When German entrepreneur Christian Kroll returned from travelling, he knew there was an opportunity to use tech for good.
Having witnessed the devastating impact of deforestation and monoculture plantations in South America, the reality was clear; big business is contributing massively to climate change, but it can also play a role in remedying the damage inflicted on the planet.
“I returned to Berlin knowing I wanted to start a business that would put its profits into ecological conservation,” he says. Today, this business takes the form of Ecosia, the purpose-driven search engine at which Kroll serves as CEO.
Ecosia isn’t like most businesses, and certainly not like many of its counterparts in the search engine industry. First and foremost, the revenue generated by the firm is used to pay out its operational costs, Kroll explains, which includes salaries, office maintenance, taxes and “some money for spreading the word”.
From the remaining profits, 100% is dedicated to climate action, with at least 80% of that spent on planting trees. The rest, he says, goes towards various green initiatives and investments like agroforestry projects or solar power plants.
Reforestation is a key focus for Ecosia and one of the several reasons it continues to attract new users. Since the company’s launch in 2009, it has planted more than 120 million trees in 26 countries globally – an effort that has benefited hundreds of communities.
“We partner with local organisations and work closely with local communities to plant and monitor the trees,” Kroll explains.
“Our trees don’t just sequester carbon, they also regulate extreme weather systems, provide habitats for animals, combat hunger and poverty, and support local communities by providing products that improve livelihoods and bring in additional income.”
Ecosia isn’t Kroll’s first venture. Originally from Wittenberg in former East Germany, he studied business administration at Nuremberg University and had a keen interest in tech and the internet.
During his studies, he started a website that compared different online stock market brokers and even built an online games website with his flatmate.
Prior to travelling in South America, Kroll also spent time in Nepal, where he launched a search engine which aimed to finance global development projects. Although the venture failed to gain significant traction, it was here that the initial ideas for building a social business were born.
More than a decade later, Ecosia boasts more than 15 million active users and, much to Kroll’s pride is a carbon-negative company. Ecosia’s servers run on 200% renewable energy, and with every search request up to one kilogram of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, meaning users are actively helping the environment when using the service.
Ecosia’s evolution as a company has coincided with a growing awareness of climate change. In recent years, consumers have become increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of business and, crucially, the impact of their habits on the earth.
This environmental awareness – combined with increasingly socially conscious attitudes toward business and consumer culture – has helped fuel the rise of values-led, purpose-driven business.
And this has helped fuel the search engine’s growth so far, Kroll says, with many young users flocking to Ecosia due to these shared values.
“Ecosia is growing fast alongside an awareness of the climate crisis and that growth is driven by young users – our base skews uniquely young compared to other search engines,” he says.
“I do think there is a push from consumers, especially young people, towards holding companies to account. The next generation wants to see a change in the world and they are questioning companies’ motives and seeking out the truth behind brands,” Kroll adds.
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Crucially, Kroll believes that Ecosia users “like that we are focused on people and the planet, not making money” and value the firm’s transparent approach to spending.
Each month the search engine publishes publicly available financial reports so users can see how it spends its money and where trees are being planted.
Long-term, Kroll believes this consumer relationship, built on a firm foundation of trust, could propel the company to greater heights. Ecosia already commands a sizeable user base, but compared to industry giants such as Google it’s still a relatively small player.
Google, for example, is used by billions of consumers globally and, according to statistics from December 2020, processes more than 3.5 billion searches per day. This equates to around 40,000 search queries every second and 1.2 trillion per year.
But while these organisations are the industry leaders and often the go-to players, they represent the cold, faceless reality of big business; multinational corporations with little to no impactful, personal relationship with users.
It is for this reason that Kroll says Ecosia can, one day, hope to compete.
“Of course it’s a constant challenge for us, our competitors are some of the most powerful companies in the world, but we will continue to speak out against anti-competitive behaviour in the search engine market and keep pushing for change and more ethical tech that centres on the user, not providers’ pockets,” he says.
Consumer perception of how large companies are addressing climate change also drives more users toward Ecosia.
All too often, Kroll asserts, some companies see climate action as a marketing ploy to enhance their brand, and tech giants such as Amazon or Google are coming under increased pressure to curb their environmental impact.
“It’s clear they’re not doing enough,” Kroll insists. “Amazon and Google have promised to become carbon neutral, but why stop there? We believe in constantly improving our model and pushing beyond the limits.”
“We’re taking responsibility and pushing for change, something we believe all tech industry players should do.”
Leading by example in regard to climate awareness, he suggests, is what has set the search engine apart in recent years and helped solidify its relationship with users. The values of the company and the consumer align, they resonate, and that’s a potent catalyst for positive change.
“There are a growing number of truly purpose-driven businesses that are showing that it is possible to be a company that centres the planet and its people before profit. It’s a challenging, but exciting time,” Kroll says.
Impact Summit 2021 | Get Involved
Christian Kroll is set to feature at Impact Summit 2021, held on the 19th and 20th of May.
To learn more about Ecosia and purpose-driven business, make sure to register and secure your place.