Sustainability is rightly becoming more widely discussed within the web development industry, just as it is an increasing concern in the wider public consciousness. Many countries around the world have committed to ambitious climate goals, although many have some way to go if they are to meet their targets.
All industries have a part to play, and that includes web design and development. The internet accounts for an estimated 3–4% of global emissions — equivalent to some countries. That means we, as tech workers, are in a position to make choices that contribute to reducing the environmental impact of our industry. Not only that, but as a well-connected industry, one that builds digital products often used by thousands or millions of people, we are also relatively well-positioned to influence the behavior of others.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that we as individuals can use our skills to have a positive environmental impact within a digital organization.
Presenting The Case For Sustainability
One of the first hurdles to implementing sustainable practices within an organization (or on a project) is convincing stakeholders that it is worth the investment. Any change of practice, however small, will probably require some time investment by employees. Being able to present a business case, and demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the costs, will help justify focusing resources in the area of sustainability.
It would be great to think that for every company, the idea of building a better world trumps financial concerns. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, that’s generally not the case. But there are plenty of actions we can take that reduce our environmental impact and reduce costs (or increase revenue) at the same time.
For example, changing our database architecture to be more efficient could save on server costs. Making performance improvements to a client’s site could result in happier clients who send more business our way. Identifying where sustainability and cost savings overlap is a good place to start.
Despite financial impact being a fairly obvious incentive, it’s not the only one, and perhaps not even the most significant. In his recent Smashing Conference talk, green software expert Asim Hussain mentioned that the biggest shift he is seeing is as a result of regulation — or the threat of regulation.
With many countries publicly committed to Net Zero goals, it is increasingly likely that companies will need to submit to regulation of their carbon emissions. The UK’s commitment is enshrined into law, with carbon budgets set over many years. Many companies are already taking the long view and looking to get ahead of the competition by reducing their emissions early.
Being able to demonstrate as a company that you are committed to sustainability can open up a greater number of opportunities. Organizations working with the UK government to build new digital services, for example, are required to meet standards defined in their Greening Government ICT and Digital Services Strategy.
Companies that can demonstrate their environmental credentials may be eligible for certification, such as ISO14001 standard in the UK. In the case of Ada Mode, the company I work for, this has has directly contributed to winning us more work, and has enabled us to partner with much larger organizations.
Businesses that achieve BCorp status can benefit (according to the website) from “committed and motivated employees, increased customer loyalty, higher levels of innovation, and market leadership”.
Certainly organizations positioning themselves as environmentally conscious increase their chances of attracting sustainability-minded candidates for recruitment, as more and more people seek meaningful work.
It’s All In The Branding
Another great bit of advice from Asim’s talk from Smashing Conference was on branding. The “Eco” movement has long been associated with being somewhat spartan, taking away something, using or consuming less. Rather than giving our users a reduced experience, reducing the environmental impact of our digital products has the opportunity to deliver our users more. Asim talked about Performance Mode in Microsoft Edge: switching on Performance Mode means users get a faster website, while also saving resources. “Performance Mode” sounds a lot more appealing than “Eco Mode”, which sounds like something is being taken away.
The Bigger Picture
When presenting the case for investing time in sustainability efforts in an organization, it can be helpful to explain the relevance of small actions on a bigger scale. For example, Smashing’s editor, Vitaly Friedman, makes the case for reducing the size and quality of images on a site by explaining the overall cost and CO2 savings when taking into account page views over an entire year.
On the Fact Sheets page, we can save approx. 85% of images’ file sizes without a noticeable loss of image quality. With approx. 1,300,000 annual page views…this makes for 5.2 Terabyte of wasted traffic.
The difference is approx. EUR 1000–1650 in costs (on one single page!). Notably, this makes for 17.28 tons of CO2, which requires 925 trees to be planted, and that’s enough to drive an electric car for 295,000km — annually.
Affecting change at an organizational level is nearly always easier when you build consensus.
Forming A Team
Forming a green team within your organization enables you to support each other to achieve climate goals, and identify new opportunities. ClimateAction.tech has some resources on starting a green team at your place of work.
If your organization is small, or there is a lack of interest, then finding a supportive community outside of work (such as ClimateAction.tech) can help you stay motivated, and lend their advice.
It’s also a great idea to connect with teams working on sustainability in other businesses.
Once you have a team, you’ll be in a good position to plan your actions. It can be hard to know where to focus your efforts first. One way we could do this is by drawing a diagram and sorting potential actions according to their impact and effort.
For example, switching to a green hosting provider could be a small-to-medium effort, but result in a high impact. Re-writing your web app to use a more lightweight JS framework could be extremely high effort for relatively low impact.
The goal is to identify the areas where your efforts would be best focused. Low-effort/high-impact actions are easy wins, and definitely worth prioritizing. Achieving a few aims early on is great for moral, and helps keep the momentum going. High-effort/high-impact actions are worth considering as part of your long-term strategy, even if you can’t get to them right away. Low-effort/low-impact tasks might also be worth doing, as they won’t take up too much time and effort. High effort/low impact actions are generally to be avoided.
This isn’t the only way to prioritize, however. Other factors to consider include workload, resources (including financial), and the availability of team members. For example, if your development team are particularly stretched thin, it may be more prudent to focus on goals within the areas of design or project management, or prioritize actions that can be easily integrated with the development workflow in a current project.
