As creators of our digital world, we have a powerful role to play. We must consciously reinvent web design to radically reduce the polluting impacts of our sites and apps. We must use our talents to rethink how we build websites, reduce wastage and save energy — or else, we’re complicit.
When we think of industries that most exacerbate the climate emergency, our minds tend to go to aviation, agriculture, manufacturing or Big Oil. But few of us think about the energy impact of all the taps, clicks and swipes we make all day, every day.
The stark reality is, if the internet were a country, it would be the seventh most polluting country in the world, after Germany. It may not seem like it — our sleek, self-contained, odourless machines don’t feel pollutive — but in fact, the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them are similar to that of the annual emissions of the global airline industry.
So, what can be done?
Our own approach has been to carefully examine each website we work on to ensure they meet standards and criteria which can help significantly impact the site’s sustainability credentials. And every change or adaptation a website makes to become more sustainable has the added benefit of making it, well, better.
The fact is that ‘greener’ websites are more user-friendly, operate faster, look better and are easier to navigate. They’re simpler, leaner, more minimal, and lighter in design and operation. They perform better in search, are more accessible, require less maintenance and are cheaper to maintain. Oh, and they’re better for the environment!
So, why wouldn’t you make your site more sustainable?
The carbon ‘weight’ of a business’s online properties can be assessed against the following five criteria:
1. Think before you start
Incorporating lean or agile workflows from the start, rather than relying on traditional models designed on 21st-century assembly lines, can help streamline a build and require fewer resources during a project’s lifecycle. Establishing a site’s weight budget can keep developers conscious of keeping content to a minimum. It should be noted that the average web page is 5MB, 26 times the size it was in 2003.
2. Findability and content
Simply put: Helping people find your website more easily isn’t just good marketing practice; SEO helps reduce front-end energy consumption.
Similarly, the more images, videos, motion content and GIFs a website uses, the more energy consumed. On most websites, images are the single largest contributor to page weight. A website with video playing can be one or even two orders of magnitude heavier than a website without video in terms of page weight and creates much higher load on the user’s CPU, resulting in vastly greater energy consumption.
3. User experience and design
Good information architecture and user experience should be considered from the very outset. Indeed, IA and UX designers have considerable influence over the environmental impact of a website. Simplifying wireframing and user journeys, prioritising fonts and typography which require less load times and increasingly important: using dark colours and night-mode all makes a difference — Google claims that running Google Maps in night mode reduces screen power draw by 63 percent.
4. Sustainable web development
Well-written code is more sustainable code. It’s more efficient (as well as more reliable, secure and easy to maintain). If you can write in ten lines of code what you used to write in a hundred lines, you’ve not only reduced the size of the file but likely reduced the amount of work the server has to do to process that file.
5. Sustainable hosting
The data centre in which your website is hosted will use vast amounts of electricity to store and process data. So, choose wisely — some centres are more polluting than others, depending on their level of energy efficiency and whether they have any meaningful commitment to using green energy sources. More sustainable hosts will strive to minimise any negative impact in all of these areas; and as we strive to create a less polluting web, we should aim to use the lowest-impact options available to host our web projects.
If we, as the stewards of an ever-evolving internet, wish to play our part in solving the climate crisis, we must recognise our own responsibility and understand the things we can do. They may seem small, but the sheer scale of the proliferation of tech means modest changes across the global digital landscape can make enormous impact.
It is time that we recognise that as an industry, we have a powerful role to play. We must consciously reinvent web design. We must use our talents to rethink how we build websites, reduce wastage and save energy — or else, we’re complicit. We’re at an ecological, economical and social tipping point. We need to think ‘greener’ and cleaner — even on a digital level.