Ecosia: The Rising Power of the Green Search Engine

Ecosia: The Rising Power of the Green Search Engine

12 minutes to read
Article
Sterre de Graaf
13/12/2021

“Major climate changes inevitable and irreversible” or “the climate disaster is here – this is what the future looks like”, are frightening headlines that are published on a regular base these days. But, is it too late? Is it really that bad? According to Ecosia, a green search engine, it is not. This company is committed to combating the climate crisis.

Introducing Ecosia: 'The Green Search Engine'

 Imagine that you are able to plant a tree with every 45 searches that you make. The green search engine Ecosia will do it for you. Since 2009, over 15 million users have chosen to plant trees rather than stimulating profit-driven companies, such as Google. Ecosia positions itself as a green web-based company that places the earth and its population over benefits and data (Ecosia, n.d.). Ecosia's origins can be found in Germany and it started more than a decade ago.  In 2014 the company got the Certified B Corporation (Ecosia, n.d.), which means that the company fulfils the highest standards of social and environmental transparency, performance, and accountability.

The CEO and founder of Ecosia, Christian Kroll recognised the environmental issues while he was travelling and decided to make a difference. After having set up several other failing start-ups, Ecosia can be instead considered a success. One of the most important aspects is that Ecosia does not seek to make profit, nor are the investors able to withdraw money at any time (Bauder, 2020)

Throughout the years, more than 137 million trees have been planted (and still counting), there are over 9 thousand planting sites and there is almost 13 million euros invested in the company (Ecosia, n.d.).

The aim of this article is to dive deeper into the ideologies that emerge from Ecosia’s Instagram posts and two interviews that were held with the CEO and founder of the green search engine, Christian Kroll. By doing an analysis on these two types of data, this article will shed light on the ideologies of Ecosia and see how the green search engine differs from other competitors like Google and Yahoo.

Ideologies in Ecosia’s Discourse

To begin with, ideologies are fruitful to examine as they present ideas, relations, behaviour and thinking within a specific setting. This article will follow Blommaert’s (2005; 2019) definition of ideologies. However, there is no clear-cut definition and there are several interpretations of this concept. According to Blommaert (2019), an ideology is “any set of socially structured ideas guiding behavior and thought in particular domains of life” (n.p.).  A common pitfall when discussing ideologies is that they are seen as something inherently negative or integrated into the beliefs of an individual, institution or a company. Ideologies are then per definition seen as partisan, not factual. Blommaert (2005) defines ideology as what should be at the heart of any discourse analysis. He critically points out that ideologies can be extracted from discourse. In general, he sees two types of conceptualizations of ideology: firstly, ideology as a grand narrative, a worldview that characterises a whole system, and secondly, ideology as a characterisation of one group. According to Blommaert (2005) who follows Barthes, ideology is neither, but rather it can be considered layered. This article will adopt this focus on ideologies as stratified; there is not one, but there can be many ideologies that arise and are produced by discourse. Rather than merely focusing on the symbolic, the context is also important to keep in mind (Thompson, 1990). Moreover, ideologies can be shared, and overlap to a great extent,as shown by the analysis of Ecosia in this article.

Figure 1: Ecosia's Financial Report of August 2021

Ecosia’s Business Model

More than a decade ago, Ecosia donated a minimum of 80% of their revenue towards World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) (Schmidt, 2011). However, nowadays, when looking at the financial reports that Ecosia posts each month on their website (see Figure 1), it is clear that they allocate at least four fifth of their income to planting and taking care of trees (Ecosia, 2021). All the other costs and expenses are revealed and explained in the reports as well. To make it more accessible and to give more publicity, the reports are also posted on social media platforms, in an attractive lay-out and the costs and charts are made understandable for everyone to see. Kroll said in an interview that “[t]ransparency is incredibly important to Ecosia and we’ve been publishing our financial reports since 2014” (Bauder, 2020, n.p.), which stresses that this is an important aspect for the company. Their incomes mostly depend on advertisements and clicks, besides receiving a small commission on the sold products in their web shop (Ecosia Support, 2021).

