On Ecosia, Climate Justice, and Activism

Vivienne Guo plants trees at the click of a mouse.

Jungle Trees GIF By Marie Condina, Dribbble, All Rights Reserved.

All of the technologies of the modern world revolve around information, reflecting evolutionary social, cultural and political changes (Halavais, 2013). In the world of search engines, Ecosia has been making a name for itself as the world’s greenest search engine, sitting at the crossroads between environmental activism and the digital world. This engine has become an exemplar of Leah Lievrouw’s (2011, as cited in Flew, 2014, p.12) “networked technologies [which are] reprogrammed to become sites of action and change”. Ecosia has transformed our understanding of the internet, revealing that it is inextricably intertwined with offline reality. However, I see a need to analyse Ecosia critically in terms of its economic, political, social and cultural motivations and impacts.

Ecosia by Fifteen Design, All Rights Reserved.

what is ecosia?

Founded by former stockbroker Christian Kroll after a trip around the world, Ecosia is a Berlin-based green search engine that ‘plants a tree’ with every search, donating around 80% of its advertising revenue to programs for reforestation (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018).

Ecosia’s reforestation began with a few trees in Brazil, and has now expanded to other parts of the global south – such as Madagascar, Ethiopia, Brazil and Indonesia – that have been hit by severe deforestation (Figgett, 2019). Through their reforestation, Ecosia helps protect endangered fauna, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, supports coffee farmers in Columbia, and is restoring drought-stricken Ethiopia’s water cycle (Ecosia, 2019). Ecosia also invests in other environmental projects related to deforestation such as alternatives to palm oil, a resource which has devastating environmental impacts (Graham, 2019).

Simply put, Ecosia believes that “the deforestation of the tropical rainforests is the single most important source of CO2 emissions in the world, which is why it is campaigning to stop deforestation.” (Internet Wire, 2009, p.1)

 

the history of ecosia

Ecosia was released on December 7 2009, the same day as the World Climate Summit in Copenhagen (Internet Wire, 2009). Ecosia is not the first engine of its nature, though it is the most successful. In Ecosia’s pilot year, it was lauded by environmental justice organisations worldwide. Head of WWF Germany Eberhard Brandes (2009, as cited in Internet Wire, 2009, p.1) had this to say: “The green search engine is a very modern and innovative approach, allowing its users to help save the world’s climate effortlessly.”

In 2014, Ecosia became certified as a B Corp, a certification issued to companies by B Lab, a global nonprofit organization which “uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems” (CSRWire, 2014, p.1).

In 2010, just a year after Ecosia’s launch, Kroll (as cited in Schmidt et al, 2010) listed several strategic challenges and goals that must be considered in order to achieve Ecosia’s goals and growth:

  • Self-financing by increased revenue
  • Relationship management of existing partnerships
  • Obtaining Google as an additional partner
  • Internationalization of user groups, (especially USA)
    Development of university and school partnerships

Schmidt et al (2010) also identified that Ecosia needed to grow beyond the European – and specifically German – markets. In 2010, the majority of Ecosia’s usage originated from Germany (55%), Switzerland (13%) and France (10%) (Schmidt et al, 2010).

Now in 2019, Ecosia currently has 8 million users, and a net worth of about $89 million USD. At time of writing, they have helped plant over 73.4 million trees. Looking to the future, Ecosia has a vision of facilitating 1 billion planted trees by 2020 (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018). Ecosia hopes to gain a global market share of 1% to put pressure on other tech giants to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices (Athena Information Solutions, 2009; Schmidt et al, 2010; Moody, 2019).

Photo of Christian Kroll and Malaysian Rainforests by The Times, All Rights Reserved.

ecosia’s business model

Ecosia generates revenue solely through Cost per Click ads (CPC) in their search results (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018). As previously mentioned, Ecosia donates 80% of its profits to environmental justice programs focusing on reforestation through organisations such as the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) or The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The remaining 20% is used to pay for necessary costs such as salaries, servers, or marketing. (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018, p.4)

Because the company donates so much of its profits to environmental programs, it experiences many financial limitations. It can only afford to hire about 40 employees and runs largely on volunteer efforts (Moody, 2019). Ecosia also depends on Bing’s algorithms (Moody, 2019). Kroll, the CEO of Ecosia, has a salary of lower than €1000 (Schmidt et al, 2010, as cited in Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018). This miniscule profit margin implies that Kroll is truly not interested in profiting from environmental justice. In 2014, Kroll told CSRWire that “Our mission has always been to create a more sustainable world.” (Kroll, 2014, as cited in CSRWire, 2014)

Ecosia has a green business model, meaning that it primarily pursues environmental objectives. More specifically, IT enabled green businesses display the following characteristics: “They are all enabled by IT and use resources efficiently, avoid harmful waste, create transparency and/or invest their revenues to support environmental initiatives.” (Schmidt et al, 2010, p. 219)

 

ecosia in ecology

When Ecosia burst onto the scene in 2009, it situated itself as a leader in digital environmental activism and set an example for information technology (IT) companies everywhere.

