects to which they are contributing and to witness their impact when they purchase carbon neutral products.

The Problem

Ratified by 183 countries as of January 2009, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol defines goals for countries to reduce carbon emissions in the fight against global warming and sets a framework for a global carbon cap-and-trade market. The effectiveness of these mechanisms is threatened by various local applications in participating countries that compete with Tristan s program and procedures and difficult comprehensibility for companies and consumers who have no incentive to participate. Indeed, there are several distinct schemes and markets in operation with varying degrees of linkages among them and a growing number of non-Kyoto markets. Compulsory markets using the Kyoto-suggested framework use carbon credits from Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) certified projects as defined by the protocol. Voluntary markets source their credits from a range of sources with limited guarantees of carbon reduction and questionable quality. Operators on these markets are intermediaries including banks, brokers, and individual traders who operate with varying degrees of transparency. Additionally, a broad range of operators offers direct offsetting investment in energy efficiency or reforestation projects without going through any market. And because their interest is in trading credits, most operators encourage companies and consumers to offset their emissions rather than to reduce them in the first place.Though deforestation accounts for 20 percent of emissions, and reforestation projects are the only existing way to capture carbon out of the atmosphere, they remain marginal as a source for carbon credits. They only account for 5 in 1,600 CDM-certified projects. They must be localized in tropical regions, respect biodiversity, offer social and economic co-benefits for indigenous populations, and have a guaranteed tree-lifespan over 40 years. A substantial amount of risk provision, the limited reliability of governments in those regions, and the intense maintenance labor involved make these requirements very hard to meet. Most reforestation projects publicized in the fight against global warming are actually not capturing any carbon.It is easy to understand why most people are confused and alienated by messages about global warming. Companies increasingly market green products and services, even cars. The intangibility of carbon, the wide range of its sources, and the absence of carbon labeling, make it difficult to make wise consumption choices, and leave consumers powerless. This is a missed opportunity, as the engagement and participation of consumers is indispensable to providing incentives to companies and industries to innovate and lower their carbon footprint.

The Strategy

For the past 11 years, Tristan has been on a quest to create pure products that would appeal to consumers while also meeting the highest-possible level of ethics with the lowest environmental impact. With his company Alter Eco, he established transparent channels of production and distribution of organic produce, thanks to direct connections to a broad network of 150,000 small producers around the world. Having made fair trade mainstream in France, Tristan remained faced with the carbon impact of his products. In 2005, he started developing an integrated framework to reduce and offset emissions to reach a ZCT. Tristan assessed the overall carbon impact of the production, packaging and distribution, and purchase of his chocolate and reduced emissions to the lowest level through new packaging, transport by boat, a cleaner production chain and so on. Pure Project then offset the irreducible 273 grams of CO2 for 100 grams of chocolate, including the average 40 grams of the consumer drive to the store, for a cost of 1 cent per customer. Tristans ZCT-labeled chocolate was the first carbon neutral mass product on the French market. Seeing the need to adopt similar integrated processes across consumer goods and services markets, he mobilized and trained a group of Pure Project Entrepreneurs to form a cooperative and engage large corporations such as Nestle Waters, Procter & Gamble, Leclerc Supermarket, event management and construction companies, and entire cities in working toward ZCT products, services, events, and venues.Tristan is the first operator to offer integrated, transparent services ranging from emission assessment, reduction strategy consulting, and on-the-ground offset projects. The ZCT process is guaranteed by independent auditors and its label is very appealing to consumers: Sales of ZCT Alter Eco Chocolate have risen by 15 percent while less expensive entrants on the fair trade market stole 40 percent of chocolate market shares from older fair trade competitors. Consequently, the ZCT label is attractive to companies despite the initial cost of carbon emission offset and reduction, and is forcing operators to align their strategy. Several have already asked for a license, which will require them to be more transparent and effective in their practices.Tristan is also opening the carbon market to new reforestation strategies. He has seen the unique capacity of fair trade cooperatives to carry out CDM-certified multi-million-tree projects which tend to be technically and logistically complex. Using native trees and agronomical techniques, agro-forestry can allow 1 hectare of land to capture an average of 60 tons of carbon over 40 years, vs. 0.6 ton for a traditional cocoa plantation. It also increases the income of local populations by 30 to 50 percent through the sale of carbon credits, sustainable timber production, and increased agricultural yields. Pure Projects first reforestation project in Alto Huyabamba, Peru will plant 2 million trees, of which 700,000 are guaranteed to capture between 1.5 and 2.6 million tons of carbon in the next 40 years. Through a partnership with Dutch Forestry Specialists and CDM-certified SICIREC, and thanks to an investment fund which will channel Pure Project s profits (i.e. to guarantee the sustainability of the forests over 40 years), Tristan will multiply transparent and effective reforestation projects to plant up to 30 million trees by 2014.Tristan uses his marketing reach, the transparency of his framework and the readability of his reforestation projects to educate the consumer about global warming. The ZCT label is actually an educational tool in itself. The chart on the label symbolizes the carbon contained in the product, the path the company has adopted to reduce it, the footprint of the consumer (i.e. in driving to the supermarket or not recycling the packaging), and the reasoning behind the offset of remaining carbon. The label shows a link to the website where the consumer can check the progress of reforestation projects, browse more information, and join a group of responsible customers empowered to reduce carbon emissions.

The Person

Tristan traveled a lot during his childhood (his father was in the military) and was influenced by the various cultures he came across, the strong social engagement of his sister, his aunt who was a missionary in Africa, and his experiences as a Boy Scout. Studying at one of Frances leading business schools, Tristan never felt that he fit into the business culture, yet he was entrepreneurial in using the existing infrastructure to develop his projects. Tristan first played a role in the students union, before setting up his own organization to develop solidarity projects with Nepal, where he managed to combine his entrepreneurial skills and social interests by supporting a local solar oven project. Ten years later this organization still exists and serves as an entrepreneurial venture where studentsreinvent the project every year.Moving into the corporate world, Tristan also felt out of place. After reading an article about fair trade he left a job at L Oreal to open the first fair trade shop in Paris, which he also made into a resource center for emerging social projects. Despite of all his efforts, his first two boutiques and the associated website were not successful; the market was not ready for such specialized shops. As a result, Tristan decided to work with supermarket chains and pioneered an approach to distribute fair trade products through mainstream retailers. Since 2002, his company Alter Eco has gone from a range of 13 to over 100 products, and is a leading fair trade brand in France with products ranging from cocoa to coffee, rice, and other fair trade and organic foods. Alter Eco has 50 employees and over ¬ 20M (US$26,180M) turnover. More recently, Tristan launched in the United States and Australia.Pure Project was Tristans natural next step. Throughout Alter Ecos development and to this day, Tristan has aimed at creating perfect products with transparent, strong guarantees on environmental and social impacts, both internally and externally, with communication strategies that engage the general public in new consumption habits. The reduction of carbon emissions has been a priority for him. Tristans ethics are also reflected in his personal choices and convictions. A fervent adept of Ken Wilber s Integral Theory of Consciousness, Tristan became a Buddhist, and is getting married.