In multiple utterances Kroll, seems to be against contemporary capitalism: “This is something I hope for the current capitalist system, which I believe is broken and losing in the fight against the climate crisis. […] we can believe it can change for the better” (Bauder, 2020, n.p.).

“It is definitely a challenge being impact-driven in a system that still rewards businesses that are focused on profit, at the expense of planet and people” 

-Christian Kroll in EU-Startups

So, he clearly states that he is not supportive of the current economic system, but contrastingly, there are still aspects of capitalism that can be recognized in Ecosia’s business model. 

Hence, Ecosia’s ideology can be related to green capitalism (Kenis & Lievens, 2015; Smith, 2015). Green capitalism, or often referred to as the green economy, gives people the idea that they can change their impact on nature by consuming, or in this case, searching the Web through Ecosia. The contradiction to this practice is that searching is not that nature-friendly either. According to some, “data is the new oil” (Hirsch, 2014, p. 394), which makes it ambiguous since Ecosia has green and environmental-friendly standards.

But What Happens in Silicon Valley?

In 2011, Schmidt provided an examination of eight search engines that have a social purpose and one of them was Ecosia. The aspirations of these start-ups were mostly concerned with CO2 impact or maintaining nature. However, not many of the search engines discussed in 2011 are still online. Only one of them, besides Ecosia, is still running. So, only two out of eight search engines have managed to develop their company while maintaining their beliefs throughout the years. All of these companies were sharing a relavitely large amount of their revenues towards investments in nature or green energy resources. Thus, this shows that it might be more difficult for companies that have other aspirations than making profit, to survive in the current capitalistic system. Other well-known search engines, like Yahoo and Google pursuit different values and beliefs than Ecosia, as the green search engine likes to emphasize. However, they also overlap to a certain extent. Whereas Ecosia likes to present itself differently than others in Silicon Valley, that is not necessarily always the case. 

When comparing other search engines to Ecosia, there are a few differences that can be noted. For instance, the green search engine anonymizes searches after one week. Whereas other well-known search engines hold on to this data, even if the user deletes its history or cookie preferences. Besides that, Ecosia keeps these data to itself; there are no third parties involved tracking online searches and behaviours (Ecosia, n.d.).

The Californian Ideology (Barbrook, 2000) is shared among the companies located in Silicon Valley. It entails an idealised image of technology and promises that technology will fix everything.

The Californian Ideology refers to the idea that technology provides a better foundation for society and combines a liberalised idea with entrepreneurship and tech.

Turner (2005) adds to this: “the building of a better society required stepping outside politics and turning instead towards information, technology and commerce” (p. 491). An ideology that can be linked with the concept of the Californian Ideology is that of technological utopianism, or sometimes referred to as digital utopianism. This ideology refers to the technology as a tool to structure, liberate, and democratise society (Dickel & Schrape, 2017). It assumes that enhancements in technology or science are able to, and should result in a utopia. One of the core ideas is that technological developments solve the problems of older technologies. This is visible throughout Ecosia’s discourse as their platform tries to improve nature by utilising technology.

Environmental Engagement on Instagram

Instagram is a Social Networking Site (SNS) that creates an opportunity to engage with people and to create certain strategies to promote connectivity and interactivity through (audio)visual content (Leaver et al., 2020). But more importantly, Ecosia is constructing a corporate identity by using SNSs like Instagram. Multimodality – the use of several modes of communication within one medium or platform – allows a varied way to share content with followers. There are recurring patterns that can be recognised from Ecosia’s Instagram account. The main thing that the company shares is updates on what they are doing. This can entail updates on projects that they are working on, updating partners, or introducing new collaborations. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, every month, a new financial report is released and Ecosia aims to promote themselves and to engage with their followers through Instagram. Ecosia uses SNSs as a medium to publish what they are doing, showing actual footage from the plantations, and broadening their audience. This strengthens their corporate identity, as transparency seems to be one of the core values of the platform. By doing so, they aim to differentiate themselves from other search engines. Let’s dive deeper into Ecosia’s Instagram activity and multimodal discourse.

