And of course, what gets labeled as marketing in the budget are funds spent to get Ecosia ads in front of your eyeballs, but the real marketing is the trees themselves. There are plenty of options if you don’t want your search history tracked, but only one if you want your query on Nina Simone’s deep cuts to put saplings in the ground.
Margins in hand, Ecosia works with organizations that plant trees by the thousands and tens of thousands in biodiverse regions, and without the use of child labor or chemical pesticides. Of course, much of reforestation happens in areas that have been deforested, and if Ecosia’s partners cannot address the existing incentives to chop down trees—namely a need for agricultural land, firewood, and timber—the company might take its funds elsewhere. Community buy-in is essential for the sustainability of a project.
“It’s easy to plant trees,” says Kroll, “but it’s very difficult to make sure they stay standing.”
The planting itself can bring paid labor to the community, and from there the planting organization often works to show how the harvest, branches, and soil benefits make the tree more valuable in the ground than felled. Whether those efforts succeed obviously changes case by case, and year to year.
Kroll says Ecosia monitors the ongoing progress of each planting project it funds, and may reduce future donations to an organization if it is unable to put or keep trees in the ground. Ecosia gets into the weeds on these issues and many others with each organization they work with.
The partner organizations that responded to my inquiries described a lengthy process of working with Ecosia to determine where, when, and how many trees would be planted in a specific area. Trees for the Future, for instance, wrote that “we anticipate planting 1,200,000 trees through the four-year project. As of August 2019, 598,896 trees have been planted in our Kaffrine 3 project [in Senegal] through Ecosia’s support.”
Hommes et Terre, which received close to a million euros from January to July of 2019 for its work in Burkina Faso, described a similarly detailed three-year plan that it hammered out with Ecosia.
In making their own operation sustainable, Ecosia’s founders foresaw a growing threat: their company’s value. As it grows, the possibility of cashing out becomes weightier. After all, with 50 percent margins, there is plenty of room to provide shareholder dividends while still putting an impressive number of trees in the ground. Kroll and the other executives could sell, become millionaires, and move onto whatever sort of project they’re in the mood for. So, they legislated away their power to do so.
Ecosia describes itself as a “purpose company,” meaning, according to Kroll, that a foundation holds 1 percent of its shares, 99 percent of its capital, and veto rights over any sale of the company. Ecosia is not permitted to issue shareholder dividends, and only employees can be shareholders. In order to sell, the foundation would have to be convinced that the sale will result in more trees being planted.
Beneath all of this is the assumption that planting trees is a good idea. To Kroll, it’s nearly good enough to stop climate change.
“We have enough space to plant 1.2 trillion trees. If we planted these trees, we could almost completely solve climate change. To plant these trees we would need one percent of the global military budget. It’s way more cost effective than renewable energy, electric cars. I think it’s underestimated.”
How big a piece of the carbon pie can be handled through tree planting alone is a live debate among climate scientists, but all will acknowledge it can be a meaningful part of the solution. Add in the benefits to the surrounding economy and ecosystem, and it’s hard to argue with tree planting as a worthy use of available funds (though even this requires a caveat: a recent IPCC report noted that mass tree-planting initiatives could significantly raise food prices). That said, truly solving climate change will inevitably involve real changes in how we live and transport ourselves. Trees help, but, to summarize a jungle of a climate debate, it’s more complicated than that.