Building a sustainable future - how web development teams can create sustainable digital ecosystems

on 1st December 2022

(Last updated 6th February 2024)

“The internet is the world's biggest coal powered machine”. - The Green Web Foundation

According to a report from 2019 from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, approximately 10% of the world’s electricity consumption is used by the Internet and this is set to rise to 20% by 2025.

There is a pressing need to reduce energy consumption and switch our energy to renewals but in the case of the internet and its infrastructure, there is still a necessity for energy to be spent. 

If the rise in remote working means a reduction in energy consumption due to fewer cars on roads, fewer people commuting and travelling for work, fewer energy resources spent on heating and lighting office buildings (and fewer large non-residential city development projects overall), then can we live with a rise in the energy usage by the internet? Can the exponential rise in energy required to power the internet be offset by a decline in other non-digital energy usage? And can the tech industry play a part in making sure this rise in energy consumption is fueled by renewables and as efficient as it can be?

Swayed by consumer demand, the big tech giants – Facebook, Google, and Apple – have all committed to using 100% renewable energy (although the China based search engine giant Baidu have made no such commitments).

How can we, as designers, developers and smaller organisations, also contribute to making our digital future a sustainable one? 

The direct environmental impact of a website

The direct environmental impact of a website (or app) falls into two distinct categories:

  1. Performance (size and efficiency of the codebase)
  2. Hosting environment

Creating a performant website is the harder and more granular piece of work than selecting an appropriate hosting provider – where selecting a provider is one decision, creating a performant website is a matter of many micro decisions.

A performant website (one that loads quickly and performs well in low-bandwidth locations and on low-powered devices) not only provides a superior user experience but also has less of an environmental impact. More energy is used to render a slow, content-bloated website.

A web design and development team motivated to produce a great user experience and create an accessible website will also be creating a sustainable website as a by-product – but are probably not realising it. Education and awareness around sustainability can therefore be further motivation for building a performant website. 

An example of this is ourselves at Liquid Light. We pride ourselves on creating accessible and performant websites and we work with many organisations who require websites which are still accessible in low bandwidth scenarios, and that will run well on older and cheaper Android devices (often prevalent in lower-income countries). Running our recent web builds through online sustainability auditing tools shows that the projects we have designed and built score highly, yet we have only more recently thought to focus on sustainability beyond introducing green providers as our recommended hosting providers.

Many other design and development teams may already be making decisions in their processes that will positively impact energy usage, however, website efficiency is not only a concern for designers and developers; website editors, content strategists and SEO strategists all have a role to play. 

Improving performance

Keeping an eye on the amount of content that you hold goes a long way to reduce energy consumption of your website. The other element of a low-energy usage website is the efficiency of the code and this falls into the remit of the design and development team.

Below are some ideas on how a design and development team can benchmark and improve a websites performance:

  • Use Google’s page speed insight and lighthouse tools to measure the performance of your website build.
  • Adhere to Web Accessibility Standards where possible
  • If using a Content Management System (CMS) - and most commercial websites use one - consider its impact on performance and speed. Some CMSs are more heavy than others. You don't need a multi-site CMS framework for a small brochure site. Choose an appropriate solution for your needs.
  • Avoid large images, and optimise images appropriately. Use vector files (SVGs) for your logo or for simple graphical elements and animations, as these will scale without adding weight or losing quality.
  • Avoid embedding fonts if you can, and if you do, only load the typeface weights that are to be used on your website. If you are using a Google font you can even specify the exact characters to be loaded.
  • If your audience is global, consider using a Content Delivery Network (CDN). A CDN caches website assets on servers closer to the user, which reduces the load and resources needed to get assets to the end user.
  • Everyone loves video but video is also an energy drain. Use video sparingly.
  • Benchmark your website with a sustainability checker. There are many of these services online and many use Google's page insights tools to give their rating. Use a service similar to Digital Beacon. This uses a dataset of green hosting providers from The Green Web Foundation, so your website's hosting is also taken into consideration.
  • Give great emphasis on user-centric design and development - do your user research and test with your real audience as much as you can - efficient user journeys mean less time spent finding appropriate content
  • The same point can be made around SEO - the clearer your metadata is the more likely this will lead to a more efficient user journey.

