Many of our good intentions to go greener or support charity are hard to execute and even harder to sustain. In a lot of cases ‘baby steps’ are the answer–small changes that are easy to make and easy to stick to. Like switching to compostable packaging. Or now, something as simple as changing your default search engine.
We spoke to Christian Kroll, CEO and Founder of Ecosia, a social startup trying to empower everyone to easily do good. You just search the web, and they plant the trees.
Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that…
What is your background? What else have you been a part of?
I studied Business Administration and was involved in the stock exchange and online trading. I was quite good at it and could’ve made a lot of money, but already during university I realized I didn’t want to work on something corporate or a business model that would be based on depleting resources and destroying the planet. I wanted to find a way of restoring the planet and changing people’s lives for the better with a business idea. You can make quite a bit of money with search; that’s something I wanted to make use of.
What was the “Aha” moment or moments?
After I graduated from university, I travelled for a year and learned a lot about deforestation and the issues it was causing. Especially in South America I learned a lot about tree planting projects and how much good they can do for the environment and for people. That’s how the idea for Ecosia, the tree planting search engine was born.
I realized how tangible and transparent the impact Ecosia is having can be made to people. Trees have a huge number of incredible benefits–they’re real superheroes. To be able to show Ecosia users: these are the trees that are being planted thanks to you, and this is the impact they’re having, that’s incredibly motivating for us and for our users.
I could never imagine working on anything that didn’t have a social impact. I’m not motivated by money or power.
Why a search engine as opposed to another business?
$70B is being made on the global search market every year. I believe this staggering amount should be used for something more meaningful than just keeping it in corporate boardrooms, feeding it back to investors and never having it leave the Tech Industry, which is one of the richest and fastest growing industries in the world.
You’re hovering around 23 million trees (and the ticker is going up every second or so). Is that number accurate? It’s remarkable – you have had over 1 billion searches through your interface?
We’re still having trouble believing it too, but yes, this number is correct. The tree counter on the website goes up automatically based on the amount of real trees we can plant every month. We publish our monthly business reports and planting receipts so users can see how much money we make thanks to them, how high our operating costs are and how much we spend on tree planting. We now make around $800k every month which allows us to plant more than 1.8m trees on a monthly basis.
Ecosia isn’t quite yet a household name, and your model depends upon eyeballs for Advertisers to pay, so that you can then use that money to plant trees. How are you going to maintain a steady stream of users, clicks, and thus advertising money?
To reach our big goal of 1 billion trees planted, we would need between 1% and 2% of the global search market. This doesn’t sound like a lot and it’s feasible, but we still need to grow a lot more to achieve it. So yes, leveraging our community and encouraging existing users to spread the word is one of our biggest assets. Once people hear about Ecosia, they usually love the idea. Being able to reach them in the first place is what’s challenging. This is why we’ve been looking into doing more marketing and paid acquisition to grow our user base.
Is there something special or innovative about the way you actually convert money into action and execute on your initiatives? Are you approaching this in a way that sets you apart from other charitable initiatives?
We use at least 80% of our profits–and usually more than 50% of our overall income–to plant trees. Without the tree-planting aspect, Ecosia wouldn’t be the same. Supporting a good cause is part of the company’s DNA. We don’t depend on donations, government grants or private investments. This means we can stay purpose-driven and focus on planting as many trees as possible.
From funding to fingers on keyboards, what were the major milestones towards getting this off the ground?
Obviously, realizing that the idea could actually turn into something concrete and scaleable. Then finding people that were willing to work on this with me. Securing the partnership with Bing as well as continuously working on the portfolio of carefully vetted reforestation partners that match our criteria.
Beyond a Chrome extension, did you think about partnering with Google as opposed to Microsoft/Bing?
At the very beginning, there was supposed to be an official partnership with Google. But they backed out of the contract a week after the launch. The official explanation was–and still is–that partners using Google search for their websites mustn’t communicate that there’s a connection between clicks on ads and the support of a good cause. Google argues that this might encourage people to click on ads randomly and that that might hurt the advertisers.
Already back when Ecosia was first founded, there were sophisticated algorithms that could detect that kind of behavior and render random clicks on ads neutral. We’re very happy with our partnership with Bing. They offer cutting-edge technology and absolutely love what we are doing. They’re willing to support us wherever possible, which means we can focus on what we do best: planting as many trees as possible.
So you have a partnership with Bing. What roles does Ecosia technology/algorithms play in the whole process?
Everything you see on Ecosia, the info pages as well as the search result pages, is developed by our developers. The privacy update we’ve been working on for a while on both our Apps (our Android Browser and our iOS App) for example have been developed in-house. The underlying technology is based on Bing. We hope to be able to add more and more of our own technology–like ‘green’ results–to Ecosia and the results we show
How do advertisers get themselves on Ecosia?
They can register with Bing ads and book ads that will also appear on Ecosia.
Is the money earned from Ads only used to plant trees? Or does the money also go to other conservation initiatives?
For the moment we focus on tree-planting. Trees have a number of incredibly impactful benefits.
Is there a way to evaluate and compare the impact on the environment when using Ecosia versus other browsers? Have you done an LCA on Ecosia?
What kept us from looking into a unified certification process for our projects so far is the fact that there are no standards or certificates that cover environmental, social as well as economic criteria. Sequestering as much CO2 as possible plays an important role in our projects, but restoring landscapes, empowering communities and reforesting the habitat of endangered species are just as crucial.
Once the trees are planted does Ecosia also influence/contribute to the sustainable maintenance of the trees till they are fully grown and through to timber use/disposal?
Absolutely. We try to visit all of our projects in person to evaluate the progress, speak with the local community members and make sure our criteria in terms of sustainable forest-management, aftercare and community involvement are being met. We’re in constant communication with all of them and they send us regular photo and video updates which we can share with our users and online community. Maintaining the highest degree of transparency possible is very important to us.
What does the long-term play look like for Ecosia? It is technical? Strategic? Social? All of the above?
Definitely all of the above. We hope to at some stage be able to help people make more sustainable decisions when it comes to traveling, consumption and other aspects of everyday life. This could mean showing them the most sustainable, fair trade and organic option for something they want to purchase. It could also mean showing them ways of getting from A to B that produce the least CO2 emissions. The social aspect is building a movement and growing our community to share environmental news and sustainability tips and raise awareness for political participation.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.
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