June 13, 2020

Is Ecosia Real or Fake? An honest review of Search Engine Ecosia

Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees for every search you make. Sounds too good to be true? 

Here at Cariki, we believe that sustainable businesses are essential for helping move towards a green future. That’s why we’ve made this blog post, to find out the truth about whether Ecosia is an honest environmental company or just another greenwashing scam.

The allure of planting trees for every online search sounds pretty amazing, let’s find out the truth behind Ecosia. 

Here are some of Ecosia’s top line stats:

  • 21 reforestation projects across the globe
  • Now planted over 90 million trees and climbing quickly
  • 3 million tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere
  • Over 500 native tree species planted, restoring 60,000+ hectares
  • 52 employees, including freelancers

Ecosia, fake or legit?

What is Ecosia? 

Ecosia is an online search engine that plants trees for every search you make. Think of them as an environmental Google, Bing or Yahoo, where you can access and browse the internet as you normally would. 

Ecosia started back in 2009, when German engineer Christian Froll came up with the idea of using the profits from a search engine to help fund reforestation projects in some of the most threatened ecosystems around the world. 

Since then, Ecosia has grown rapidly. 

Now with 52 employees, they now boast (and rightly so) to have planted over 90 million trees, and have even built a solar farm. They are reportedly able to take 1kg of CO2 from the atmosphere for every search you make. Sounds pretty good so far, right? 

But before we take everything at face value, it’s worth doing a little digging to find out what’s really happening under the surface. 

 

How does the search engine Ecosia work? 

As with all search engines, Ecosia is paid by advertisers to put ads at the top of search results. When you or I click on these ads, the search engine is paid by the advertising company who is paying to have their ad displayed in prime position. 

If you search for a sustainable fashion brand, such as Cariki (shameless plug), but just type ‘sustainable fashion’ into the search bar, the first results you see will likely be sustainable fashion brands who are paying to be ranked at the top of the search results. An ad icon will clearly show that the top results are paid adverts. 

If you were then to click on one of these ads, 80% of the amount paid for your click (after deducting expenses) will go to planting trees.

This, in essence, is at the core of every online search engine - so far, everything seems normal. 

How does Ecosia use its money? 

Of this money that goes to Ecosia, 80% of profits reportedly goes to planting trees. This money is then invested into biodiversity hotspots, which according to Ecosia are ecosystems that face extreme threats, hold at least 1,500 species and have diminished at least 70%. This means that planting vegetation in these threatened ecosystems will have high impact results. 

So on the surface, it seems relatively straight forward. And with all the ways that Google makes money, there seems many avenues which Ecosia could explore to earn more. 

From a quick glance, it all sounds like a very easy and convenient way to help the environment. 

So let’s dig a little deeper and find out the truth. 

Does Ecosia really plant trees with every click? 

Ecosia’s whole business is based around one central principle, to plant trees and help offset the devastation caused by years of irresponsible business and government policies. 

However, with so many companies in 2020 now ‘greenwashing’ their environmental policies, you can’t trust a company like Ecosia solely on what they claim.

So let’s look at where the money is actually going and how it’s changing the environments where it is invested. 

The most important question on everyone’s mind, does Ecosia actually plant trees for every search we make? 

Well, it’s a little more complicated than a straight yes. 

Instead of directly paying for each tree that’s planted, Ecosia supports local partners or non profits who plant trees using Ecosia’s investments. These organisations have hands on experience in the local areas where they operate, and can react individually to their specific climates. 

For example, inBurkina Faso Ecosiahave partnered withHommes et Terre to help plant over 12 million trees since 2014. Here they are fighting the spread of desertification, just take a look at the pictures and you will see the clear transformation. 

 

Ecosia are investing in the reforestation of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems around the planet. This is a list of the projects they are helping to fund. 

Ecosia planting trees

Berkino Faso, where Ecosia are investing in tree planting

Ecosia planting trees in Berkino Faso

  • India
  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Peru
  • Madagascar
  • Nicaragua
  • Haiti
  • Colombia
  • Malawi
  • Spain
  • Morocco
  • Senegal
  • Burkina Faso
  • Ghana
  • Ethiopia
  • Uganda
  • Kenya
  • Tanzania
  • Indonesia

This list is constantly evolving as they grow and add more projects. You can read more about their varioustree planting projects here.

Can you trust these numbers? 

Whilst on the surface these numbers seem pretty incredible, Ecosia are not a public company, which means they currently aren’t audited by independent bodies. So to a limited extent, we do have to trust what they state on their website. 

That being said, you can check for yourself the impact that Ecosia are having on theorganisations who they partner with, and see how their planting initiatives are benefiting local environments. 

Just as impressive is the fact they have been recognised as aB-Corporation, the first German company to achieve this status back in 2014. 

Certified B-Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, successfully balancing profit and purpose. Amongst their ranks are some of the most sustainable and ethical companies on the planet, and Ecosia is ranked one of the highest companies in the B-Corp list, receiving an honorary mention for the past 4 years and scoring a very respectable 113.4.

Said more clearly, these companies are recognised for helping shift the economy towards a more sustainable future. 

A certification like B-Corp goes a long way to show the trust and value which we can place in a company like Ecosia, who are clearly bringing value to the planet. 

From our initial findings then, although we can’t offer a guarantee that Ecosia has reached the exact number of trees planted that it claims, it does seem like it has made a significant difference to tree planting in a number of vital and threatened ecosystems around the world.  

Even if not perfect, that’s a gold star from us. 

