Welcome to our maiden feature on web sustainability. When we go digital we automatically assume we have minimal carbon footprint- because it’s digital of course? We very easily forget the energy usage for any and all digital activity and we are super active on the internet! Social media, navigation, shopping, news, services, entertainment- our digital footprint is enormous. And with great use comes great carbon footprint. Heavy duty information flow from servers to all our devices and use of remote hosting demands a considerable amount of energy. It was reported that the internet accounts for 8% of the total energy consumption in the UK. Greenpeace estimates that the ICT sector(Information and Communications Technologies) comprises 2% of global emissions – on par with the airline industry!
Thus we need to start talking about web sustainability and give the digital world a low carbon footprint. Helping us to just that is Digital Guru Tim Frick- an expert and pioneer in web sustainability. He is a passionate advocate of web sustainability and has in fact founded his company Mightybytes– a ‘Certified B Corp‘ digital marketing agency with the mission of making sustainable web design and practices accessible to all. An impassioned conference speaker, Tim has championed web sustainabilty at many leading digital and sustainbility conferences like Conscious Capitalism, O’Reilly Design, Sustainable Brands, WebVisions, TedX Bentley University, and many others. Tim also offers workshops on content strategy, digital marketing, social enterprise, and sustainable design. An author of four books which are taught at esteemed higher education institutions across the U.S. and Europe, including Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, the Art Institutes, Full Sail University, and many others. His books include:
- Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O’Reilly Media.
- Two editions of Return on Engagement: Content Strategy and Web Design Techniques for Digital Marketing from Focal Press.
This illustrious web sustainability expert tells us what is our digital carbon footprint, how can we reduce it and what are some of the big players doing in this area. Here’s an exclusive chat with Tim Frick.
Please tell us about Mightybytes and how did you start thinking about web sustainability?
We are a digital agency started in 1998. We just turned 20 years old. We integrate digital products and services into our clients’ business models to meet business and marketing goals and achieve measurable results. Our services fall into four categories:
- Strategy and consulting
- Design and UX
- Web Development and Custom Software
- Digital Marketing and Optimization
We first started thinking about web sustainability shortly after becoming a Certified B Corp in 2011. B Corps use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Looking for ways to further reduce our carbon footprint and cut down on waste, we discovered that the internet—the thing that we build for a living every day—has a massive environmental impact,on par with that of the airline industry. It uses as much electricity every year as a country the size of Germany and most of it is powered by fossil fuels. So we decided to take that on as our champion cause.
Above: The Mightybytes team in a workshop where the inspiration for their post on more sustainable web design came.
‘Go paperless’ or ‘go digital’ is a standard advice we give to our readers on making a sustainable work space, but what exactly is the carbon footprint of our digital activities? If you could explain the concept of web sustainability.
Calculating an exact carbon footprint of digital activities is a complicated process based on many factors. The electricity consumption of all the devices we use to read, work, communicate, and otherwise interact with the world is ongoing. When the device is turned on, it uses electricity. The majority of this electricity comes from polluting, non-renewable sources. The primary web sustainability goals are to make the solutions we design—websites, mobile apps, software, and so on—as efficient as possible and power them by renewable energy.
Is there data on what are the activities causing most serious digital carbon footprint?
Energy use happens in three primary places:
- On the server side, in powering data centers.
- Through data transmission over networks.
- On the front end, as we interact with our websites and apps.
Large tech companies like Google, Akamai, Apple, and others are doing significant work to improve data center efficiency and power their servers with renewable energy. There are still thousands of companies, however, that either aren’t doing anything or could vastly improve their data centers.
Similarly, most agencies—of which there are over a half million in the world—don’t consider sustainability principles at all when they build websites or other digital products for their clients. As of this writing, according to the HTTP Archive, the average web page is pushing 4MB. This is significantly higher than it was just a few years ago. All this extra data uses extra energy when requested from data centers to our laptops, smartphones, and wearable devices. When you think about the billions of people on this planet who use these tools every day, it really adds up.
