It’s up to website creators and business owners to reduce the internet’s carbon footprint. Let's examine the sustainable web design techniques you can employ to produce high-performing, low-carbon digital products and services.
Going digital seemed for many years to be a more eco-friendly option for businesses all over the world, eliminating paper and storage waste and providing a quicker, more secure way to process data. Many of us mistakenly thought that this was a completely clean solution due to the insignificant emissions that were produced by the personal devices used to manage the migrated processes.
As is now clear, the ability to browse freely has its own price, as each reload, search input, and comparison demand has a separate cost for processing it via the servers. Consequently, Internet usage has become a significant contributor to carbon emissions.
Let's discuss how to minimize its harsh effects and optimize the costs of web-based activity.
Table of Contents:
Understanding the environmental impact of life's digitalization
Despite the widespread misconception that digital is a more environmentally friendly alternative to print, every online activity, from browsing to streaming, marks its own carbon footprint. This logically implies that websites should actively try to lessen it and help to combat the effects of climate change. But how big are the numbers we're actually referring to?
The Internet is estimated to emit 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, representing 3.7% of global carbon emission production. Quoting the Sustainable Web Manifesto's unsettling slogan, if the Internet was a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter. Or at least was in 2020 when the recent pandemic forced everyone to work remotely, pushing the Internet up to an astonishing fourth place among the world's top CO2 emitters. Now, combine that with the millions of tons of electronic waste generated annually, which also pollutes the environment and undermines the ecological system.
Due to a 35% increase in global internet usage during the pandemic, carbon emissions from digital activities also increased.
These changes have accelerated as the popularity of remote work - and the digital nomad lifestyle - has transformed the labor market. Resulting in a spike in the digital carbon footprint. To address this issue, many governments and businesses are taking action to reduce the negative environmental effects of digital activities. For example, the European Union has set a goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050, focusing on lowering the carbon footprint of the digital sector. Companies like Google and Microsoft have also committed to becoming carbon-neutral.
Businesses of all sizes must cut emissions and eliminate waste from their operations if we are to successfully address the climate crisis and transition to an economy with zero emissions. Hence, if you haven't already started actively pursuing digital sustainability initiatives, sustainable web design is a good place to start.
Clearing out your company’s digital footprint
The digital carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by digital technology, including websites, social media, emails, and other online activities. It is calculated based on how much energy is used by the computers, servers, and data centers that power online activities related to the chosen company.
A company's digital footprint constantly grows as it produces content, hosts online events, launches websites, networks via online channels, maintains cloud accounts, and develops new apps to address shifting business requirements. In other words, in addition to the impact already caused by maintaining physical locations and supply chains, the carbon footprint produced by digitalized resources should also be taken into account when calculating a company's environmental impact.
The hidden costs of business operation: be mindful of your organization's energy use
As a matter of fact, most digitalized processes generate huge environmental costs.
Think of a simple activity, like sending a single e-mail with a photo attachment - which can produce up to 50 grams of CO2. While the value may not appear shocking, consider how many emails are shared within your organization daily and - again - how many of those are re-shared back and forth in lengthy discussions across departments. And how many will eventually be sent as a collection of multiple, high-quality images - instead of just one? Now, multiply that sum by the global total of organizations with digital capabilities.
Remember that we're still discussing a single business day and relatively simple functionality.
Another frequently observed example is the poor governance of a company's online properties. By overloading them with far-too-many blog posts and subpages, broken links, large images, and outdated content, they only increase the carbon footprint. You should be aware that websites, with the energy they use to run continuously and the carbon emissions they produce, have a significant negative impact on the environment. As the average webpage emits around 2 grams of CO2 per page load, think of the number of pages needed to finalize your user's journey. How many pages will they need to visit in order to interact with your brand? How many pictures and interactive elements can the user expect on each page?
With an ever-expanding digital infrastructure and a growing consumer desire to use online services, this is only expected to rise over the next few years. And the burden cannot be forced upon the consumer. What is the best way to fix that? Let's move on to know sustainable web design.
Guidelines for eco-friendly web design by Sustainable Web Manifesto
Sustainable web design is an approach to designing digital products and services that prioritizes the well-being of people and the environment. It follows the recommendations made in the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which calls for an internet that is:
- Clean: Services provided and used will be powered by renewable energy.
- Efficient: Products and services will use the least energy and material resources possible.
- Open: Products and services will be accessible, allow users to control their data, and enable the open exchange of information.
- Honest: Products and services will not mislead or exploit users.
- Regenerative: Products and services will support an economy that nourishes people and the planet.
- Resilient: Products and services will function in times and places where users need them most.
Hence, a sustainable website is a website that has optimized its processes to reduce global carbon emissions.
In fact, the life cycle of any website, app, or online media can be optimized for efficiency, improved usability, and better performance by using sustainable web design techniques. By using green hosting, measuring and reducing your carbon footprint, and using less electricity, sustainable web design can also significantly lessen the environmental impact of your business.
Let's now learn a few best practices.
Sustainable web design: best practices for the greener future
- Choosing an eco-friendly server can significantly reduce your website’s carbon footprint and help create a more sustainable future. It’s best to aim for a hosting company that uses renewable energy sources to power their servers (i.e., Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform). They may also upgrade their hardware by i.e. replacing hard drives with less energy-consuming solid-state drives (SSDs).
- To minimize your footprint, make sure your website UI is consistent and simplified. Compress and resize images and videos. When possible, turn off animations, automatic videos, and effects. Use darker, quicker-to-load images. And always keep in mind that images should never exceed the dimensions at which they are intended to be used; it is best to compress them before uploading.
- One of the biggest contributors to a website’s carbon footprint is the amount of data it requires to load. Hence, you can save on electricity and water (used as a coolant) by reducing Data Transfer and the website size. The more data your website or app sends back and forth, the bigger its carbon footprint. Try to simplify your design, turn off excess notifications and use lazy load when possible (especially on content-heavy pages).
- Think location. Select a hosting provider with a data center close to your users. The longer the information must travel, the more energy is consumed. If your target audience is in the United Kingdom, avoid hosting companies based in Australia. By being practical about location and the energy required, you will reduce page load times, providing your users with a better online experience.
- Help your users navigate through your service or product by improving its UX. By ensuring visitors can find the information they require quickly and easily, you can reduce the number of pages they need to visit without having to navigate multiple pages. Use internal linking and caching solutions, reduce page content size, and make navigation easier to convert faster.
- Write clean, efficient code, as the same user experience can often be achieved with a smaller script than something huge and bloated. Choosing lightweight frameworks and fonts and removing elements not used by your site will free up resources (including money).
- Remove unnecessary content to avoid empty clicks (hard bounces). Remove low-value pages, articles, and other filler-type pieces of content. Instead of writing new articles, improve existing ones. If possible, reduce the number of newsletters.
As the world moves toward a greener future, it is becoming increasingly important for businesses and individuals to consider the environmental impact of their online activities. The transition to a greener internet will be gradual. However, by taking deliberate steps toward sustainable web design and development practices, we can help reduce the environmental impact of our work.
It's best to start with implementing the steps outlined in this article, such as using green web hosting, designing web services with sustainable practices in mind, focusing on user experience, and making an overall positive impact.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the responsibility for reducing digital carbon emissions does not fall solely on individuals and small businesses; governments and larger corporations must also play a role in creating a more sustainable future. This way, we can ensure that our digital presence contributes to a healthier, more sustainable future for all.