Planting trees is one of the best solutions to the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. The search engine Ecosia has assumed this responsible undertaking as its mission. The best thing is that we can all help!
The number 121,594,277 shines in teal colored numbers on Ecosia’s website. A little later, the number moves forward one digit and then once again. What is behind this constantly changing number? Trees! Ecosia has already planted over 121 million trees (as of March 2021) worldwide through its profits. In early 2020, the green search engine moved its headquarters to a brick building that formerly housed factories in the Berlin district of Wedding. The previous office in the Neukölln district was bursting at the seams – some employees even had to take turns using the desks. Keeping in step with the number display, the company has grown rapidly in recent years.
Ecosia was founded in 2009 by the Berliner Christian Kroll. With such powerful competitors as Google, it is no easy task to launch a search engine. As expected, the project had a bumpy start. “At the beginning, we weren’t well known, but in recent years we have clearly picked up speed. You can see this in the numbers. In January 2019, after 9 years of existence, we celebrated the planting of 50 million trees. Shortly after, in the summer of 2020, it was already 100 million,” said Génica Schäfgen, Head of Ecosia Germany.
Search engines earn money when users click on ads displayed next to the search results. While the profits of competitors end up with shareholders, Ecosia uses its revenue to cover the running costs of its office and the salaries of its 80 employees, and expenses for advertising. The lion’s share of profits, around 80 percent, finance tree-planting projects worldwide with its partners, currently numbered at 47, and other climate-friendly initiatives and the installation of solar panels to provide for the company’s own energy needs.
“We support the planting of trees where they are needed most. That means where trees have disappeared or can’t recover by themselves due to deforestation, for example by the palm oil industry, or as a result of climate change.” In biodiversity hotspots, regions where biodiversity is under extreme threat, Ecosia’s partners are planting predominantly native tree species. They pursue a mixed forest approach to encourage regeneration, eschew the use of pesticides, and conduct their work with the greatest possible respect for the natural ecosystem. The nursery-grown saplings are then observed and checked to see whether they have survived being transplanted or if other saplings should be replanted in their place. Only then are the planted trees counted.
Ecosia’s goal is to ensure that forests can survive in the long term without human assistance. In the ideal case, these efforts can result in additional benefits. For instance, food can also be grown within the framework of the agroforestry project. The produce could be eaten by the local population or used as a source of income. Each tree planting partner has their own challenges and goals. Hommes et Terre, for example, has taken up the challenge of revegetating the Sahel region, which is known for its hard as concrete soil. In Brazil, PACTO links together various organizations intending to reforest the severely threatened Atlantic Rainforest. And the Austrian Jane Goodall Institute is creating tree corridors to connect forests separated by cleared areas to expand habitats for chimpanzees.
At present, about one percent of Internet searches in Germany are conducted with Ecosia. This doesn’t seem like much, but it is actually not bad considering the market’s tremendous dominance by its competitors. Whoever wants to ecosia something – of course, we don’t want to google here – can do so via the URL www.ecosia.org or select Ecosia as the search engine in their browser settings. And there is also an Ecosia app for smartphones and tablets. The Berlin-based start-up, however, cannot do entirely without a major partner.
We pay Microsoft Bing for the search results and advertisements. It would have been a massive undertaking to develop this technology ourselves,” explains Schäfgen. Yet, what Ecosia shows the user differs from search results found if using Bing directly. Ecosia maintains the privacy of its users’ data and does not compile any user profiles. Consequently, the search results are neutral and are not built upon past search queries or other collected data.
Besides, Ecosia’s search results embrace the company’s ecological values. For instance, in the future results of a search for flights between Berlin and Munich will also display environmentally friendly alternatives via rail and the associated CO2 savings. “In this way, we want to help our users make a greener decision. In addition to our tree-planting projects, we regard this as our task. This is what our team makes possible and what we work on through our combined efforts,” says Schäfgen.
As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, Christian Kroll and his business partner Tim Schumacher took things one step further in 2018. They donated the whole company to the Purpose Foundation. Its goal is to encourage companies to structure themselves along the principles of steward-ownership. This way, the owners retain voting and participation rights but do not share in profits. This ensures that Ecosia remains true to realizing its mission instead of serving the pursuit of profit for its owners, even if the company is sold or inherited.
“For us as employees, of course, this was a truly galvanizing move. Now we know that we really work for a cause,” says Schäfgen. Although Ecosia failed to reach its initial goal of planting a billion trees by 2020, the way the company is now set up, it will most assuredly make up for this in the future. The counter is running.