” 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation” with Christian Kroll

Explain what climate change really means to children. Many people haven’t understood it yet. Many people still think it’s just going to get a few degrees warmer and that’s going to be fine. When Greta understood the reality of the consequences of climate change, she started her school strike every Friday. I think if more people […]

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Explain what climate change really means to children. Many people haven’t understood it yet. Many people still think it’s just going to get a few degrees warmer and that’s going to be fine. When Greta understood the reality of the consequences of climate change, she started her school strike every Friday. I think if more people understood, they would take similar drastic measures. The situation is really serious; it’s a matter of the extinction of all species, including ours.

Aspart of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Kroll.

Christian Kroll is the founder and CEO of Ecosia, the green search engine that uses its profits to plant trees. Christian founded the company in 2009 after witnessing the devastating effects of massive deforestation while traveling through South America. Ecosia has since gone on to plant over 100 million trees in biodiversity hotspots around the world. In 2018 Christian gave away his right to ever sell Ecosia or take dividends out of the company.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Iwas born in Wittenberg in East Germany, which was part of the former GDR. My life there was pretty normal and I was only six when the wall came down, so the main change I noticed was that suddenly we had a whole lot more ice cream flavors, instead of just the usual three!

As I get older, however, I’m becoming more aware of how this cultural background has influenced me. For example, the GDR gave me the knowledge that systems can change. This is something I hope for the current capitalist system, which I believe is broken and losing in the fight against the climate crisis. If we remember that this system is not carved into stone — that it’s something we’re making up as we go — we can believe it can change for the better. The nature of the GDR regime also meant that we focused less on money and material goods and more on simple things, from gardening, to interpersonal connections. While the regime of course had many issues, to this day I prioritize family, friends and personal well-being above material things.

When I was 16 years old the dot-com bubble was at its height and the stock market exploded. I became really interested in stocks, making and losing a bit of money, and this interest eventually led me to study business administration at Nuremberg University. While I was studying I started a website which compared different online brokers, and built an online games website with my flatmate. These projects were my introduction into the world of the internet.

During my studies I also took a few trips, including to India for two months, which really opened my eyes up to the world. I immediately wanted to see more and to help people who didn’t have the same opportunities as I did. I started to question my choices and came to understand that business doesn’t always contribute to the well-being of people — and in fact can be harmful. After I graduated I spent a year and a half traveling through Nepal and South America, then returned to Berlin where I founded Ecosia and began my journey in green tech.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

I would say there were two ‘aha’ moments, both came during that trip to Nepal and Argentina. I was interested in social business models, and in Nepal I started a search engine that would finance development projects. It didn’t take off due to tricky conditions — the internet was slow and not many people were using it at that time. But while I was in the Nepalese villages I realized how many people there are smarter than me, but who just don’t have the same opportunities. It made me even more determined to build a social business.

After Nepal I traveled through South America and had my next ‘aha’ moment in Argentina, while driving through massive monoculture soy plantations. I became acutely aware of environmental problems, especially deforestation and found out that 20 percent of CO2 emissions can be tracked to deforestation, a number that really stuck with me. And I learnt what an important role trees play, reducing carbon in the air, combating hunger, poverty and extreme weather systems, and restoring biodiversity.

I moved to Berlin and started Ecosia in 2009, with my sister and a couple of friends. We had no office space and only one developer. Before we even started planting, we decided to put our profits towards ecological conservation projects and tree-planting was a natural choice.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

Persistence is a quality that eventually leads to success (or otherwise to craziness, I guess!). You have to keep trying. Ecosia might be a success story now, but it certainly wasn’t immediate. My first search engine in Nepal didn’t work out, nor did another search engine before Ecosia called ‘Forestle’, nor did the online learning platform I had running at the same time as I was starting Ecosia… With Ecosia I found the right mix of timing, an effective business model, and a deep connection to my own purpose and drive to do good in the world.

I’ve also known for a long time that having a fancy car is not going to make me happy — and I believe this is probably true for many people. Capitalism indoctrinates superficial wants, but I realized really quickly that shiny objects should not be the focus of my life.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Planting trees is central to everything we do. We’ve planted over 100 million trees in 25 countries and we’re on a mission to plant and protect billions more, by enabling people to turn their everyday actions into environmental good. Currently our core product is the Ecosia search engine and we dedicate more than 80% of profits from advertising revenues into our tree-planting projects.

While our trees in the field are capturing carbon, we’ve been working hard to ensure that our product is carbon negative, and we are now 200% renewable. Championing the transition away from fossil fuels, we have built enough solar plants to produce twice as much electricity as is required to power all searches with renewables. This means every search with Ecosia is crowding out dirty energy from the electricity grid.

We also enable users to make greener choices with features such as green search, where we highlight sustainable companies in our search results by showing a green leaf icon alongside them, and polluting companies by showing a coal plant icon.