It’s not always the case that every sustainability effort needs to be meticulously planned and scheduled. Jamie Thompson from intelligent energy platform Kaluza explained in a recent talk how a developer spent just 30 minutes of spare time removing database logs, resulting in a large reduction in CO2 emissions — enough to offset Jamie’s train journey to the event.
Watch the video of Jamie’s talk from Green Tech South West.
Measuring The Impact
Measuring the impact of your sustainability efforts is a thorny subject, and depends on what exactly you want to measure. To get some idea of the impact of changes to our websites, we can use tools such as Website Carbon Calculator, EcoPing, and Beacon. These tools are especially helpful in making the impact more tangible, by comparing the amount of CO2 emitted to common activities such as traveling by car, boiling the kettle, or watching a video.
Where sustainability goals align with cost-saving (such as reducing server load), we may be able to measure the impact by the financial savings we’re making. But we should be careful not to conflate the two goals.
Some Areas To Consider
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to making your digital organization more sustainable, here are a few areas to think about.
Green Your Website
There are many ways we can reduce the environmental impact of the websites and digital products we build, from reducing and optimizing our images, to minimizing the amount to data we transfer, to implementing a low-energy color scheme. Tom Greenwood’s book, Sustainable Web Design is packed with advice for building low-carbon websites.
When the architectural website Dezeen discovered how polluting their website was, they took steps to massively reduce its carbon footprint, resulting in some huge savings — according to their measurements, equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 96,600 mature trees.
Our choice of web host can have a big impact on our organization’s carbon emissions. Consider switching to a host that uses renewable energy. The Green Web Foundation has a directory.
Switch your analytics
Do you really need Google Analytics on every site you build? How about switching to a lower-carbon alternative like Fathom or Cabin instead. As a bonus, you might not need that cookie banner either.
Eric Bailey writes in this article for Thoughtbot:
“If I was a better programmer, I’d write a script that shows you the cumulative CO₂ you’ve generated every time you type npm install.”
Clean up your dependencies, and the remove ones you no longer need, especially if you’re working on a project or package that will be installed by a lot of developers. Consider whether a static site might serve your needs better than a bloated WordPress project in some instances.
(Eric’s article also includes a bunch of other great tips for building more sustainably.)
Hardware And E-Waste
Several tonnes of carbon go into producing our MacBooks, PCs, tablets and mobile devices, even before we start using them. Do we really need to upgrade our devices as regularly as we do? We must also consider their disposal, which also produces generates carbon emissions and produces harmful waste. It might be possible to repair the device or, if we need to upgrade, to sell or donate the old ones to someone who needs them, extending their useful life.
Gerry McGovern has written and spoken extensively about the problem of e-waste, including his book, World Wide Waste.
It’s probably fairly obvious, but reducing our electricity consumption by switching off or powering devices when we don’t need them, and switching to a green electricity supplier could make a big difference.
Does your team regularly drive or fly for work? It might be helpful to set some organization-level targets for reducing carbon-intensive travel, and looking for sustainable alternatives where possible. Driving and flying are among the most polluting activities an individual can engage in.
If you work for a big corporation, the battle to get climate action on the agenda may be uphill — but, on the flip-side, your efforts could have a far more wide-ranging impact. Small changes to improve the carbon footprint of a site can have a big impact when that site is used my millions of people. And in an organization of thousands, corporate policies on sustainable travel and electricity use can save a lot of carbon emissions.
Many of the big tech companies have the potential to use their lobbying power for the greater good. As tech workers, we can help push it up the agenda. Check out Climate Voice for some of the ways tech workers are attempting to use their influence.
Spread The Word
A common argument people make against action on climate change is that individual actions don’t make a difference. There’s a great podcast episode in the How To Save a Planet series called Is Your Carbon Footprint BS? which confronts exactly this dilemma. You could argue that when taken individually our actions are of little consequence. But all of our actions have the potential to spark action in others, and ripple outwards. Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication is quoted in the episode, saying:
“One of the single most important things that anyone, anyone can do. When people say, ‘What can I do about climate change?’ My answer first and foremost is talk about it.”
By taking action at an organizational level, you’ve already extended your sphere of influence beyond just yourself. Encourage the people working at your company to be vocal about your climate commitments. We have the power to inspire action in others.
Inclusivity, Accessibility And Climate Justice
However we choose to take action on climate change and sustainability, it’s imperative to exclude no one. We should make sure our actions don’t overtly or covertly place undue burdens on already-marginalized people, including those with disabilities, people of color, those living in developing countries, people with below-average incomes, or LGBTQ+ people. Climate change is already exacerbating inequalities, with the people causing the least pollution the ones at the most risk from its effects. We must ensure that whatever climate action we take, we’re making fair and equitable decisions that include everyone.
- Jon Gibbins founder and director of As It Should Be, a UK-based agency helping digital teams design and build accessible and sustainable products and services, recently delivered a talk about accessibility and sustainability. You can watch his talk, Leave No One Behind, on the Green Tech South West website.
- The Environment Variables podcast from the Green Software Foundation has an episode on Accessibility and Sustainability.
- Read more about climate justice in this article from Carbon Brief.