This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
Ecosia is the rarest of things—a search engine with a conscience: It refuses to steal data, evade taxes, or take any profits at all. Instead, it puts its revenue into tackling climate change by planting trees the world over. It’s the brainchild of Christian Kroll, a mild-mannered, 35-year-old German tech entrepreneur. He started the site with his sister in the storage room of a mosaics workshop in Berlin a decade ago. Today, it operates out of a hip warehouse in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, the entire operation running on its own purpose-built solar plants.
As Ecosia prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this December, it seems their mantra of good not greed has struck a chord: Last year it saw an 82 percent year-on-year increase in searches globally. We asked Kroll to tell us about his plans for world transformation.
VICE: We keep hearing people say they have just switched to Ecosia. Can you tell us what it is and a little bit about the ethos behind it?
Christian Kroll: It’s really simple. It’s a search engine that uses the profit from the advertising revenue to plant trees all over the world. Search engines are the technology of the 21st century. Everybody uses them to get information and make decisions. They are slowly becoming our personal assistants—making choices for us without us really being aware of it. So while we already have Google, I think it’s important there should be an independent search engine that actually upholds certain ethical standards and isn’t designed purely for profit.
It sounds like a good idea—especially with monetization of data being such a big issue right now. So how does it actually work?
Microsoft[’s Bing] provides the algorithms for our search page, and so our results are different from Google. I would say that 95 percent of all my searches are answered by Ecosia. But one of the greatest advantages to using us is that we don’t track user information [permanently] and we certainly don’t sell any data. We anonymize all searches after four days and that means we basically don’t know anything about our users. It means we are making a little less money, but we decided we wanted to do what felt right.
That must be quite hard when you are up against one of the biggest and richest companies in the world. How do you hope to compete?
To a large extent I admire Google. It’s a very smart company and so not easy to win against. But I think that no company should be allowed to have as much power as Google has. In America and in many European countries it has around 90 percent share of the market. And that is a 90 percent share of probably the most important industry of the 21st century. I wouldn’t want Ecosia to have that. A search engine can never be neutral. It’s impossible for Google to be neutral: It has the power to decide what information people receive and so to influence their decisions. At Ecosia our aim is to encourage people to make decisions that are good for them but also good for the planet. It’s a lot of responsibility.
It’s a huge responsibility. What made you decide that planting trees was the best way to invest your profit?
I was in South America in 2006 and I found myself driving for hours and hours through these vast soy plantations, where the rainforest used to be, and which are now basically green deserts pumped full of chemicals. You never hear the sound of a single bird.
I started reading a lot about deforestation and became aware that climate change would probably become the most important topic of the 21st century, which currently it certainly seems to be. It’s a fact that if we planted one trillion trees we could pull enough carbon out of the air to massively reduce the risk of impending climate catastrophe. And trees don’t just help with climate change either, but also with poverty, hunger, flooding, and drought, as well as the biodiversity crisis.
Your homepage is telling me that I’ve now done enough Ecosia searches to plant nearly 1,000 trees, but how do I know that you are planting the right trees in the right places?
All Ecosia’s profits are given to partners around the world such as Progreso and the Green Belt Movement, which plant trees on our behalf. They are the experts and know what they’re doing. Recently we’ve planted acacia trees, which are good for drought, in Burkina Faso; fast-growing, protein-rich moringa trees in Peru; and mangrove trees in Madagascar.
We are a small company of just 45 people, and one of our most important teams is our tree-planting officers. Their role is to ensure the tree planting is actually happening and the trees are surviving.
It sounds like you are on your way to becoming our next tech millionaire. Is money important to you and can you tell us how much you earn?
We don’t share our salaries publicly, although I think that is going to change because I get asked that question a lot. We pay normal, market rate salaries and all staff have the option to reduce their earnings so more trees get planted. I voluntarily reduce mine, which means I earn around 30 percent less than the highest earner at Ecosia.
I have basically decided against becoming rich. I don’t think that money necessarily makes me happy. I have a small rented apartment, I have a bike, and while the Google founders have their super yachts, I have an inflatable dinghy that I share with friends and which we take out onto the lakes around Berlin. I live a simple life, very different from typical startup people.
It’s an admirable sentiment, but surely if, when the time is right, you decided to sell Ecosia you couldn’t help but become enormously rich?
To me, we are not a normal company, we are more like a movement. No one has the right to own a movement or, especially, sell a movement.
In the beginning I made a promise that I would never sell Ecosia, but I knew that was a bit meaningless because if I got hit by a bus, my family would inherit the company and would then have to sell it, possibly even to Google or Microsoft, to pay off the taxes. The bigger Ecosia grew the heavier this responsibility became.
We thought about turning ourselves into a foundation to prevent this happening, but that wasn’t quite right. Instead, recently we have become what’s known as a steward-owned company, and it’s now legally irreversible not just to sell Ecosia but also for anyone to take profits out of it.
I’ve also heard that Ecosia has been very vocal in its support for Extinction Rebellion, the global environmental movement.
In Germany we have this movement called FridaysforFuture, and we realized that we have a lot of people on our staff who are very active in organizing and participating in these demonstrations. We decided that the best way we could support them is by actually counting this protest time as work time. Also, if any of our staff happen to get into trouble for nonviolent disobedience and end up in jail for a few days, then we would count that as work time too, rather than taking it out of their holiday time or whatever. Plus we’d provide legal help.
When we hire people, of course they need to be very well qualified, but we obviously look for people who really care about what we’re doing. I would never hire somebody who is, say, an excellent developer, but flies to Dubai every weekend to go shopping.
So what does the future hold?
I do think we can grow big just by doing what we believe is right. Fifty percent of our users are under the age of 35, and a lot of these are smart, progressive people who really care about our planet.
I think companies have a responsibility to behave like role models, but unfortunately in many areas, they do not. There are a few things that Google does that aren’t very nice—being anti-competitive, for example, and finding ways to pay as little tax as possible. If I owned Google I’d make sure that I fulfilled all my social responsibilities. Unfortunately, I don’t own Google. Not yet.
Right now we are still minuscule compared with Google—I think in Germany we have something like maybe 1 percent or less of the market share—but out on the streets with Extinction Rebellion, everyone has heard of us. I think we have something that in the long term will be a huge advantage over Google, and that’s trust. And trust is something that money simply can’t buy.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.