How do you plant a million trees? Sell a million socks

By Seth Robinson

As we consider the future of our economy, society and planet, the role of business to create change and have a positive impact becomes more and more pronounced. For Melbourne Business School alumnus Jesse Bilkey, it was an accident on the family farm that made him think about what he wanted his legacy to be. The answer was a way to honour his grandfather and help save the environment.

As I write this, I’m wearing a pair of Fredrick Harold socks, and I feel good about it.

Fredrick Harold is a sock company with a mission. For every pair of socks they sell, they plant a tree. Partnering with organisations such as Landcare Australia and local community groups and schools, Fredrick Harold purchases trees at a wholesale rate, and organises planting expeditions. It’s an ambitious project, with an even more ambitious goal.

“We want to plant a million trees,” says founder Jesse Bilkey. “So that means we also want to sell a million pairs of socks. It’s a huge goal, but it has some clear milestones along the way. We’re in the tens of thousands now, so our first major milestone is the 100,000 mark. We also focus on planting local natives, which can help reverse issues such as erosion and increased salinity. At the moment, we have a project coming up near Avoca in central Victoria, in an area which used to be a Platypus habitat. We’re going to be planting there with the focus of encouraging wildlife to return to the area.”

The company was born following a turning point in Jesse’s life. A car accident on the family farm left Jesse in hospital with a badly broken back, a long road to recovery and a lot of time on his hands. It also meant he had to turn away from the successful landscape business he’d been running since his graduation from Melbourne Business School.

Jesse Bilkey
Fredrick Harold Founder, Jesse Bilkey

“I spent four months in hospital learning to walk again, and as you can imagine, when you’re sitting still for that amount of time you can only watch so much Netflix. I had to find other ways to keep myself entertained, so I started teaching myself how to code. I was interested in the way online retail works, how you might buy a shoe, and then an ad will come up suggesting you need socks. So that was the first part, then I started designing socks themselves. I had lots of mates coming in and they would look at my socks and talk about how I should sell them. I was pretty sure they were just saying it because I was in a hospital bed, but they stuck with it for months, and I was aware that I was going to have to do something different when I was out, so we launched a Kickstarter.”

That Kickstarter gave Jesse the startup capital he needed to get Fredrick Harold off the ground and launch a business that for him was a deep personal investment.

“For me it, it was about more than what my new paycheck was going to be. While I was in that hospital bed there were all of those practical concerns, but there were other questions as well, like what if I’d died? Sure, people would have been sad, but what kind of lasting impact would I have had? So, as I was thinking about the socks, I tied the idea of planting trees to it right from the beginning, as part of that Kickstarter campaign. Sell socks, plant trees.”

“That idea came from my grandfather. He was a humble farmer who had the attitude that land was something you cared for and aimed to leave better than you found it. With generations of farming experience in an era without computers, simple responsible farming practices such crop rotation and tree planting were some of the greatest tools at his disposal. It was the day of his passing that I was in the accident that broke my back and changed my course. He was such a big part of all of our lives, so it made sense to name the company after him as well.”

Now, both Jesse and Fredrick Harold are looking to the future, finding new partnerships to support more planting projects. The company is growing and adapting as the industry changes.

“We’ve married two concepts in Fredrick Harold, creating a business, and doing something good, but that comes with its own challenges. How do we continue to grow and become more profitable, while planting trees and getting more projects off the ground? There are other challenges as well, like sustainability in the industry. What are the best materials, is it imported or Australian cotton, or an alternative like hemp? These are all things we have to look at and think about. At the moment, we’re looking at how we can continue to grow our planting initiatives. We’ve partnered with schools and community groups, and recently a major bank came on board for a planting day. All in all, it’s a matter of balancing all of these things, growing, while putting the money where it needs to be, in planting more trees.”

And even with all of this happening, Jesse still finds time to design all of Fredrick Harold’s socks.