If you're an ecommerce brand, you probably assume that being digital is an eco-friendly approach to commerce. However, operating in the online space isn’t as sustainable as you might expect. 💻
It might not be a problem in plain sight, but we’re generating a considerable amount of carbon emissions by constantly consuming energy to meet the demands of this digital age and power our devices and the web.
And at this rate, our digital carbon footprint is posing great issues for our planet due to the need for more power consumption, which often depends on non-renewable resources.
🔌 What is a digital carbon footprint?
A digital carbon footprint is the result of carbon emissions from using our devices, like mobile phones and computers. Being online requires electricity, and much of the electricity that powers the web still relies on the consumption of fossil fuels.
Back in 2006, only 17.5% of the world’s population was online. Now, about 60% are, and this amount is only increasing as more and more people access the internet and their devices every day.
⚡️Our digital habits require huge amounts of power for the web to keep up with us.
A large part of why websites can produce sizeable carbon emissions is due to their “weight” which affects how data is transferred to be displayed.
That's a lot for just a single month!
🌱 So what can we do to ensure we lessen our brand's online carbon footprint, then?
One innovative solution is to look into low-carbon and sustainably designed websites.
Sustainable web design is a trending topic among the digital industry, with many conducting research on creating and normalizing low-carbon websites.
Low-carbon websites aim to reduce carbon emissions by requiring less energy to be powered, yet can still remain efficient and aesthetically pleasing.
At their core, they're all about taking what existing designs you may already have and simplifying components to consume less energy.
💡Where can I start creating my own sustainable website?
We reached out to Tom Greenwood, co-founder of Wholegrain Digital and author of Sustainable Web Design, to hear his thoughts on what you and your business can do to lower your digital carbon footprint through sustainable web design.
Q&A with Tom Greenwood, managing director of Wholegrain Digital and author of Sustainable Web Design
What exactly is a sustainable website?
It’s a little known fact that web technology has a fairly significant environmental impact.
When taken as a whole, the internet has roughly the same carbon footprint as global aviation. And that’s just carbon emissions.
There are also other environmental issues such as water consumption for cooling data centers and the huge amounts of electronic waste. But there are lots of things that we can do in web design to reduce the impact, meaning that it consumes less data and requires less computer processing power.
A sustainable website is therefore one that uses as few natural resources as possible in its operation.
How did you end up working in sustainable web design?
I’ve been interested in sustainability and design for about 20 years and initially moved into digital design as a way of avoiding the environmental problems associated with physical products.
However, when we started on our journey to become a B Corp we looked deeper at every aspect of our business and wondered if it was true that digital technology has no environmental footprint.
We quickly realized that digital sustainability was a big issue and that we needed to put it at the forefront of our work.
What was the moment that inspired you to take up sustainable practices for your business?
I’ve been concerned about our impact on the environment since I was at school. I felt that business was at the heart of this problem and it occurred to me while researching sustainable design at university that we can only solve environmental problems if businesses commit to being a true part of the solution.
I couldn’t find a company to work for that I felt aligned with this vision and so in my mid-20’s, I decided that I should start my own business and try to see how difficult it was to make a business truly sustainable. This has been at the core of our business ever since.
What obstacles did you initially face when starting to make your company and clients’ designs more sustainable?
We have been in business for over 14 years and still find it challenging to truly align sustainability with the day-to-day of running a business.
The initial challenges came from not knowing how to quantify our impacts, and even if we could identify them, solutions were not always obvious. We felt a huge knowledge gap, as well as feeling that we did not have control over much of the system that we operated within.
As we began to embed sustainability in our web design work, the main challenge was for us to learn how to give our clients (and their website visitors) everything that they want in a website, while also minimizing the environmental impact.
Hardly anyone knew anything about this new field of web design and so we were very much figuring out for ourselves.
What do you believe are the components of a well-designed and sustainable website?
A well designed, sustainable website is fast, easy and enjoyable to use, delivering everything that the user needs and wants, but without any waste.
It is optimized to avoid unnecessary design elements and code, as well as avoid wasting the visitors time. It is zero waste design, applied to the web.
Can you share with us an example of a website that you’ve worked on and the changes you’ve made to make it more sustainable?
One of my favorite examples is Ecover.com, which we redesigned to align with the new brand identity. Ecover was one of the companies that inspired me to pursue sustainable design and it has been a real honor to work with them.
We restructured the website to strip out unnecessary code and start from a much cleaner, lightweight code base, and although the website is visually rich, we took care to reduce the size of images and animations as far as possible and apply the latest compression techniques to keep the file sizes small.
We reduced the carbon emission by about 70% while also making the website load 60% faster than the previous version, all while making it more beautiful and functional.
What are some starting steps that those looking to make the switch to sustainable design can take?
There are a few easy things to think about. The first is just to adopt a more discerning mindset and validate the existence of every element on a web page.
Ask whether the page would still work if things were taken away, and whether anything would be lost if images were made a bit smaller.
Another step that is simple in many cases is to switch to a web hosting provider that powers its data centers with renewable energy. It generally doesn’t require any changes to the website itself but will reduce the emissions.
After that it's mainly about optimization of files and code, which can seem complicated at first.
What are the environmental impacts of making your website more sustainable?
It is possible to make significant savings in the emissions of a website by applying sustainable design and development practices.
It is often possible to reduce the impact by 40% or more, and at the same time create a better website for the users. When you scale up the impact by the website's annual traffic of thousands to millions of visits, sustainable web design can save anything from a few kilograms to several tonnes of CO2.
What are some common myths about sustainable design that you’ve encountered?
I think the most common myth is that sustainable design doesn’t look as good.
It is certainly challenging at first to know how to make things beautiful and efficient, but the work we have done over the past few years has proven that sustainable design can be beautiful.
Another myth is that you can’t pursue sustainable design unless the client wants it or is prepared to pay extra for it. We have baked sustainable design thinking into our design and development process and so our clients get more sustainable solutions by default, even if they have not asked for it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during your journey toward more sustainable design and digital consumption?
I think the most surprising thing to me was that the internet has such a colossal carbon footprint and yet it seems to hardly ever be talked about.
Following that, a more recent surprise to me was that data centers also consume vast quantities of valuable fresh water in their cooling systems!
What are you hoping to see more of from others within the movement toward more sustainable design and development?
I am hoping to see a mindset shift in the industry where environmental issues are talked about openly, and zero waste design is viewed as best practice to be pursued in all projects and not a niche approach for environmental projects.
What does sustainability mean to you?
In a broad sense, sustainability to me is about creating ways of living today that do not jeopardize the ability of future generations to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives.
Wrapping it Up
Good web design should ultimately be intuitive for users to easily navigate and understand your website, without sacrificing the aesthetics and values of your brand.
Designing a low-carbon website and using a green hosting service are great ways to show customers that your brand is making a promise to reduce your carbon footprint.
To become more sustainable with your web design, consider the information Tom has shared and know that altering your business's digital carbon footprint will be progressive. Give yourself some credit for making the switch to a low-carbon website, and keep at it step-by-step.
The sum of small but habitual changes and making a promise to promote sustainability as a business will be a worthwhile step toward a greener future, both digitally and IRL. You've got this!
To learn more about Tom and Wholegrain Digital, check out his website.