Looking at the list above, it might seem like producing a sustainable website is a discussion around 'what do we leave out?' But creating a performant website, and one with focused messaging and content, are best practices for any web design and will go a long way to producing a sustainable website.

Auditing and reducing your website content

A significant part of your website's energy usage will be the amount of content you host, as more files, documents, and pages equates to an energy-hungry technical environment.

Keeping content down to the absolute minimum should be a baseline for any organisation, although this can be challenging when organisations regularly publish content, be it research, blog posts, white papers, etc. Many of our clients have this model; they are advocates and content providers and their purpose is to disseminate information to their audience. 

Another consideration that adds to this problem is the regularity of publication. If your website is static, your search ranking will suffer (Google doesn't like a static website) so having a strategy of regularly broadcasting new information is vital for organisations to keep their websites appearing in search and appearing current and relevant to their visitors.

So how does an organisation that's purpose is to produce and disseminate information keep their content at a minimum?

Often with this model of regular publication, content becomes out of date or irrelevant. This is when performing regular content audits becomes a powerful tool to keep your website not only lean, but relevant. By undergoing regular content audits, and looking back at your historic publications, irrelevant or out of date content can be removed (or ‘archived’) or updated to increase its relevance.

Regularly checking in with your website's analytics will also give you insight on what content might not be popular or not consumed that often. Removing ‘dead’ pages or irrelevant content will help keep your users engaged, your search ranking healthy and will of course reduce your overall energy consumption. 

Selecting a green hosting provider

Your hosting provider is a major part of your websites energy usage and when selecting a hosting provider, there are certain criteria you should always look for: 

  • Physical servers need a home - how has the building been built where the servers are kept? How is it maintained? Is the building's energy from renewables? With hosting providers who get their energy from green suppliers in the UK, those suppliers, by law, are obligated to provide evidence of their renewable sources. Your hosting provider should be able to confirm and provide this. 
  • Green credentials should be easy to find and prominent in hosting providers communications and websites. You should not have to dig about to find them, they should be accessible and publicly available.
  • Data centres should be close to the audience (easy if your website is targeted to a localised audience, harder with a global audience).
  • Check hosting providers against the Green Web Foundation database of green suppliers

The rise of the digital estate

Whether a startup or a larger company, many organisations do not have a single website. They may have a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform, Learning and Development (L&D) platform, intranet or extranet, a Digital Asset Manager (DAM), a digital workspace (using a combination of tools like Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Trello, Slack etc.)... with their public-facing website forming just a small part of their digital footprint – or digital estate.

With the rise of remote working, improving and evolving digital workplaces has become a priority, and many organisations will use off-the-shelf platforms plugged together to create these ecosystems and are not developing these systems in-house or outsourcing development to digital agencies. 

So creating a sustainable digital future is not solely the responsibility of digital designers, developers, and whatever pressure consumers can bring. Those in charge of procurement or technical infrastructure strategy need to have sustainable criteria in place, and those third party platforms need to make their sustainable credentials as transparent as can be.

In summary

The exponential rise in the internet's energy usage is not going away. The internet has become a mainstay in modern life, and powers much of the world's infrastructure.

Many digital designers and developers have become cheerleaders for accessible and inclusive online experiences, and over the last few years it has been amazing to see this become an integral part of design and development processes.

The same focus and determination needs to happen around sustainability. Whether you are a digital designer, UX designer, developer, product owner or manager, or someone procuring digital services, there is much you can do. Just as accessibility has become a standardised part of a website's development process, augment this by including criteria for sustainability.

If you are responsible for outsourcing work or selecting service providers, ask your partners and suppliers what their sustainability criteria are, and what they do to minimise their products' energy usage. 

Be as transparent as you can be. Not only to your end users, by publishing your efforts on your website and other communication platforms, but also to those stakeholders involved in your project even if those are uncomfortable conversations. Make it clear what the energy usage ramifications are for certain design and development decisions, and be a cheerleader for sustainability.

 

This article was posted in Design, Development