This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
For the past week or so, I’ve been obsessed with a little meter that I see pretty much every time I open my Web browser. As I type this sentence, it stands at 99,818,015. I immediately go back to look again, and it’s already at 99,818,120.
The meter is literally ticking up faster than once per second — and every tick represents another tree planted.
By the time you read this, the meter will have ticked past 100 million, and that’s a pretty remarkable achievement. As a point of reference, 100 million trees are enough to cover about 86,000 acres – roughly six times the footprint of Manhattan – helping to sequester 33 million tons of CO2 when fully grown.
I did my bit to help with all this tree planting. According to another meter on my web browser, over the past week or so, I’ve contributed 31 trees to the cause without writing any checks or buying any products.
That’s because a company called Ecosia has found a way to plant trees and change lives with something we do countless times every day: searching the Internet.
The Green Search Engine of Choice
Ecosia bills itself as “the search engine that plants trees.” Based in Germany, it has more than 15 million active users worldwide, but relatively few in the U.S., where 88% of all search happens on Google.
In a country where “Googling” is so common it’s become a verb, no one should be surprised that a newcomer like Ecosia finds it hard to gain name recognition, and the company’s focus on mission might make that even harder. Growing trees is a higher priority than growing market share, so 80% of profits go directly to nonprofit partners in 18 countries.
Ruby Au, Head of North America at Ecosia, acknowledges that she has her work cut out for her on these shores. But, she says, in turbulent times, the company sees an opportunity to stand out with its deeply held values.
“We believe that Ecosia’s values align exactly with many of the changes people are calling for — be it climate action, accountability by big tech, or a return to impactful, community-led projects … We are also focusing specifically on a younger demographic of users — many of whom have grown up feeling the effects of the climate crises, and especially resonate with our mission.
“In the long term, we want Ecosia to be synonymous with the green search engine of choice for our users in America.”
Search and Deploy
How does Ecosia convert search terms into shade trees? Like everyone else in the business, Ecosia delivers clearly marked, paid ads alongside organic search results. Some of those ads are more lucrative than others, and most users click ads relatively infrequently, but Ecosia knows from experience that its revenue averages out to about half a penny per search.
At that rate, it takes just 45 searches to plant a tree, and the company makes it easy for users to track their impact. My personal counter, which appears in the upper right corner of every Ecosia search page, shows that I’m responsible for helping to plant 31 trees in the past week since I switched from Google.
It’s a little depressing to realize that I’ve executed 1,395 searches in that time, but it’s also rewarding to see my contribution in such clear, personal terms. And that, says Ruby, is central to the company’s strategy for social change.
“Quite simply, the more people who use Ecosia, and the more people who we can expose to our mission — the more awareness we can build for climate action. The same logic that would drive someone to switch their search engine from a monopolistic tech brand to a planet-friendly alternative, is the same logic that would drive someone to later on substitute an existing behavior for a better option.”
Beyond its tree planting, Ecosia tries to model other corporate behaviors that it sees as desirable: It publishes detailed financial reports every month, avoids corporate tax shelters, insists on strict privacy measures, and devotes a large portion of its income to green energy projects, including a 30-acre solar installation in Bavaria.
“Thanks to our solar plants we are now producing twice as much renewable energy as we need to power all Ecosia searches, and crowding out dirty energy from the grid,” Ruby says. Or, to put it in more personal terms, every search with Ecosia actually removes 1 kilogram of CO2 from the air.
Never Enough Trees
Solar may power Ecosia searches, but it’s trees that power the company’s vision and impact.
“We can never plant enough trees,” Ruby says. “We see them as an incredible agent of change. Our ultimate goal at Ecosia is to continue to grow our contribution to the climate solution, by planting hundreds of millions more trees in places where they are needed the most.”
From Peru to Kenya to Indonesia, that planting is done by individual country partners who best know the local environmental and economic conditions. “At the end of the day,” Ruby notes, “we are not only re-greening landscapes, but also creating jobs, livelihoods, and livable communities for the partners and the people we work with.”
For purposes of transparency, tree-planting expenditures are published every month. In May of 2020, for instance, $26,000 went to Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar, while Homme et Terre in Burkina Faso received just under $700,000.
Those may seem like big numbers, but Ecosia is still a tiny player in the world of search. What if a company like Google approached social impact in the same way, I wonder, and Ruby obliges me with some numbers: the $34 billion earned last year by Google’s parent company would have planted over 150 billion trees and removed about 7.8 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
“We could sit here and crunch numbers all day,” she hastens to add. “I think the more important takeaway is … thinking about the bigger picture of what the world would look like if the average company were willing to dedicate even a small portion of their earnings to social good.”
Of course, the same could be said for consumers. If more of us made even a small effort to support companies with a clear social mission, we might be amazed at the impact our dollars – or in this case, our searches – could have.
Search for good: Visit ecosia.org to download the free browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. It takes 2 seconds, 1 click, and 0 technical expertise to install.
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