TIMES Pieces: We Speak with Ecosia, the Tree-Planting Search Engine

Reforestation at the click of a button - can it really be that simple? Since 2009 the sustainable search engine company Ecosia has been proving it’s possible by helping plant almost 6 million trees. We spoke to Ecosia about their success, the importance of transparency, and taking a piece of the Google pie.

Autor*in Daniella Mattiuzzo, 12.05.16

Translation Lydia Skrabania:

Reforestation at the click of a button – can it really be that simple? Since 2009 the sustainable search engine company Ecosia has been proving it’s possible by helping plant almost 6 million trees. We spoke to Ecosia about their success, the importance of transparency, and taking a piece of the Google pie.

It’s a deliciously simple concept: you search the web using Ecosia, ads generate revenue for the company, and 80 per cent of this income is donated to tree-planting projects across the globe. Add in the idea of turning an everyday action like web searching into a sustainable activity, and you have a pretty enticing confection.

The brains behind the business is CEO and entrepeneur Christian Koll who founded Ecosia in 2009 as a social enterprise with the aim of tapping into the billion dollar search engine industry. He chose tree-planting after travelling the world and learning about the importance of trees in combating climate change, bringing back water cycles and creating opportunities for local communities. Since then, Ecosia has grown from a small company of three to 20 employees, and has so far planted over 5.5 million trees solely on revenue generated from user searches.

We spoke with UK Country Manager Nikola Maksimovic about how it all works.

© PUR Projet One of Ecosia’s tree-planting partners PUR Projet in Peru

Tell us about how Ecosia has evolved.

We’ve grown really slowly and used what we have. It’s meant that we’ve been able to really sustainably keep going. Already we’ve hit five and a half million trees this year, and I think that we’re going hit six by the end of the year. Getting to one million took ages, and then to three million as well, but now it’s growing quite fast, which is really exciting.

What does that mean in terms of climate change impact?

In terms of our real impact, obviously five and a half million trees aren’t very much when you think of how many trees need to be planted. We’re still quite small but we’re donating 80% per cent of our profits. If Google did what we did, then that would have an impact overnight. The idea is that we’re trying to inspire this kind of thinking and movement, and our users also get inspired and go away and talk about it. You can choose to use Ecosia, and we choose to give 80 per cent of our profits. You don’t just have to follow this strict business model that most of the other world seems to be doing. You can place your value somewhere else.

Around 2008 a lot of ‘green’ search engines popped up. Why do you think Ecosia managed to sustain itself while others fell away?

I’m not sure. I think it’s time and place, but what I like about Ecosia that makes it stand out is the tree counter. When you first start using Ecosia, you see the tree counter going up, which I think (makes) people really feel that they’re having an impact. And we are really focused on getting to our planting sites, getting our own footage, and interviewing the people that we’re working with so that our users can see that it really is working and this is what we’re doing.

How do you choose the projects you’re involved with?

Pieter, our tree-planting expert, has been in the industry for years and has a background in ecology. He finds projects and we have a guideline as to what we look for, what we expect, and their values need to line up with us. They need to pay a fair wage to the locals they work with, and they have to work with locals. You have to speak to the community and you have to see if it works for them. There are a lot of projects out there that are doing amazing things, and each of our projects has a slightly different focus. In Madagascar they’re planting so many different species (of trees), and they’re all very useful and necessary for the ecology but also for the people. The north coast had started to completely crumble away, partly because of deforestation. The mangrove tree’s roots are really important, and the whole fish ecosystem there has been damaged as a result, which is the main food source of so many communities that live there. Just by planting these trees back a whole ecosystem returns and the effects of that are really long term and economic for the people who live there. So we look for projects that have some sort of social impact as well.

© The Eden Projects Mangove Trees in Madgascar

Could you explain how the revenue works exactly? What happens if you don’t click on the adverts?

It’s really simple: the advertisers pay and our partner is Bing who shows the adverts, so when someone clicks on the advert then we get money from that. There are algorithms that detect fake clicks, so if you were just to click a lot it wouldn’t work…

Plant all the trees!

(laughs)…which people really try to do but it doesn’t work. And if you don’t click there’s no real revenue being generated but I think what’s really important to know is that sometimes a lot of our users write in and say “I never click on ads so what’s the point?” But that person might’ve told a friend about it, who then will install Ecosia and does sometimes click on ads. Obviously it’s about planting trees but it’s also about creating this community of people who realise that you do have a choice and that you can do something good.

When you look up Ecosia, there’s a lot of scepticism around – why do you think that is?

I think it’s because it’s in vogue right now to be seen to be doing something good, so you have a lot of big corporations trying to tap into this somehow, and they’ll have a campaign where they will donate a certain amount of money to some project and that’s great because it’s getting people to talk about it, but there’s a dangerous side to it when it’s using it to sell something. I think people are obviously aware of that. We try really hard to be as open and honest and simple as possible, and that’s why we try to reply to every comment, and we publish our business reports and receipts online so people are free to have a look through those if they wish. We want to show that it doesn’t have to be like that, that once you trust Ecosia maybe you’ll be more open to looking into other alternatives, and taking a deeper look.

It works to hold companies to account.

And it kind of works both ways; in a way it keeps us constantly thinking “are we doing this in the most obvious and transparent way?”, “how can we better convey this to the user?”, and it really drives our look and our tone and our decisions which is great because that’s the company we are and want to continue to be.

© WeForest Dead trees in the desert in Burkino Faso

A lot of big companies like Google and Microsoft have come a long way in these past few years in terms of things like investing in renewable energy and trying to reduce their carbon impact. What reasons are there for users to choose Ecosia rather than one of these companies if they wanted to support such endeavours?

Google does donate millions every year to various projects but these tend to be – not all – projects that they are working on that are under their own umbrella. It’s great that they’re doing that but those millions of dollars that are being invested every year or donated is a tiny percentage of their profits. If we were a lot bigger, and we were donating 80 per cent, then we’d be making much bigger waves than they are. I always question if these companies are driven by wanting to be seen to be doing good or because they actually want to create a real impact. What steps are they taking to make sure that that the money they are investing is really getting every bit of positive impact, be that on whatever community they’re helping or projects or environment?

With Ecosia you’re more connected to what it is that you’re helping to fund, and you’re supporting a business model that … really should and can be the business model of the future where people don’t just think of ways to generate lots of money for very few people who hold the shares in the company, but they think “how can I make a real lasting impact on not only myself but on lot of other people?”

Where do you see yourselves going?

Our goal is to plant a billion trees by 2020. [Regarding growth] if we could even have one or two per cent of the global market share, that would be astronomically huge. That doesn’t sound like very much, especially considering …it’s an industry that’s dominated by a few key players; it’s nuts that one per cent is enormous, but I think we will get there. We just want to show people that they have a choice when it comes to searching the internet. It’s a small change, but you really do become part of actually doing something good that you can see for yourself. It’s turning something really boring like searching on the internet into something quite fun.

© The Eden Projects Growing Mangrove trees for The Eden Reforestation Project in Madagascar

TIMES Pieces is an ongoing editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces

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