We all know we are facing a climate emergency, but have you ever given much thought to the role the internet plays in this? Of course, we’re aware that every time we browse online, we use electricity, but as well as the electricity used by our devices, what about the energy used by data centres and telecoms networks? Would it surprise you to know that the internet uses roughly the same amount of electricity as the UK? Or that the internet is responsible for producing approximately 3.7% of global carbon emissions?
In this article, I will look at why it’s so important that we start thinking green when it comes to websites and what you can do to make a difference.
Why is it so important to have a green website?
If we imagine the internet is a country, then it would be the 7th largest polluter in the world. And the problem is our thirst for immediate information and the expectation that even the smallest company should have some form of presence online is only exacerbating the issue. In fact, in 2020, 40 million additional people came online in Southeast Asia alone.
And this issue is made worse by the fact you can’t see the damage digital technologies are making to the planet, unlike, for example the air pollution caused by cars.
For the past couple of decades, we’ve been told digital is best. Why buy a book or DVD when you can download or stream them online? Why print and send a letter, when you can simply send an email and at the same time save a tree?
But sadly, this simply isn’t the case. In his book ‘World Wide Waste’, Gerry McGovern points out that 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google.
So, contrary to popular belief, going digital doesn’t mean you aren’t having an environmental impact. In fact, this great infographic from Climate Care shows that everything from manufacturing and shipping to the amount of data we use gaming, watching videos and even emailing is having a detrimental impact on the environment.
And that’s why we need to start taking the issue of a green internet seriously.
So, what is sustainable web design?
Sustainable web design adopts an approach which puts the planet first. It’s about using eco-friendly practices to find ways to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption.
A good starting point for most businesses is to try and respect the principles of the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which among other things calls for an internet that:
- provides and uses services powered by renewable energy
- produces products and services that are accessible; and
- supplies products and services to support an economy that nourishes people and the planet.
You can even sign the manifesto to show your company is committed to a greener internet but the key takeaway is that web design should prioritise the health of our planet.
How can you make your website more sustainable?
You won’t be the only one thinking that making your website green probably isn’t worthwhile. After all, how can making one website more environmentally friendly make an impact?
But just like most of us try to recycle paper or avoid using single-use plastic, every little step we take makes a difference. And, possibly, more importantly, it’s about raising awareness around this issue and addressing the rhetoric that digital has no environmental impact.
My Environmental Statement covers a number of things you can do to make your website more environmentally friendly, but here are three things you could look into immediately.
- Review your site’s carbon footprint
I recently put a carbon calculator on the footer of each page of my website to check my site has as small a carbon footprint as possible. It’s also my attempt to help raise awareness around this important issue.
You can easily check the carbon footprint of a web page with this carbon calculator. Not only does it tell you how you are doing, but also gives ideas of what action you can take to make your website more energy efficient.
- Switch to a green host
One easy thing to do is switch your hosting to a green provider, someone who uses renewable energy or compensates for the energy they use.
The Green Web Foundation provides a tool so you can check if your current host is green and also provides this useful directory of green hosting providers broken down by country.
And while you’re at it you might want to review your software, such as email client, video conferencing and cloud services to make sure you are using suppliers committed to renewable energy.
- Review your content and SEO
It might sound a bit strange that the content on your site can have an impact on energy efficiency but think of it this way. If users can find the content they need quickly with the minimum number of clicks and it provides them with the information they need, then they will be on the internet for less time. This helps reduce loading and downloading time and in turn reduces CO2 emissions.
And that’s why getting your SEO right is also important. I’ve covered before the importance of SEO in terms of making your website accessible, but it also has an environmental impact, as it will help lower the number of searches and sites users load in one go.
- Make your pages load faster
Pages that load quickly consume less energy, so, if you optimise your web pages not only do you please site visitors, you please Google (who reward faster pages with higher placement in the search engines) and you help the planet at the same time. That's 3 big wins for a small amount of work. I've written previously about how you can improve the speed that your web pages load.
Ultimately, sustainable web design isn’t just about helping save the planet, but also about giving users a better online experience and what company doesn’t want to help achieve that.
If you would like to find out more about sustainable web design, you might find these links useful:
- An excellent article by the BBC - Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think
- What is sustainable web design?
- Sustainable Web Manifesto
- Building a greener web