While they were surveying the land at a home for the elderly for a proposed tree-planting exercise, a resident of this home, Mulvany House at Sealdah in Kolkata, offered a piece of advice. “See, many of us here don’t have teeth," she told Raj Mohan, founder member of the Sustainable Green Initiative (SGI), the social start-up undertaking the green drive, “avoid planting guava saplings."

A little over a year old, the Kolkata-based SGI is in the unique business of planting trees. The initiative has balanced its strategies in the seemingly opposing worlds of environment and commerce, planting trees in a carbon-dioxide emitting society and profiting each time soil is tilled to gently place a sapling in the cavity. For every planting means revenue for them too.

Since September 2012, the SGI has planted around 2,700 trees in places like Uttarakhand, Gurgaon, Delhi and Kolkata, with donors and sponsors paying 500 for every sapling planted. The SGI usually has a profit margin of 20% (including overheads) though director S.M. Devadason says the margins could be halved in places like Uttarakhand, given the logistics involved. Devadason, who spent over 30 years in the corporate world, says he joined the start-up, after Mohan chalked out plans, “to give back to the world". His vision is to plant a million trees over the next few years. Mohan dreams of a billion.

At Suneel in Uttarakhand, high up between Joshimath and Auli, the SGI planted 732 apple trees on land belonging to eight marginal farmers, paid for by city-based donors—fortunately, the saplings were not affected by the floods in June. The saplings are nurtured for two years by a local self-help group employed by the SGI and the farmer, who has to pay nothing and continues to own the land as well as the trees. The farmer starts profiting from the sale of fruits after three-five years.

“Our calculation is that if each farmer has around 100 apple trees, after five years of proper tending, he’ll get 100kg of apple each season. If he sells even 50kg at 10 per kg, he will earn 50,000 from the apple trees we planted each season. That will be his additional income," says Mohan. It is a win-win situation all around, he says, where the farmer, SGI and local self-help group, which is paid by the SGI for looking after the trees, as well as the donor benefit. “For every donor, we take a video of the planting and also geo-tag the plants for the person to see online," says Mohan.

Charitable tree-planting, says Mohan, is not the answer to the world’s overriding environmental concerns. “It can’t be sustainable in the long run," he reasons. About 150 people have so far opened up their wallets for afforestation at a time when Forest Survey of India figures indicate a reduction in forest cover by 367 sq. km in the three years between 2009 and 2012. Cities like Kolkata and Mumbai too are considered high-risk when it comes to being affected by global climate change. Carbon sequestration by trees can help mitigate this, says Mohan.

“After planting the saplings we tend to it for two years primarily because a sapling is carbon negative in the first six months. That is, the amount of oxygen emitted by it does not compensate for the carbon emissions when the seed is coming up in greenhouse conditions, the sapling’s transportation and the human resource employed. It is only after one year that a plant becomes carbon positive," says Mohan. “Most mass-planting exercises are reduced to being carbon-negative endeavours and mere photo opportunities if the plants are not reared to maturity, which is usually the case."

Other than a general environment-consciousness, individual buyers of trees have their reasons. A Kolkata-based individual paid for 111 trees as a birthday present for his son. Mahima and Aryan Trivedi, students of The Indian High School in Dubai, wanted five trees planted in Suneel: four dedicated to their teachers on Teachers’ Day and another for a friend—“the kind of stuff that makes us want to go on," says Mohan. Their father, the siblings said over email, had agreed to pay for them with his credit card.

At the 3,000-member strong Bidhan Sishu Udyan, close to 1,000 saplings donated by the Lions Clubs International District 322B1, one of the largest membership-based service clubs, have been planted. A majority of them are fruit trees. “More than selling the fruits, we plan to distribute them among our members," says Goutam Talukdar, secretary of the Dr BC Roy Memorial trustee body that runs the Udyan. “We used to get a lot of parrots and migratory birds before a flyover came up nearby. I hope the trees will get the birds back," he adds.

On a round of the sprawling Udyan, Mohan is perturbed by the sight of some missing saplings—possible pilferage after a portion of the boundary wall collapsed due to heavy rain. But he is emboldened by the zone where mango saplings have been planted—fresh leaves, as we see, have sprouted.

Get involved: Sustainable Green Initiative tweets at @rmsgi; www.greening.in; www.facebook.com/SGI.India