For a man that once dreamed of making a name for himself on Wall Street, Christian Kroll cares very little about maximizing profit. In fact, since founding search engine Ecosia in 2009, he has dedicated himself to building a business that defies the tenets of modern capitalism.
Ecosia is a non-profit organization that funnels any revenue that isn’t needed to cover its overheads, tax and marketing efforts towards tree planting initiatives. The company is founded on green principles and its infrastructure is powered by massive solar farms, which produce an excess that actively removes dirty energy from the grid.
“Investing in renewable energy is actually profitable, but there are always more lucrative projects for companies to invest in,” Kroll told TechRadar Pro, summarizing the problem at the heart of the environmental crisis.
“As long as the end goal of an organization is to maximize profits, available funds will always be funnelled into investments that have higher returns. Having the greatest positive impact on the planet is not the guiding decision making framework for traditional businesses.”
Some might be tempted to turn their nose up at Ecosia, to dismiss the business as a virtue project, but the company’s value proposition is also sound. Because competition is less fierce, advertising on Ecosia is roughly two or three times less costly per click than on Google, which means cheaper (and sometimes more profitable) traffic.
However, in the context of the global search market, Ecosia is a miniscule fish in a massive pond. Current data from Statcounter shows that the eco-friendly firm is responsible for less than 1% of search worldwide, compared to the 91.39% market share held by Google.
The apparent catch-22 for Kroll and Ecosia lies in balancing the need to grow (which might demand a more ruthless approach to money-making) in order to expand its tree planting operation, with the need to preserve the green and anti-capitalistic values on which the company was founded.
Planting forests, one search at a time
It may sound twee, but Kroll insists his eco-epiphany came about during an extended trip to India, where he realized, “there are more important things to do on this planet than accumulating wealth”.
His experiences in South Asia and later South Africa purged him, he says, of his teenage aspirations to become a millionaire, fueled originally by an interest in the dot-com bubble.
On his travels, Kroll says he came across many people that did not enjoy the same opportunities he did, and many that suffered as a consequence of the economic system that allows businesses in developed countries to thrive.
“It was also at this time that I first found out about climate change; for some reason, nobody at university was talking about it,” he said.
“I realized this was probably the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. The greatest injustice is that the coming generations are going to be deprived of a good life – and that needs to be corrected.”
His solution: tree planting.
According to the Ecosia website, the company has planted almost 120 million trees to date, across 9,000 planting sites worldwide. One tree is planted for roughly every 45 searches made via Ecosia, at a current rate of 1.3 trees per second, suggesting five million searches are carried out every day using the service.
“There are a lot of good causes, but what I like about tree planting is that it can have a lasting impact on a community. It’s great for the ecosystem, carbon-reduction and water cycle, but people can also earn money from trees by harvesting fruits and nuts,” Kroll explained.
“Tree planting has many positive effects and not really any negative ones. We plant trees only on land that isn’t needed any more and if we plant on agricultural land, we make sure it can still be used in combination with the trees.”
Ecosia is currently the largest private tree planting organization in the world, which Kroll says is a fact to be lamented as much as celebrated. He claims one trillion trees will need to be planted in the next 20 years in order to counteract the effects of climate change, some way off the total achieved by his organization to date.
Amazon has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040, while Google has said it will achieve the same milestone within the next decade. However, Kroll believes carbon net zero commitments of this kind do not go far enough and may even prove deleterious, by creating the sense of a problem solved.
“There are quite a few companies that are now serious about [sustainability], but too many are still using it as a marketing tool – and that’s a problem,” he said.
“The climate shouldn’t be a sub-topic for the marketing department, it should be a primary concern of the CEO and influence the strategic decisions of the company.”
The specific idea for Ecosia, as an eco-friendly alternative to Google, has its origins in two different projects Kroll had worked on while at university.
The first was a search engine he was involved in building on his travels, designed to serve the Nepalese market. Any profits generated by the service were recycled back into education projects for underprivileged local communities.
The second was a website that Kroll ran out of his dorm room comparing online banks and stockbrokers. If someone signed up for one of these services via his site, he would earn commission, but found that almost all revenue needed to be routed back into advertising.
“This was how I realized what a smart idea Google is and how much power the company has to decide who and what gets attention. Google is not necessarily evil, but concentration of power is always dangerous,” said Kroll.
Asked whether users lose or gain anything by choosing Ecosia over Google, we were told that the two search engines largely churn up the same results for any given query, but there are also a few key differences.