As for resources, Greenpeace Click Clean Report gives more information on what many of the large tech companies are doing to improve their impact. I recently wrote a book titled Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services that is available from O’Reilly Media and covers the design side. There is also serving.green, which we were lucky enough to collaborate on with partners from Manoverboard and Third Partners and our Sustainable Web Design microsite.
How can websites be more energy efficient? What is the model Mightybytes works on?
We have created a four part framework that is aligned with our services to make digital products and services more efficient and power them with renewable energy.
- Findability: how quickly can people find the information they’re looking for?
- Usability: how quickly can users accomplish tasks without barriers or confusion?
- Performance: how fast does a website or app load? Are the assets optimized for speed?
- Green Hosting: choosing a webhost that powers its data centers with renewable energy.
You can run your own website through our free web sustainability tool Ecograder to learn more about its impact in these areas.
Readers for your information, Ecograder is a free tool that grades your website on sustainable design, green hosting, and sustainable development. Check your website on it below:
What are some of the worst websites in terms of digital carbon footprint? And what are the best ones?
When we originally launched Ecograder, we ran the Fortune 100 websites through it. Some of the most bloated sites at that time were from Domtar (Ironically Domtar is a leading provider of a wide variety of fiber-based products including communication, specialty and packaging papers, market pulp and absorbent hygiene products with sustinable paper and fiber developemnt being its mission) and Mattel. With the growth of video page backgrounds, rotating image carousels, and other high-bandwidth features, I would venture to say that the average website now is likely much larger than those were just a few years ago.
In general, news sites tend to be huge bandwidth hogs. Plus, they typically have terrible user experiences. Autoplay videos, rotating carousels, constant popup ads, and overloaded pages frustrate users and waste energy.
On the flipside, the new Manoverboard site is an incredible example of clean, efficient design that doesn’t sacrifice user experience. They have found a clever way to optimize images for fast download while still maintaining great design integrity.
Are some web browsers more energy efficient than others?
Browser makers have a vested interest in making their tools as efficient as possible. I can’t comment on one particular browser over another, but in general, if you’ve got a lot of tabs open, you’re wasting a lot of energy. I use The Great Suspender Chrome plugin, which puts browser tabs to sleep when you’re not using them. There’s also the Earth Mode plugin, which helps you understand the true impact of your browsing. They plant trees to offset their user base’s impact.
Apps vs websites- what’s more energy efficient? Or is the impact the same? And more general, what is the footprint of smartphones
This all really depends on how their built and where they get their energy. The benefits of an efficiently built website are canceled out if it is powered by fossil fuels. Similarly, a slow, bloated mobile app can be far less efficient than a well-crafted website.
As for smartphone efficiency and footprinting, that’s a whole other topic. Conflict minerals, e-waste, and many other problematic components play roles in your average smartphone’s life cycle. Companies like Fairphone are making great strides at producing smartphones that support closed-loop principles: long-lasting design, fair materials, reuse and recycling, etc. They are one small company, however, in a huge industry not known for fairness, inclusion, or a commitment to sustainability, so there’s still a very long way to go.
Readers, Fairphone has built the world’s first ethical, modular smartphone which is great in design, on par with the latest leading smartphones with compromising on a fair trade supply chain.
How do you see huge web trends (actually more lifestyle trends now) like crypto currency, e-commerce and m-connecte impacting web sustainability?
Most organizations don’t consider sustainability principles alongside or as part of their innovation endeavors and that’s really unfortunate. They get blinded by opportunity and fall prey to a dangerous growth mindset. You can’t have infinite growth when you have finite resources. It’s a simple equation, really. This becomes especially problematic if companies have activist shareholders or have gone public, where in the United States at least, it is the rule of law to maximize shareholder value. Ruthlessly pursuing profit typically comes at the cost of people and planet. That’s one of the many reasons why Mightybytes is proud to be part of the growing B Corp movement to use business as a force for good in the world.
