Ethics in arboriculture

TCAA member and career arborist Bruce Smith – The Tree Surgeon – outlines the benefits of ethics in arboriculture, a genuine care for how tree work is carried out, and for what that work achieves.

All arborists on every level should be aware of their legal obligations. These range from federal and state laws to Local Government Authority (LGA) bylaws, and can vary from tree preservation orders to taxation laws. Workplace safety, in particular, is a legal obligation that should be understood and observed by all arborists. However, the area of ethics in arboriculture is rather less clear (as is the even muddier area of moral obligations).


The dictionary definition of ‘ethics’ is: ‘the rules of conduct recognised in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, and so forth’.

In more simplified terms, ‘business ethics’ refers to the standards for morally right and wrong conduct in business. Legal and ethical are not necessarily the same. Business ethics enhances the law by outlining acceptable behaviours beyond government control.

Many of the examples in this article come from my own meandering experience over 30 years in arboriculture, and many other instances of ethics in arboriculture – or the lack of them – will come to the reader’s mind.

Being vetted and approved as a licensed contractor is considered ethical, as is joining one of the many arboricultural associations.


In general, I believe a good ethical arborist would aim to provide the best for four parties:
• The tree
• The client
• The staff, and
• The business.

Picture a conversation with a client who wants the top two-thirds of his tree removed. An example of good ethical behaviour would be in advising a client against lopping or topping a tree, and asking instead what the perceived problem with the tree was. This could result in the option of crown raising, selective pruning and dead wood removal for greater light penetration and separation from a building. The tree will be pruned properly, without the potential to become dangerous through superficially attached epicormic regrowth. The client will endorse the business for a great result. The climbers and ground staff know that lopping contravenes the Australian Tree Pruning Standards and would be unwilling to proceed with that request. If the client cannot be persuaded to follow good practice and sound advice based on the Australian Tree Pruning Standards, then an ethical arborist would walk away from the job.

Failing to make precise collar cuts is unethical and unprofessional.

Sound practices

When asked of their understanding of ethics in arboriculture, most levelthree arborists would immediately cite climbing without spurs or spikes in tree pruning operations. Other examples of ethical obligations include making precise collar cuts and cuts that do not graze or tear the tree. Ensuring chains are sharp to achieve this is considered an ethical obligation that falls on the climber.

While on site, every effort should be made to ensure no hangers are left in the tree after pruning, and that techniques are used to prevent any damage to the lower scaffold of branches. The site should be cleaned better than the condition it was found in, and machinery maintained so that knives are sharp and produce a consistent wood chip by-product for sale and that no engine oil or hydraulic oil spills are left on the customer’s driveway.

These are just a small number of examples of good ethical practices.

A good clean up after a job’s finished will help generate repeat business.


These are some of the ethical steps which take a little extra time but can result in a good business reputation, rather than a disappointed client who is likely to have a negative experience. The power of social media could ruin a reputation far quicker than the traditional chat over the back fence.

A client once rang after a job and complained about the mess my crew had left behind. It was unusual as we pride ourselves on a good clean up. Her problem was that one of my staff had left a finished tin of salmon on the table after lunch.

A First World problem?

Yes, but my company has never been asked back there for repeat business. In another instance, I quoted on tree removal which was done, and the client asked when the stump was to be ground out. I thought I had mentioned that stump grinding was not included in the quote but could not confirm that as the quote was verbal, not written. I felt ethically obliged to return at no extra charge to grind the stump and learned very quickly not to repeat that failure in communication.

On the topic of stump grinding, it would be ethical to recognise those trees prone to suckering after the aerial section is removed and kill the root system with herbicide rather than grind the stump and leave the client to deal with a reemergence problem. If the ground-out stump sprouted, your business would be ethically responsible for the problem and would have to return to site at extra cost and lost time.

Ethical obligations include cuts that do not graze or tear the tree.

Good for business

Unethical practices abound in our unregulated industry. Wrong advice designed to install fear in the clients about the safety of a tree or trees just to profit from the unsuspecting is one such example. Poaching staff, undercutting on price, being derogatory about competitors, insider trading, and tree removal without LGA permission are some examples. This is where the unethical also becomes immoral and sometimes illegal.

Ongoing learning by attending seminars and workshops in our ever-changing profession is ethical in the sense that renewed or refreshed learning may positively impact on your professional behavior. This gives the arborist tools and knowledge to provide the client with the best advice and service. Being vetted and approved as a licensed contractor is considered ethical, as is joining one of the many arboricultural associations.

In rereading these lines, the question of ethical behaviour is essentially good professional conduct. Ethical arboricultural practice should result in the best outcome for the tree, the client, your staff, and the business. Ethical practice does not need to be costly in time or resources. Ethical behaviour is arboricultural knowledge, high standards with a client focus, a proud and motivated workforce, and a sustainable and reputable business.

Stay in touch with the Tree Contractors Association Australia (TCAA) at




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