Amazon reforestation

Reforestation funded by Ecosia in Amazon, Brazil

 

Ecosia’s transparent finances

Income for the company has been growing steadily over the past decade, and Ecosia transparently shares with us their financial earnings. 

Between 2009 and March 2013, they had contributed €1,192,753 to tree planting profits. To contrast this, in the month of February 2020 alone they donated a massive €1,516,644.

Ecosia donates roughly 59% of their total revenue every month to tree planting, or 80% of its profits if you take operating costs out of their revenue. 

This may sound a little confusing, but let’s demonstrate this using their transparent financial reporting. 

In February 2020, Ecosia invested €1,516,644 to tree planting (80% of their surplus revenue). 

Now this is only 59% of their total monthly income, but once you subtract the operating expenses of running the business you will see they are honoring their pledge of 80% of profits to tree planting. 

€2,580,715 - (557,192 + 117,747) = €1,905,776 (Revenue - (Operating Costs + Spreading the Word (Marketing Budget)) = Total Profit).

Then take €1,516,644 / €1,905,776 = 0.796 or effectively 80% (Tree Planting Spend / Total Profit = % of Profit Spent on Tree Planting).

But not only are they hitting their target of  investing 80% of profits into tree planting, they are also building a significant rainy day fund of €389,132 to ensure consistent funding of projects and save for larger plans such as solar farms. 

However, do remember that this is self audited and is not 100% scrutinized by a third party. 

Nevertheless, their transparency earns them another gold star from us. 

Privacy - Are Ecosia stealing my data? 

In short, yes. Every search engine you use is taking some level of data and using this to help improve your search results by providing you with the best content. 

This is why critical reviews such as that from2Spyware are perhaps a little OTT. Ecosia does hijack your search results and place ads at the top of them, but so does every browser. It’s how they make their money, and in this case a large chunk of profits are going towards planting trees rather than investors. 

However, in contrast to some of Ecosia’s bigger brothers like Google, Bing or Yahoo, Ecosia has a very simple andtransparent policy towards data.

Although impossible to verify, their website goes into detail (clearly laid out unlike most fine print) about how your data is used, and whether provable or not, they seem to have a respect for the information they collect.

For example, they claim not to sell data to advertisers, not to track preferences that you don’t want, and to anonymize searches within 7 days. They also encrypt all searches to protect you from eavesdroppers and claim not to use tracking tools.

Their transparency elsewhere makes me at least more inclined to believe them than other large search engines. 

So, that’s a third gold star from the Cariki team. 

Let’s compare Ecosia’s attitude to the environment to Google and Bing

Now Google and Microsoft (who own Bing) both have fairly progressive environmental policies in comparison to many large American firms. 

Google, for example, has been Carbon Neutral since 2017, drawing 100% of its energy from renewables to power its colossal network. 

Microsoft, whilst not as impressive, has recently increased its ambition and vowed to beCarbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all of the carbon that the company has ever emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. They are also aiming to make their entire supply chain reduce their carbon emissions.

However, what really excites us is Microsoft’s $1 billion climate innovation fund aimed at helping accelerate the development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies. 

We applaud their ambitions and would like to see other companies with such presence enact similar measures, yet we can’t help but feel this is a little too late and is only being enacted to comply rather than exceed expectations. 

In comparison, Ecosia are already removing carbon from the atmosphere today rather than allowing themselves decades to change course. According to their website, every search with Ecosiaactually removes about 1kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. To put this into perspective, if the search engine was as big as Google it could absorb 15% of all global CO2 emissions. 

Planting trees also has a range of other benefits, such as preventing erosion, creating microclimates that protect crops, restoring depleted soil, and creating habitats for endangered animals. It also benefits those who live nearby by providing jobs, climate stability and make growing seasons more stable so that farmers can rely on the land to provide for them. 

It’s clear that the environment for Ecosia is the mission of the company, it’s raison d'être. The same cannot sadly be said for Google or Microsoft, but oh how we wish it were. 

But (and this is a biggie), before we jump to conclusions, Ecosia is actually built on Bing, which means in part they are helping to contribute to their share of Bing’s carbon footprint. Before we run away with this fact, we have to remember that with their investments in solar energy they are producing more than enough power to meet their demands, and that by planting trees they are actually sequestering a lot more carbon from the atmosphere than they are producing. 

So, that’s a fourth gold star for Ecosia. 

Ecosia’s neutral results

In order to understand your online behaviour, Google tracks your search history and location so that they can optimise and provide results which they think you will like to see. 

This is the product of billions of dollars of investment designed to keep you on their site for longer. It does have the added benefit that you can also find what you are looking for more easily. 

As we all know, this can be a double edged sword, helping answer your search intent but also possibly trapping you in a ‘filter bubble’ where you only ever read one type of opinion. 

Ecosia makes it very easy to cut through this, enabling you to choose whether you wish to personalise your search results or not. It’s as easy as heading to your settings and turning tracking off. 

That’s a fifth gold star for Ecosia, almost as if it were planned! 

So, is Ecosia legitimately a green company? 

While Ecosia will likely not achieve their aim planting 1 billion trees by 2020 (and they are a little shy of the approximately 1.5 trillion trees that experts reckon need to be planted to offset the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution began), their efforts are nothing to laugh at. 

Their transparent finances and data usage is something that other companies could learn from. 

But most importantly, Ecosia actually makes it easy to contribute to helping the environment without having to do more than literally lift a finger, and the switch won’t drastically alter your lifestyle.

So why not give it a try? 


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