There are many articles online about the massive energy use required for bitcoin, blockchain, etc. We have a similar situation with the growing number of ‘always on’ IoT devices we’re using in all walks of business, government, etc, 20 billion by 2020 according to some estimates, 50 billion according to others. Regardless, that’s a lot of devices. This doesn’t mean we should ignore these innovations and their potential impact to improve society. It just means that all organizations should fold design thinking, systems thinking, and sustainability principles into everything they can do so as to better understand the true cost of our innovations.
Could you tell us what is the impact of social media use on web sustainability?
As noted above, large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have made great strides in powering their data centers with renewable energy. Even Amazon Web Services, which supposedly powers up to one-third of the internet, has moved forward on this front, though they still have a ways to go. Hopefully, others will follow as well. It is impossible to calculate with accuracy the amount of energy being used by social media on the front-end: users who share, like, comment, etc.
Sustainability is about more than energy use though. It’s about a fair and just future that works for everyone. Just look at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. So many of them are about equity, inclusion, quality-of-life, etc. If a large company like Unilever, not historically known for equity and fairness, tells you to « clean up toxic content » or it will pull ads, as it did recently with Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon, you know you’ve got some pretty big issues to deal with.
We have a very large reader base of green startups entrepreneurs and for this community the internet is the single biggest ‘affordable’ resource to build business. What are some of the tips they should keep in mind while building their websites as well as reducing over all digital carbon footprint?
For a business, anyone can use the B Impact Assessment to measure what matters and gauge how well you align purpose with profit. Companies don’t have to become B Corps to use the free assessment. It’s a great benchmarking tool.
In terms of digital-specific options, find a good green host. Though it took us a while, we finally landed on Google Cloud Platform. The company’s commitment to renewable energy is inspiring. Then build the most user-friendly, findable, and efficient digital business tools possible.
What are some of the other innovations happening to realise web sustainability? What are some of the major players doing to reduce their web carbon footprint?
The growth of the renewable energy industry and the tech industry’s leadership there is really inspiring. In 2017, Google used machine learning to make its data centers 40% more efficient, which is huge. The folks at the Web Neutral Project have devised a way to track a website’s carbon footprint, which is promising.
Plus, sustainability tracking and analytics software in general is getting more sophisticated. Some, like Carbon Analytics, are free. If those can be coupled with compelling storytelling and companies are willing to weave sustainability principles into their DNA rather than relegate those practices to consultants or a CSR department somewhere, we’ll be making huge progress. This, of course, includes their digital initiatives.
Can you give us some tips on what people can do to reduce their digital carbon footprint?
In general, make more responsible purchasing decisions and do your homework. Here’s a checklist you should try:
1. As a user switch to browser tools mentioned above to reduce energy use like The Great Suspender Chrome plugin, or the Earth Mode plugin
2. Same goes for energy saver utilities on your computer.
3. Turn notifications off on your smartphone and use Airplane or Driving Mode when not using it.
4. Buy a Fairphone for personal use or give to your employees as company phone.
5. Use Ecosia instead of Google. Ecosia is a web search engine based in Berlin, Germany, which donates 80% of its surplus income to non-profit conservationist organizations, with a focus on tree planting.
6. If you’re building a website then here’s your checklist:
- Do a green audit of your website with Ecograder.
- Switch to Green Hosting: choosing a webhost that powers its data centers with renewable energy.
- Improve ‘Findability’: how quickly can people find the information they’re looking for?
- Pay attention to UI/UI from point of view of ‘Usability’: how quickly can users accomplish tasks without barriers or confusion?
- Evaluate website ‘Performance’: how fast does a website or app load? Are the assets optimized for speed?
Thanks Tim Frick for shedding light on this very important topic for our community. It’s time we start thinking about web sustainability and reduce our digital carbon footprint. Watch Tim speak at the TedX Bentley University Event below.