Cleantech
'Clicking Clean:' The Overlooked Opportunity and Scalable Benefits of Sustainable Web Design

A few interesting facts:

  • If the Internet were a country, it would be the sixth-largest consumer of electricity on the planet, behind Russia, Japan, China, India, and the US.
  • In the US, less than 15 percent of that electricity comes from renewable sources, according to the Energy Information Administration.
  • According to the appropriately named website, TweetFarts, a single tweet puts about .02 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • With Twitter users sending over 500 million tweets every day, the social media giant potentially emits nearly 4,000 metric tons of CO2 each year. And that’s just one of a growing number of social networks.

According to a phenomenon known as Jevons Paradox, the increase in efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of that resource’s consumption. In other words, the easier it becomes to use something, the more said thing gets used. It happened with coal, it happened with automobiles, and now it’s happening with the Internet; we are unwittingly tweeting and posting our way to a warmer planet.

With sustainable web practices, however, the latter doesn’t have to follow the same environmentally disastrous path as the two former.

Tim Frick, one of our board members here at Climate Ride, has spoken about the carbon footprint of digital tools we know and love on several Climate Ride events. So when it came time to work with his firm Mightybytes for a website overhaul, sustainability was at the forefront of our project discussions. The designers and developers at Tim’s company are experts in sustainable web design. Mightybytes builds websites that are optimized for both users and energy efficiency and are hosted on servers powered by 100 percent renewable energy, and it has an ongoing blog series that contains dozens of helpful ‘how-to’ posts for creating more energy-efficient websites.

In 2013, Mightybytes figured out how to pull back the curtain on our not-so-clean clicks by designing a free-to-use web-based tool called Ecograder, which scores your website based on sustainability criteria and provides useful reports that can help you chart a path to a more sustainable website. Ecograder scores a website based on four criteria categories:

  • Performance Optimization: How speedy and reliable is your website?
  • Findability: How easy-to-find is your website and its content?
  • Design and User Experience: How quickly can site users accomplish tasks?
  • Hosting: Is your website hosting powered by renewable energy?

What Happened When We Retooled Our Website

When it came to redesigning our own website, we wanted the above criteria to be a driving force for improvements. Mightybytes redesigned our original website back in 2011. At that time, as part of the redesign, we migrated to a hosting provider powered by 100 percent renewable energy. After running our site through Ecograder a couple years later, we learned there was more we could do to optimize its efficiency, and Ecograder’s handy report provided us with the incentive we needed to improve.

Our initial Ecograder score in 2013 was 71. Since Ecograder gives 25 points out of the total 100 available for ‘green’ hosting (it is the most important thing you can do with your website), we can safely say that our score would have been at 46 prior to 2011 — not great for an organization dedicated to sustainable solutions.

Here were some of the things we improved with the 2014 website update:

  • Findability: Mightybytes streamlined our site’s content structure to make popular content types easier to find, cutting down on user search time. We continue to improve the site’s search engine results by optimizing for keywords, creating qualified inbound links, and so on. This gets users to the content they need more quickly.
  • Design and User Experience: Common user interactions such as finding a rider, registering for an event or donating were given more prominent placing in the site interface — again in an effort to get users to the content they need quickly — and responsive design improvements helped make the site more mobile-friendly. In 2014, mobile usage comprised nearly 60 percent of Internet traffic.
  • Performance Optimization: Large background images, which each triggered a separate server request and ranged anywhere from 60 to 300 kb per image, were removed. The homepage slideshow, which sometimes contained up to ten images, was replaced with a single, lightweight hero image, significantly cutting down load times and server requests. And the Mightybytes team introduced us to tools such as Smush.it, PicMonkey and more to further compress site images.

During this time, Mightybytes also updated Ecograder’s scoring algorithm, adding more metrics to check against. After the site overhaul, Climate Ride’s website scored a 91, a massive improvement of 45 points over our earlier website.

Global Carbon Emissions and the Bottom Line

So our small non-profit updated its website and reduced a small bit of electricity consumption. Does this matter?

Put simply, the more traffic your site gets, the more energy it uses both on the server side and the front end, where users access your content through smartphones, laptops, and an increasing array of Internet-connected devices, all of which require power to run.

To put this into perspective, it is estimated that the Internet consumes nearly 10 percent of global electricity consumption. According to Blue Dot Register, the world’s data centers consume between 1.1 and 1.5 percent, which is approximately 300 million megawatt hours of electricity annually. That’s the equivalent to the power consumed by 21.8 million American homes and the CO2 output of 46 volcanic eruptions.

Improving website efficiency can also affect your bottom line: Amazon calculated that a page load slowdown of one second would lead to $1.6 billion dollars in sales lost per year.

As a small, virtual non-profit working primarily with online tools, we’ve always focused on implementing sustainability in all aspects of our operations. Extending that to include providing optimized, energy-efficient online communications that serve our community’s needs and, whenever possible, are powered by 100 percent renewable energy offers the potential to save up to eight billion tons of CO2 by 2020. If Fortune 500s were to take similar measures for what may seem like an inconsequential facet of their business, it could result in a truly volcanic change for global carbon emissions.

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