Our green ethos runs right through our business to our Berlin headquarters, where our office is fully sustainable and fit out with up-cycled furniture, electricity comes from a renewable provider and food is local and vegetarian.

Finally, we inspire and educate our users about the climate crisis and present them with thoughtful, insightful editorial content that gives activists and campaigners a platform.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

Don’t fly. Reduce meat consumption — ideally don’t eat meat at all. Don’t buy stuff that you don’t need. (I had my last phone for over five years and it was still fine — in fact I think I even prefer it to my new one!)

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Explain what climate change really means to children. Many people haven’t understood it yet. Many people still think it’s just going to get a few degrees warmer and that’s going to be fine. When Greta understood the reality of the consequences of climate change, she started her school strike every Friday. I think if more people understood, they would take similar drastic measures. The situation is really serious; it’s a matter of the extinction of all species, including ours.

Lead by example. For example, avoid flying and show that there are alternative ways to move around, and don’t buy an excess of material goods. I don’t own a car and cycle everywhere that I can. I travel from Berlin to Paris regularly to visit family, which I do by train. I don’t own a fancy yacht — I do have a small inflatable dinghy that I can take out on the canals in Berlin and that’s perfect!

Find a balance between not depriving your children of pleasure, but also spending time with them and enjoying experiences that cannot be bought. I don’t have children myself, but I observe in my nephews how easily kids are distracted by shiny new toys. At the end of the day it’s time spent and experiences that make them truly happy.

Speak up! I think it’s important to carry this mindset through life. If there’s something wrong, don’t just go with the flow and accept it — fight against it. I do this in my personal life, reducing my CO2 footprint and attending non-violent demonstrations, but also in business. Last year for example, Ecosia offered to buy a 12,000 year-old forest in Germany off an energy company for €1 million, to try and stop them from cutting it down for coal mining. Taking action in this way energizes me and our team to push for change and a better world.

Focus first on actions that have the biggest CO2 impact: It won’t make much difference if you turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth — if you’re still flying 10 times a year. But if you reduce the biggest actions, you can afford a few of the small ones.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

I believe putting people and planet before profit ultimately leads to a healthier business. In a space where Ecosia’s major competitors are some of the wealthiest companies in the world, I’m proud that we have a truly successful “people and planet, over profit” business model.

This has taken us on a unique journey, scaling up and growing the business without taking any external VC investment, which has enabled us to build our business slowly to ensure healthy growth and without being beholden to shareholders. As was the case for many companies, our revenues plummeted when COVID-19 shut down business and public life this year, but despite this we have continued to plant trees throughout the pandemic and honored all existing contracts in full. We hit 100 million trees in July, and just this year we’ve signed new contracts amounting to over 40 million trees to be planted over the next 4 years.

In 2018 I made the decision to make Ecosia a steward-owned company, giving away my shares to the Purpose Foundation and ensuring Ecosia can never be sold or have profits taken out of it. This ensures Ecosia can continue to flourish and fill the planet with trees, not fill the pockets of shareholders.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many, but I’d definitely start with my parents. Right after the wall came down in Germany, my parents didn’t know if their jobs would still be there in a few months. They tackled this uncertainty head-on and took advantage of their new-found freedom to start their own business. This definitely influenced my own entrepreneurial mindset.

Another influence for me is the Dalai Lama. Reading his books cemented my vision that material wealth isn’t important to me, which has become the absolute baseline for my belief system (even if I am not Buddhist). Stuff doesn’t make you happy.

Finally, a good friend of Ecosia, Tim, who joined the company around four years after we founded it and made a small investment (the only investment we’ve ever taken). Tim brought with him invaluable knowledge and also supported the transition to a purpose-owned company, meaning he too can never take dividends or profit from Ecosia. This is not at all what a typical investor would do, for which I have great respect and am grateful that our values align in this way.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A global tree planting movement across the entire world! We need to plant billions more trees. If we don’t do it we won’t be able to stop climate change, but fortunately it’s something very concrete that we can already get started on. The ‘technology’ already exists and trees are only positive for the planet — they do no harm. I’d love to see tree planting happening at enormous scale and for the next generation to take it up and move it forward.

I think of the next generation as the ‘regeneration’ — I have faith that they will not only stop destroying our planet but actually start regenerating it. It’s a huge challenge, but an inspiring one. It’s also why Ecosia launched a micro grant fund in partnership with Earth Uprising this year, supporting local, youth-led climate activism. I believe every action counts!

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

It’s not really a quote as such, but more of a guiding principle in my own life: “Do good and enjoy life.” This sums up my life’s priorities pretty tidily. If you’re working in the field of climate change, it can become frustrating that more people aren’t taking it seriously, as well as frightening when you understand the extent of its consequences. But at the same time, you don’t want to suffer just because you’re working in this field. It’s about finding the balance of trying to solve this massive problem, while still managing to have a good time and enjoy life too.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn and I often share my thoughts on our blog.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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