Ecosia has relationships with other ‘competitors’ in the IT industry, which are also its service providers. Bing, the second largest engine behind Google, is Ecosia’s search provider (Ecosia, 2019). Ecosia uses Yahoo as a host for its CPC advertisements, and also has recently developed a free Google Chrome extension that can be added in the Chrome Web Store. Moreover, browser Firefox and Ecosia partnered in 2018. There is a symbiotic relationship between all of these IT companies through Ecosia, but they remain competitive. For Bing and Yahoo, Ecosia is a strategic instrument to take market share away from Google and to exert pressure on Google to dedicate itself more to environmental issues (Schmidt et al, 2010).

As with all other search engines, Ecosia’s clients are its 8 million users. With its simple and straightforward interface, Ecosia in constant communication with its users and appears to possess a unique transparency that bigger companies like Google lack. Ecosia lets users know that each search removes roughly 1kg of CO2 from the air, sticking to its carbon negative promises. Ecosia also works with ‘client’ organisations such as the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018).

Additionally, there are enforceable regulations in place by bodies such as the European Union to regulate search engines’ operations. In 2018, the EU fined Google €4.34 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules, by imposing illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators. All search engines are subject to these regulations regarding competitive conduct. However, there are no regulations on what search engines can or cannot show to its users; the concept of search neutrality is worth investigating here. It refers to an idea that “mandatory neutrality or some impositions on search engine bias is desirable”, adapting the concept of net neutrality to search engines (Manne & Wright, 2012, p. 151).

Ecosia makes itself accountable to the public by publishing monthly financial reports that detail its allocation of revenue to its clients, letting users know where their online efforts have gone. However, it is interesting to note that trust in the search engine’s operations is not a huge factor in whether users decide to use Ecosia or not, because  (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018).

To express Ecosia’s internet ecosystem more clearly, I have attached a visual ecology:

transformative impacts on our world

Firstly, the economic implications of green business models cannot be ignored. The definition of business model has historically been profit-based, focusing on business actors and ignoring non-profit entities (Schmidt et al, 2010). Ecosia sets an example of a successful green business, putting pressure on its search engine competitors and businesses at large to match its environmental dedication. Sustainability is increasingly seen as an effective marketing strategy (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018).

In regards to socio-cultural transformations, Halavais (2013) raises the idea of measuring intent through search engines. Ecosia’s rising popularity makes the intent of its users clear; the world is beginning to move towards a more ethical focus on the environment, fuelled by global anxieties of climate change. Indeed, it is proven that users “feel better using tools that support the environment, sustainability, or that fight against the effects of climate change” (Palos-Sanchez & Saura, 2018, p. 19)

Ecosia’s dedication to raising awareness and following up with action is all the more significant when considering the fact that IT has historically led to rising energy consumption and growing deterioration to the environment (Schmidt et al, 2010). Ecosia currently occupies only 0.13% of the market (Sentance, 2019). However, given Ecosia’s ‘greenness’ – forgive the pun – there is something to be said about the increasing socio-cultural shift towards favouring more ethical usage of the internet. If it is able to gain Google’s staggering 3.5 billion searches a day, Ecosia believes it can help absorb 15% of the world’s carbon emissions (White, 2017).

Now, my main motivation in choosing to investigate Ecosia laid in the implications that it would have on environmental politics. Ecosia is a shining example of Nature 2.0, coined by Büscher (2016) to describe the emerging symbiotic relationship between Web 2.0 and the politics of nature conservation. Specifically, Ecosia exemplifies ‘mediated mobilisations’, a term used to describe the ways in which online media facilitates political activism (Lievrouw, 2011, as cited in Flew, 2014). Ecosia has expanded the meaning of activism, turning it from a daunting prospective of protesting on the streets into an everyday, easy action.

Admittedly, I was wary of Ecosia, which founded after Kroll’s journey into the global south (Moody, 2019). This origin tale cannot shake undertones of voluntourism and white saviourism. Conservation has a “mixed historical track record with regard to the exercise of power and social impacts” (Arts, Van der Wal & Adams, 2015, p. 670). Ecosia has had significant significant political impacts; for example, they assisted Colombia in planting ethically sourced cocoa, thus reinvigorating their economy after five decades of armed conflict (Ecosia, 2019). However, Büscher (p. 732, 2016) makes valuable criticisms of the geopolitical narratives that Ecosia’s plays into, saying that its focus on saving places such as the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park in Brazil is “a story that appeals to a particular audience (predominantly Westerners searching on the net) by espousing familiar ‘visions of the Amazon’ – as globally important Eden and ‘lungs of our planet’. While I am not denying the dire reality of rainforest deforestation, Büscher highlights the oft overlooked Western classism of environmental justice, and the subsequent white saviorism that can often be attached to these visions of the global south.

 

Discovering Tumucumaque National Park by The Golden Scope, All Rights Reserved.

Ultimately, I cannot help but compare Ecosia to metal straws and keep-cups. Yes, metal straws and keep-cups help to decrease waste, but ultimately they are not going to stop climate change; the same goes with Ecosia. The counter on the top-right corner of the Ecosia homepage and the even larger one under the search bar serve as moral, feel-good tokens for users. Too strong a focus on reforestation only distracts from the reality that just 100 companies around the world are responsible for 71% of global emissions (Riley, 2017).

