More updates from the nonprofit climate action search engine Ecosia: It has given itself its first major brand refresh since its launch in 2009 while also announcing a shift from 3-year to 20-year contracts for its tree planting projects — the idea is to make sure ensure that the trees planted with a profit from the search ads are “intergenerational” and can survive in the long term.
Also today, the search engine said its global usage has grown to 20 million monthly active users — up from 15 million between mid-2019 and 2021 — and now serves half a billion searches per month. Search engine use is highest in Germany, France, the UK and the US – and Ecosia tells us it wants to capitalize on the opportunities presented by a growing audience of climate-conscious, and often young, users.
Planting trees is a popular measure to reduce CO2 emissions, but the idea that humanity can simply plant itself out of the climate crisis has sparked some skepticism. Poorly designed tree planting projects have also been shown to do more harm than good, as they can damage existing ecosystems and even reduce biodiversity. And, sure, to make reforestation projects credible rather than greenwashing, much more needs to be done than just digging a few holes in the ground and sticking saplings in them. So Ecosia’s rebranding looks like an attempt not only to refresh a rather dated look, but also to underline that it’s not really one of the token greenwashers.
The profits from the search ads have so far funded the planting of some 150 million trees – and it has high survival rates, noting that its approach involves designing projects with local partners; use of local tree species (his portfolio consists of 900+ different species of which 30+ are on the endangered list); and monitoring trees for a minimum of three years using satellite technology, geo-tagging, photographic evidence and field visits, to track survival.
The brand refresh marks this focus on tree biodiversity – with 12 tree icons modeled after native species displayed in the product to highlight the location of the projects.
Ecosia also describes its projects as varied in scope, with a goal aligned with the local community and ecosystem – such as in India, where it partners with an organization run by women in West Bengal called Soceo to plant fruit trees that a reliable source of income for them and their families. The point is that trees will only survive in a context where they are valued by the local community.
The search engine recently appointed its first-ever Chief Product Officer, Michael Metcalf, who suggests technology is in the works to support and enhance the collaborative process. “More innovations are coming,” he told us, adding, “There will probably also be technology stories in the future about how technology and satellite imaging and the like can be better used.”
When asked about the problems associated with tree plantations, he agrees that monocultures do more harm than good – but Ecosia emphasizes that the projects it supports do not create plantations, but rather plant native tree species – “with an approach that focuses on the right tree, right place, to restore biodiversity hotspots”, as it puts itself.
“We do this around the world with many organizations aligned with our values, and one of our values is biodiversity,” adds Metcalf of his tree planting projects. “It also gets them to work with community members so that the community is involved in the experience. For example, you can just plant trees on a hill in Africa, that is not possible. It is not sustainable.”
Ecosia also doesn’t plant trees for carbon offsetting — another measure that’s often seen as climate action, but has been widely criticized as greenwashing.
“We don’t sell trees to people trying to make compensation,” Metcalf emphasizes. “We invest in communities, we invest in trees as a way to make lasting change. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve moved from a three-year commitment to a 20-year commitment – so it’s different if you’re doing this for financial gain… Because we have this really unique model that we basically do this fuel the impact team to go there and plant trees.”
The chance for climate action
Ecosia has more developments in the works as usage scales. This summer, it’s launching a Climate Pledge Rating, applying a letter rating to 20 of the most searched companies (including Amazon, Meta and Spotify), making a statement about these organizations’ commitment to climate action — and could lead to certain tech giants have clouded their functions.
Metcalf didn’t have many details about how the rating system will work, but he said Ecosia is working with the Technische Universität Berlin to base the system on each company’s open climate commitments against the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He said the general idea is to encourage others to take more action to reduce their impact on the climate.
An existing Ecosia feature – where the search engine displays a leaf icon next to search results from ‘planet-friendly websites’ to help users make more sustainable choices – has also been significantly expanded to more than 6,500 organizations, at a few hundred per Metkalf.
That feature uses climate assessment audits published by institutions such as B Corp Climate Collective, Hilfswerft, Economy for the Common Good, Climate Accountability Institute, said an Ecosia spokesperson.
Another upcoming update Metcalf mentions is a (highly requested) dark mode feature – slated to launch this fall.
“The Huge Opportunity [in] the front of us is to help guide our user base,” he told Vidak For Congress. “We have a huge user base that we know is interested in climate change. Not all of them are equally interested, but they want to do something — they have the bothered to switch browsers, they bothered to switch searches, they bothered to download the app and install the extension so we know there’s a chance to do more with it. to help educate them.”
“We will continue to double the search for green. And we really keep improving our user experience,” he also told us. “I think the brand is the first step in that direction and the big preview here is that we’re the same company we were before, but we see a big opportunity to have a bigger impact. And that’s what we want – we really want to unleash a lot of the energy that’s out there with our users. We have fantastic users. We know they have energy and so we really want to unleash that… We are 100% aligned with our users in wanting to do more to tackle climate change and the climate crisis.”
In a next step, Ecosia will soon launch a $250,000 fund to support Berlin-based companies that raise awareness about environmental or climate issues or promote sustainable lifestyles.
It is not the first attempt to fund other companies to take climate-friendly measures: it recently announced that it will use part of its profits to support green energy in its home market of Germany – mainly by investing millions of euros in Zolar’s network of solar cell installers.
Last fall, it also launched the €350 million Global Fund to support climate-focused startups — and has started investing in startups, including vegetable steak startup Juicy Marbles; plant trees fintech TreeCard; and cocoa-free chocolate alternative Qoa.
“We want to do more to tackle climate change and the climate crisis,” Metcalf added. “We’re still going to plant trees, we’re still going to have great partnerships, we’ll still have the WorldFund investing in climate-negative companies, but I think for me, as a product officer, it’s exciting that we have a huge opportunity with tens of millions users to do more.
“Search is a tool – people go there, they type something in a box, there’s some text, people click on ads every now and then, hopefully we get the ads right and they go somewhere. But I think if we being able to sprinkle a little greenery along that path, along the user’s journey, and help make better decisions and educate them a little bit, I think that’s the start of something much bigger and much more important.”