Ecosia is built on top of the Microsoft Bing algorithm and infrastructure, meaning search queries will generate slightly different results to those the Google algorithm chooses to highlight.
It also lacks many of the “rich answers” available with Google (such as live sports scores or basic responses to common questions), which are designed to direct users to the information they are seeking more quickly. According to data from 2019, more than 30% of Google searches generate rich answers, but building this functionality is resource-heavy and involves complex licensing agreements, so Ecosia only offers a handful.
Perhaps the greatest difference, however, is that Ecosia doesn’t use data to build out profiles of each user, which means ads and search results are identical for everyone. Whether the user is male or female, aged 20 or 60, based in London or New York, Ecosia will throw up the same selection of links.
“Compared to Google and other big search engines, we collect almost no data,” he told us. “We have to track a little bit of information to shield against cyberattacks and fraud, but beyond that we are not at all interested in what our users are doing.”
Ecosia anonymizes all search queries after four days, meaning it’s impossible for the company to link behavior to a specific user after that period. Any data that is handled by Bing is also anonymized and deleted after the same length of time.
The company stores “partially anonymized IP addresses” and some “browser information”, but this is the extent of the personally identifiable information (PII) collected.
However, limited data collection has both positive and negative effects. Search results are less likely to yield precisely what users are looking for, but concerns around data privacy and the effects of echo chambers are minimized. Advertisers cannot target an audience by demographic, only search terms, but click throughs are cheaper on Ecosia and many people take issue with personalized ads anyway.
Sacrifices made in the context of functionality, Kroll suggests, are more than worth the corresponding gains in privacy and transparency. The company is even considering implementing a mechanism whereby users can choose which priority to optimize for, search accuracy or privacy, but was unable to provide a concrete timeframe.
Pressed on whether the values underpinning Ecosia might, ironically, prevent the project from scaling to the point at which it might be able to affect real change, he explained he is quietly optimistic.
He hopes the many ongoing antitrust lawsuits against Google and other members of Big Tech may yield fruit and pave the way for genuine competition to emerge in search and other markets.
“Ecosia hasn’t yet reached a tipping point, but sometimes things happen very quickly. I’m hopeful we can reach a market share of 10% within a few years,” he said.
The unsellable company
Logging onto our Zoom call from my home office in cold and rainy London, it was hard not to be a little jealous of Kroll, who joined me from his garden in a t-shirt and straw hat. In his wider career, however, he has gone out of his way to avoid the kinds of luxuries that might be the source of envy.
He promises never to purchase a superyacht, like those owned by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, opting instead for a dinghy that he takes out on the lake with friends. Neither does he own a flashy car, preferring to trundle around Berlin on his bicycle instead.
“One of the realizations that has come out of my personal experience is that money is not a driver of happiness,” he explained.
“There are so many people on our planet who are leading difficult lives that could be made easier by distributing wealth more effectively. So my ambition became to earn just a normal salary and to maximize the positive impact I can have with my own life.”
To ensure the Ecosia values cannot be compromised, Kroll has gone to great lengths to put legal measures in place that prevent himself or anyone else from selling or taking funds out of the company.
He and other senior executives still hold all voting rights, meaning decisions can be made and risks taken in the same way a normal business might, but practically all the shares are held by an external foundation that prevents anyone from buying up the company and seizing control from the outside.
In the event of his untimely death, to avoid the risk a family member might need to sell the company to pay off the inheritance tax, the next “steward” will instead be elected by a pre-selected group of Ecosians.
“The model is tough for people to understand, but if every company acted this way, society would look totally different,” he said.
“Many people say that if you’re not driven by money, you are not truly motivated. But I believe [the Ecosia model] is the answer to many of the problems we have with turbo-capitalism at the moment. A lot of destruction and injustice on our planet comes, in my opinion, from the unethical desire to maximize profit.”
Are the tides turning?
Even if Ecosia is ultimately unsuccessful in wrestling control of the search market away from Google, its very existence poses questions that will likely only grow in importance over the next handful of years.
For the past two decades, the rise of US technology giants and the products and services they have produced have been largely celebrated, but there are signs a turning point has been reached.
Regulators are talking about breaking up Big Tech into their constituent properties, paving the way for genuine competition in markets that have been under the thumb of one or just a few organizations. Google, for example, could be broken down into Search, Cloud, Android and YouTube, each of which would remain massive in its own right.
The increasingly widespread understanding of the dangers of internet monopolies of all kinds – from social media to ecommerce and search – may also see consumers pick out services based on ethical considerations over pure functionality.
If and when this trend emerges, Kroll and Ecosia stand ready.