Despite this, I don’t think that Ecosia is a lost cause; in fact, far from it. Ecosia does crucial work in lessening the impact of the effects of climate change, which are already being felt in waves around the world. The fight for climate justice is hard. Ecosia is ultimately just a band-aid solution; it will not stop climate change at the root of the problem. So, while I commend Ecosia on its commitment to afforestation, our mistake as digital-savvy users, with all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, would be to stop at just this one, easy, accessible platform.

WORKS CITED

50 reasons to use Ecosia. (2019). Retrieved 4 November 2019, from https://blog.ecosia.org/50-reasons-to-use-ecosia/

Arts, K., van Der Wal, R., Adams, W., & Arts, K. (2015). Digital technology and the conservation of nature. Ambio, 44, 661–673. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1770365018/

Athena Information Solutions. Ecosia: World’s greenest search engine aims to protect Brazilian rainforests. (2009, December 4). Instablogs. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/189723487/

Büscher, B. (2016). Nature 2.0: Exploring and theorizing the links between new media and nature conservation. New Media & Society, 18(5), 726–743. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814545841

Ecosia – the search engine that plants trees. (2019). Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.ecosia.org/

Figgett, M. (2019). How to be a more ethical techie. PC Pro, (293), 36–37. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2168111538/

Firefox and Ecosia partnered in 2018. (2018). Retrieved 4 November 2019, from https://twitter.com/ecosia/status/973917614018908161

Flew, T. (2014). Mediated mobilisations: the internet and political activism. In New media (pp. 206–215). South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press.

Graham, R. (2019). Eco-friendly palm oil ‘is a con’, says Greenpeace. Retrieved 8 November 2019, from https://www.euronews.com/living/2019/11/05/eco-friendly-palm-oil-is-a-con-greenpeace

Halavais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search engine society (pp. 5–31). Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Keep Cups & Metal Straws: Are We Making a Difference?. (2019). Retrieved 8 November 2019, from https://www.livetribe.com/blog/reusable-bags-keep-cups-metal-straws-techniques-making-difference/

Kroll, C. (2019). Why we’re saying no to Google. Retrieved 4 November 2019, from https://blog.ecosia.org/google-android-choice-screen-auction-eu-ecosia/

Manne, G., & Wright, J. (2012). If search neutrality is the answer, what’s the question? Columbia Business Law Review, 2012(1), 151–239.

Moody, O. (2019). Meet Christian Kroll of Ecosia – the eco-friendly search engine. Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/meet-christian-kroll-of-ecosia-the-eco-friendly-search-engine-2fhngbccd

New Search Engine Set To Save the Rainforests; Eco-friendly Google Rival Ecosia Links Up WWF To Help Battle Climate Change. (2009, December 3). Internet Wire.

Palos-Sanchez, P. (2018). The Effect of Internet Searches on Afforestation: The Case of a Green Search Engine. Forests, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/f9020051

Press Release – Antitrust: Commission fines Google €4.34 billion for illegal practices regarding Android mobile devices to strengthen dominance of Google’s search engine. (2019). Retrieved 6 November 2019, from https://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-4581_en.htm

Riley, T. (2017). Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

Schmidt, N., Ruch, T., Decker, J., Kolbe, L., Vom Brocke, J., Seidel, S., & Recker, J. (2012). Ecosia.org: The Business Case of a Green Search Engine. In Green Business Process Management: Towards the Sustainable Enterprise (2012th ed., pp. 217–232). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27488-6_13

Search Engine Ecosia Awarded “B Corp” Status. (2014, April 30). CSRwire. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1519832568/

Sentance, R. (2019). 18+ stats that show how search and SEO are changing. Retrieved 4 November 2019, from https://econsultancy.com/stats-show-how-search-marketing-seo-changing/

Stewart, C. (2018). What is Search Neutrality?. Retrieved 4 November 2019, from https://hackernoon.com/what-is-search-neutrality-d05cc30c6b3e

White, E. (2017). Saving trees one search at a time. Retrieved 5 November 2019, from https://theanchor.news/2017/02/20/saving-trees-one-search-at-a-time-evan-christopher-white/

 

MEDIA USED

Condina, M. (2019). Jungle Trees [Image]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/4061747-Jungle-trees

Fifteen Design. (2019). Ecosia [Image]. Retrieved from https://i1.wp.com/s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/fifteen-uploads/uploads/2019/04/ecosia.jpg?fit=1000%2C550&ssl=1

The Golden Scope. (2019). Discovering Tumucumaque National Park [Image]. Retrieved from http://www.thegoldenscope.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/TGC-cover.jpg

The Times. (2019). Picture of Christian Kroll and the Malaysian Rainforests [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/imageserver/image/methode%2Ftimes%2Fprod%2Fweb%2Fbin%2F7f20e042-973d-11e9-abb4-0b4b1e74d343.jpg?crop=4688%2C2637%2C52%2C22&resize=1200

 

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