How ethical is the search engine Ecosia?

Known as the ‘search engine that plants trees’, Ecosia has gained popularity among eco-conscious internet users since its launch in 2009.

Here we consider whether Ecosia is a good choice in comparison to industry leaders like Google and we raise questions about its relationship with Microsoft Bing.

Ecosia, which bills itself as 'the search engine that plants trees', relies almost entirely on Microsoft Bing technology.

When you search Ecosia you’re actually searching Microsoft Bing. Ecosia doesn’t generate its own web results - instead it has a partnership with Bing, meaning that Bing provides both the results and advertisements that you see.

As Ecosia doesn’t develop its own webpage results index, technologically speaking it’s not really a competitor in the world of search engines.

This approach to search is quite common - Yahoo and DuckDuckGo also have a ‘syndication agreement’ with Bing, meaning they pay for the right to use Bing’s technology.

Unless it develops its own matrix to produce its own search results - an astonishingly enormous undertaking - then it will only ever constitute limited fringe competition to big players like Google and Bing.  In fact, at the end of 2020, Ecosia was said to have a 0.28% share of the search engine market in the UK. Globally this drops to 0.12%.

Ad revenues from Bing

Ecosia’s revenue largely comes from Bing’s advertisements. The adverts are generated by Bing, and when you click on one Ecosia receives a share of the revenue generated by the click (and the rest of the revenue generated from the click goes to Bing).

The only way that Ecosia raises money is through clicks on advertisements. Therefore if you use the search engine but don’t click on ads, Ecosia won’t make any money and therefore won't be planting any additional trees. It is the ad revenue that enables them to plant trees.

Does Ecosia really plant trees when you search?

Ecosia’s website says “Plant trees while you search the web”. At the time of writing, the company claims to have planted 120,323,000 trees!

Ecosia says 80% of its advertising profits are used to plant trees. The total money spent on this is listed every month on its website. Ecosia pays partners across the globe to plant trees and bring forests back to life, through activities like firefighting and regeneration. Partner names are made public, as is the amount of funding sent to them.

It’s estimated to take about 45 searches for Ecosia to generate the revenue for a tree to be planted. As mentioned before though, if you don’t click on ads you’re not making Ecosia money, so you’re not helping to plant trees. (And random ad clicking doesn’t work, according to the Ecosia website!)

How does Ecosia score on our ethical ranking system?

Ecosia has an Ethiscore of 11 but Ecosia's relationship with Microsoft, which scores just 6.5, has an impact on its score.

Due to Ecosia’s relationship with Bing it was marked down in a number of Ethical Consumer categories: Climate Change, Arms and Military Supply, Human Rights, Anti-Social Finance, Controversial Technologies, Tax Conduct and Political Activities. These are categories where Microsoft scored a worst rating on our database.

You can read about these below and on the Microsoft company profile page.

A positive approach to finances

Ecosia is a certified B-Corporation, which we believe shows the company has made a commitment to ethical behaviour.

What’s more, Ecosia is a non-profit. Ecosia says that it was built on the premise that profits wouldn’t be taken out of the company. In 2018 this commitment was made legally binding when the company sold a 1% share to The Purpose Foundation, entering into a ‘steward-ownership’ relationship.

The Purpose Foundation's steward-ownership of Ecosia legally binds Ecosia in the following ways:

  1. Shares can't be sold at a profit or owned by people outside of the company and
  2. No profits can be taken out of the company.

Ecosia and renewable energy

Ecosia has its own solar energy plant, and its servers use 100% renewable energy. It claims to produce twice as much solar power than is needed to power all Ecosia searches. Excess energy is fed back into the grid, and Ecosia views this as helping the transition to a renewable future.

However, does Microsoft, on which Ecosia is reliant, have the same green credentials?

Ecosia’s website states that Microsoft Bing had committed to making all its operations carbon neutral, including its search Bing. However, there are several routes to carbon neutrality - some involve burning fossil fuels, and then paying the offsetting costs later. Ecosia didn’t appear to provide any further information about this issue.

More on Microsoft

Microsoft lost half marks under several Ethical Consumer rating categories including Environmental Reporting, Pollution & Toxics and Supply Chain Management. It lost a whole mark for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, and in 2020 paid a single executive officer $43m.

A 2020 Greenpeace article stated that Microsoft had helped fossil fuel companies drill for oil and gas. The article said Microsoft launched the “AI Center for Excellence” to help the oil industry’s digital transformation, and sponsored an oil and gas conference in “the exact same week that it announced its new climate commitment”.

Microsoft has also supplied the US military, developed facial recognition technology, and was named as a defendant in a lawsuit which accused tech companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who were allegedly working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.

The company has also been accused of greenwashing.

The company has an Ethiscore of 6.5.

How much revenue does Bing generate from Ecosia?

The answer to this is we don’t know. This information hasn’t been made public.

We also don’t know how much money Bing makes from clicks on advertisements on Ecosia, which could be significantly more. We also don’t know what the costs involved in the syndication deal between Ecosia and Bing are as these aren't made public.

Is Ecosia more ethical than Google?

If we compare Ecosia with Google then Ecosia has a much higher ethical rating. Ecosia has an Ethiscore of 11, in contrast to Google (5.5) and Microsoft Bing (6.5).

Ecosia has a more ethical company ethos because it’s essentially a non-profit, with funds going directly into the battle against climate change.

In contrast, Google received our worst rating for Environmental Reporting and has been criticised by Greenpeace for having AI contracts with oil and gas firms.

Ecosia is also far better than Google in transparency around tax. While Ecosia received our best rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, Google received our worst rating, which subsidiaries in Bermuda, Hong Kong, Singapore and other jurisdictions considered to be tax havens at the time of writing.

TaxWatch estimated that Google avoided £1.3bn of taxes in the UK between 2012-2017.

Google also has a vast range of human rights criticisms in contrast to Ecosia which has none. For example, we marked Google down for working with the military in the US and Burma, being involved in facial recognition technology, and being named in the same lawsuit as Microsoft involving child labour (see above).

According to a Competition & Markets Authority report on the government website Ecosia had approached Google many times over the years in relation to a syndication agreement, but Google had always declined its request.

This suggests that if it could then Ecosia would have chosen Google over Bing, in which case the argument that Ecosia is an eco-alternative to Google becomes more shaky.

Read more about Google’s questionable ethics on our company profile page.

Should consumers switch to Ecosia?

We haven't reviewed all the search engines available but we would say that based on what we know about Ecosia, if you do occasionally click on ads then we recommend making the switch to them.

At least some revenue generated by your clicks will go towards tree planting. Overall using Ecosia will have more of a positive impact on the planet than clicks on the Google or Microsoft Bing search engines.

We do however still call on Ecosia to improve transparency surrounding its relationship with Microsoft Bing as clicks on Ecosia are raising revenue for Microsoft Bing. We’d like Ecosia to publish the statistics on how much they are raising so consumers can make a more informed choice.