Figure 2: Post of Ecosia on the importance of biodiversity

A role that they try to fulfil is to inform and educate people about nature. Ecosia's goal is to communicate brand recognition and create an online identity. They do this by communicating knowledge, and thus, constructing Ecosia as environmental friendly. This indirectly supports the favourability to use Ecosia rather than, for instance, Google. Four aspects of this post will be highlighted in order to discuss how Ecosia portrays their ideologies in this post.

  1. The green background corresponds with the colour of nature and the colour of hope, which is the messageEcosia wants to send out.
  2. The brand is displayed on the top right, which makes it clear that this message is coming from Ecosia, partnered up with @earthrise.studio, which is a creative studio dedicated to spreading content about climate and justice. This collaboration fits to Ecosia’s beliefs, and it helps them to find new audiences as well.
  3. The source that is given at the left bottom shows that they did their research and are showing factful information. In every post, they show the source to gain more credibility. Furthermore, the picture of trees is essential in Ecosia’s field of work. The green, the trees and the overview of the nature emphasizes their ecological standpoint.
  4. The wording of the location is crucial. The post wants to emphasize that this all takes place on Planet Earth, the world that we live in. This applies to all, since everybody lives on planet earth, thus, Ecosia tries to affiliate everybody onthis matter. 

Environmentalism 

When taking a closer look at the written text, both in the caption and in the picture, it stands out that the words which are portraying the downside of nature, are portrayed more pessimistically. For example, instead of saying ‘climate change’, Ecosia uses ‘climate catastrophe’. In contrast, the intensification of nature and biodiversity is exaggerated and amplified in a more positive way. This use of hyperboles and more denotative vocabulary to pursue their arguments and win the readers over is visible throughout the text and emphasizes why people should use Ecosia. For example, that the emphasis is put on the importance of ‘biodiversity’: ‘can do amazing things’, ‘variety of life on earth’ and ‘plays a crucial role’ (see Figure 2). So, certain words are being foregrounded while others are downplayed. Then, with the use of different modes, the title and the white text stand out: the title tells us what this picture is about, while the white letters highlight the importance of biodiversity. You can see a multimodal approach in this post, when looking at the use of several green colour tones, the image of the woods and the use of language, including emoticons, emphasizes the environmentalism in the posts and communication from Ecosia. The main aim of this post is to support and encourage the use of their search engine. Besides that, it also creates the idea that using Ecosia as a search engine is good for biodiversity, since it claims to help improving biodiversity. 

According to Milton (1996: p. 49), environmentalism “typically refers to a concern that the environment should be protected, particularly from the harmful effects of human activities” . Thus, it is an ideology that puts the nature and ecological system first and tries to protect the environment from the damaging influences of humans. Not only in this post such characteristics in discourse can be discovered, but they are visible throughout their Instagram account. The interviews carry out the same message. In an interview with EU-Startups, Kroll stated that “Ecosia’s main mission is simple: to plant trees in places where they are needed most” (Tucker, 2020, n.p.). Besides environmentalism, there are other ideologies, such as technological utopianism and green capitalism visible throughout this post as well. As mentioned earlier, ideologies are stratified, layered, and there are multiple ideologies that occur in Ecosia’s discourse (Blommaert, 2005).

Ecosia as the Sustainable Search Engine of the Feature

The core identity of the search engine is displayed through several multimodal aspects on several social media platforms, for example, on Instagram, through a variety of posts that aim to inform, educate, and display their activities, norms and values of the green company.

From a discourse analytical perspective, technological utopianism, environmentalism, and green capitalism are central ideologies that arise in Ecosia’s online discourse.

Their financial model aims to be as transparent and non-profitable as possible, as opposed to other well-known, data-driven search engines. This is something Kroll and his company is trying to highlight to attract more users. Ecosia commits to the improvement of forests, biodiversity, and green energy and more nature-friendly advancements. One of their main goals is to show how they differ from traditional search engines, by emphasizing what effect Ecosia’s actions have on nature. In comparison to other search engines, there is a clear difference in financial gains, as well as privacy. Privacy is another aspect that Ecosia’s does not seek to exploit. This attracts users, but it may also discouragepossible users, as the user experience is less personalized than Google, for instance. Ecosia will keep on trying to improve their name recognition and uniqueness through their website and on social media platforms, in order to keep getting bigger. 

References

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