Troubled by the riches Google is making from your searches and data? How about a search engine that uses its profits to plant trees every time you search whilst also protecting your privacy?

This is the idea behind Ecosia, an eco-friendly privacy-conscious search engine that uses its profits to plant trees all over the globe. The Berlin-based startup has invested over €9 million planting nearly 45 million trees in 15 different countries so far, and with the help of its users, is now planting one tree every second.

“Are businesses simply supposed to maximise profit? Or could they try to make the world a better place?”

Ecosia is the brainchild of founder and CEO Christian Kroll, who after studying business at university travelled to Asia and South America, gaining a new perspective on business and environmentalism. Kroll founded Ecosia in December 2009 and it has grown to a team of 40 people working out of their Berlin office with country coordinators around the world. As a company, Ecosia does not accept donations and has funded their team expansion through their advertising revenue. 

“Are businesses simply supposed to maximise profit? Or could they try to make the world a better place?” Kroll tells Sifted.

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Like every other search engine, Ecosia earns money from clicks on the ads which appear above and beside the search results. “We then give the profits from this ad revenue to tree planting projects,” explains Kroll. Ecosia’s search results are powered by an exclusive partnership with Microsoft’s Bing. They use Bing’s search technology, enhanced with Ecosia’s own algorithms to provide their results. This is a positive strategic partnership for Bing, as the vast majority of new Ecosia users are switching from Google, allowing Bing and Ecosia to chisel away at Google’s immense market share.

Ecosia funds and partners with over 20 tree-planting projects across Peru, Brazil, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Haiti, Colombia, Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Indonesia. “We bring an ambitious startup mindset to our environmental work, setting very ambitious goals, testing and experimenting and rapidly scaling what works,” Kroll explains.  

Ecosia experiments with various environmental projects, testing their impactfulness and trying new tactics. One example is their financing of PACTO Mata Atlântica, an organisation made up of 300 different tree-planting projects, all of which are trialling different methods of saving the rainforests of Brazil.

How It Works Ecosia
Image: How it works © Ecosia

Ecosia also goes to great lengths to protect its users’ privacy and data. As opposed to Google, Ecosia anonymises all searches, does not sell any personal data to advertisers, and protects searches from potential eavesdroppers with a securely encrypted connection.  

“Even if someone broke into our office and cracked open one of our servers, they would not be able to construct a single piece of our user’s personal data,” says Kroll.

As Ecosia does not record any data from their users’ searches, the company does not know for sure the demographics of the people who use its platform, but the team have other ways of figuring it out.

Ecosia’s current core audience: “young people who give a shit” 

Ecosia uses Facebook to advertise and gain users, which provides lots of demographic data and can find out the global geographic distribution from IP addresses. Using these sources, it is aware that most of its users are from Western Europe, primarily Germany and France, and are young.

Kroll says the company likes to say its current core audience is “young people who give a shit” and that the up and coming generation is more likely to be eco-conscious because “they are the ones who will suffer the most under the effects of climate change and environmental damage.”

The search engine also prides itself on its transparency and has pages and pages dedicated to informing its users of how it works and what it does. Ecosia even goes as far as to publish its monthly financial reports publicly.

With over 7 million users and rapid global growth, by normal standards of the Internet economy, Ecosia would now be a company worth tens of millions of euros. Yet it has decided to move in an entirely different direction.

“We looked at co-operatives, foundations and B-Corps, but finally settled on the fairly new model of a ‘self-owned company’,” explains Kroll.

Christian Kroll tree-planting Indonesia Ecosia
Image: Founder and CEO Christian Kroll at a tree-planting project in Indonesia © Ecosia

As a self-owned company, Ecosia operates as a typical company, except there are two significant distinctions:

1. Shares cannot be sold at a profit or owned by people outside of the company.
2. No profits can be taken out of the company.

“We’re not interested in maximising profits: our ultimate goal is to build a greener and better world for everyone,” explains Kroll. Many of Ecosia’s strengths lie in its dynamism, ambition and vision, most often found in the capitalistic startup sector, yet the team wants to do things differently. “We want to give capitalism’s ‘invisible hand’ a nudge in the right direction.”

Recently Ecosia made national and international news when it offered €1m to buy the ancient Hambach forest in Germany, to save it from coal mining energy firm RWE, which plans to fell most of the trees. The fate of the forest is an ongoing political battle in Germany between the energy company, environmentalists and politicians from all parties.

“For us, it was a great symbol of the options for the future,” Kroll explains. “Do we honour the interests of one of the dirtiest energy companies in Germany to cut down a 1,000-year-old forest or do we honour the interests of German people today and future generations around the world?”

An ethical startup ambition runs strong through Ecosia and its founder, especially with its biggest aim as a company. “It’s not a complicated goal,” explains Kroll. “We just need to reach 1% of global searches, and we can plant 1 billion trees by 2020.”

It seems Ecosia intends to be a very different kind of unicorn.

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