Online banking, e-statements, apps replacing paper documents—the world is moving online. One major push to digital has come from those concerned about finite resource depletion: If we use less paper, fewer trees need to be cut down. However, the footprint of our digital shift is, frankly, huge. Tom Greenwood, cofounder of U.K.’s Wholegrain Digital web design agency, shares that if the internet were an actual country, it would be the sixth-largest polluting country in the world.
Greenwood and his team at the Certified B Corporation have not only developed a mission to assist clients build sustainable sites, but also to take steps in creating an internet that is good for both people and planet. “Sustainable web design is an approach to designing web services that prioritizes the health of our home planet; at its core is a focus on reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption,” said Greenwood. “Business, design, and technology can be part of the solution, but only if environmental protection is at the core of key decisions and not an afterthought.”
In his new book, Sustainable Web Design, Greenwood discusses the topic more in-depth and explores how brands, businesses, and corporations can take steps to mitigate the trend.
Christopher Marquis: Congratulations on your new book! What led you to write the book, and more generally, how did you become interested in this work?
Tom Greenwood: Part of the reason that we founded a digital agency was in the belief that digital technology is part of the solution to the environmental destruction caused by the manufacture, use and disposal of physical products. When we started researching it, we found that digital technology itself has a very real, physical impact on our natural world, with greenhouse gas emissions roughly equivalent to those of the global aviation industry and growing at a rapid pace as our hunger for data increases.
It became clear that as a digital agency, we needed to take digital sustainability seriously and show leadership in trying to tackle the issue within our own work.
Over the past few years we have been gradually encouraging our clients to move their websites to data centers with a renewable energy commitment, with over 60% of them so far having made that switch. We also aim to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency in the work we do for our clients.
The book that I have written shares and builds on this knowledge that we have gained together as a team and I hope will help to make sustainability a more mainstream topic within the web industry.
Marquis: Can you describe the principles of sustainable web design?
Greenwood: The Sustainable Web Manifesto sets out six principles to consider in creating sustainable web products and services: clean, efficient, open, honest, regenerative, and resilient.
The core principles are the use of clean energy from renewable sources where possible, and the pursuit of high levels of energy efficiency, which together keep carbon emissions to a minimum; these are supported by the additional four principles.
Making web services open helps ensure that knowledge in how to achieve sustainability spreads quickly, and honesty helps ensure not just that real action is being taken, but also that the needs of web users as humans are considered alongside the environment.
The concept of making web services regenerative encourages us to think about the purpose of web projects and what their true intent is—are they supporting initiatives and organizations that are helping heal our natural world or are they fueling the problem?
And resiliency recognizes that the internet is a key part of our modern civilization and that it must be designed to ensure that key services can function even in difficult circumstances such as natural disasters, which are becoming more common as a result of climate change.
In pursuing these principles, we can not only reduce the negative impact of digital technology but can create a web that supports a healthy natural environment and is better for people too.
Marquis: How can individual businesses change their IT practices to be more sustainable?
Greenwood: There are many ways that businesses can make their IT practices more sustainable, through hardware, software, and behaviors. Hardware can have a huge impact not just in terms of manufacturing emissions, but the materials used in electronics, and the fact that they tend to become scrap after just a few years.
Choose equipment from manufacturers with a strong environmental policy and try to source refurbished machines where possible. Refurbished equipment has a fraction of the impact of buying new, and can be just as, or even more reliable as it undergoes more thorough testing.
For example, a 13″ MacBook Pro laptop has a lifetime carbon footprint of 185kg CO2, but 80% of this is in the initial manufacture and transport. Therefore, putting it in a company’s procurement policy that IT equipment must be bought as refurbished rather than new when available can significantly reduce the emissions from manufacturing new machines, as can a policy specifying the equipment should be sent for repair rather than being replaced when feasible.
Software such as email, video conferencing, and cloud services can consume a lot of energy but it’s hard to know how much. Look for suppliers that talk about energy efficiency and have a commitment to using renewable energy.
For example, a lot of cloud software and video conferencing providers use Amazon Web Services (AWS) for their infrastructure behind the scenes, but AWS has been heavily criticized by Greenpeace for its lack of serious action on climate change and failure to deliver on its sustainability promises. On the other hand, Microsoft and Google, though not perfect, have shown a strong commitment to good environmental practices. If it’s your own software or website, then make energy efficiency a goal for your design and development teams.
And behavior has an impact. As businesses we can encourage staff to take actions such as clean out old files, minimize unnecessary emails and consider whether video is always required for calls.
Marquis: How do you envision computing and the Cloud evolving to become more sustainable/eco-friendly?
Greenwood: In the coming years I expect to see greater pressure on the IT sector to not just improve energy efficiency, but to be transparent about energy consumption and efficiency levels. I also hope to see more tech companies taking responsibility for building new renewable energy sources to match their own consumption. And I hope to see sustainability become a normal conversation among web designers and developers so that it can be tackled at its root.
Tools such as WebsiteCarbon.com, created by my team, and Ecograder.com from Mightbybytes have been effective in helping raise awareness of sustainability as an issue within the digital sector, but these are rare projects created by small, passionate teams using the limited data available within the industry. Moving forward, we need more tech companies to be transparent about their digital emissions, the actions they are taking to reduce them, and collaborating to create improved tools to help the wider digital sector decarbonize.
Marquis: How does Wholegrain Digital’s work with clients to make their websites more inclusive for users?
Greenwood: Our mission is to create a web that is good for both people and planet. Luckily, the strategies used to make the web better for the planet are well aligned with those used to create a more inclusive web for people.
High levels of efficiency provide faster load times for all users, which is good for user experience, but more importantly it makes more of the web accessible to the least privileged users, who have slow connections and who may only be able to afford a limited amount of data. Similarly, well organized, efficient code makes it easier to create web experiences that meet the highest accessibility standards.