Reducing Website Carbon Footprints

What practical steps can companies take to reduce the carbon footprints of their websites?


Digital Carbon Online helps organisations measure and report on the carbon footprint of their websites.

Now, this is a an important piece of the puzzle because after all, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed. But what we’re really trying to do is to minimise the climate impact of websites, so it seems important that we spend some time looking at what best practices can be adopted to reduce the carbon footprint of websites.

This article aims to serve as a reference point to the leading articles, guides, thought leaders and standards on this topic. We intend to make this a “living” article so make sure to bookmark it to keep up to date with the leading edge developments in this area.

To help you navigate this article, we’ve used a key as follows:

Reference books or resource
Methodologies, Standards
Practical steps, guides and how-to
Ideas, tips and discussions

Table Of Contents

Sustainable Web Design – The Theory

The go-to reference book on this topic, titled “Sustainable Web Design“, was written by Tom Greenwood, co-founder of Wholegrain Digital and the brains our partner website, websitecarbon.com.

Sustainable Web Design presents a practical approach to creating websites that are not only better for the environment but also enhance user experiences.

The key areas of his book explore:

  1. How to assess and reduce a website’s environmental impact. (we’d like to suggest Digital Carbon Online is a very good tool for this task)
  2. Making low-carbon design choices concerning elements like imagery, content, colour, and more.
  3. Implementing development processes geared towards optimising energy efficiency.
  4. Considering the costs and factors (financial and environmental) associated with web hosting and data transfer.
  5. Equipping you with the knowledge and tools to advocate for sustainable practices within your team or organisation.

More Great Books

If you’re looking for more recommended books then check out the list presented on sustainablewebdesign.org.

The list includes seminal books such as Gerry McGovern’s World Wide Waste and Tim Frick’s Designing for Sustainability.

SustainableWebDesign.org

Sustainability of the web is a very complex matter, and like sustainability in the broader sense, will not be achieved by any individual or single organisation – collaboration is essential.

SustainableWebDesign.org is a collaborative project led Wholegrain Digital and Mightybytes focused on defining web design strategies for a lower-carbon, more sustainable web.

The website offers tips, strategies, and methodologies.

Their emission calculation strategy is widely adopted and continuously updated. Their excellent article (here) explains the challenge of calculating web emissions, and provides a worked example of the methodology they (and websitecarbon.com) use.

Their methodology provides a standardised approach for calculating the carbon footprint of digital products or services, primarily using kWh/GB as the key metric, with flexibility to adapt to specific product or service factors.

It relies on several scientific studies to support the methodology, including the “Andrae Study” for energy consumption. This is an open methodology, so supports options for customising carbon intensity figures based on location or renewable energy percentages, focusing on data transfer to end users as the fundamental calculation basis.

Fid the complete article here.

Sustainable Web Design Strategies

The website publishes practical strategy suggestions across 6 key themes – Design, Client & Project Ethos, Content & marketing, Development, Hosting and Business Operations.

Those themes illustrate the multi-discipline nature of sustainable web design, and reinforce the point we make above; making the web more sustainable isn’t the responsibility of the developers or designers alone, operations, marketing and client facing staff have important roles to play, too.

Below are a few tips to give you a sense of the breadth and specificity available on the website. For the full, comprehensive list start here sustainablewebdesign.org/category/design/

Design

Page Weight Budgets: Designers and developers should be set “budgets” for how “heavy” (in bytes) each page of the website is. This includes HTML but importantly also media such as images, fonts and videos. Read more.

Admin and Backend: While most of website emissions might be considered to be a factor of the website’s visitor traffic, the footprint of back-end and administrative tasks should note be forgotten. Read more.

Business Operations

Verification and certification: We whole-heartedly do not condone greenwashing, however, “greenhusing” (not talking about good sustainability work for fear of greenwashing) is also a growing problem.

SustinableWebDesign.org talks about how deciding to adopt external certification and verification can help organisations hold themselves accountable while also publicly demonstrating leadership and commitment to the reduction of digital carbon footprints. Read more.

We should also point out that Digital Carbon Online provides this capability for our clients, with the Digital Carbon Verified badge.

Client & Project

User Data: GDPR got us all thinking about the data we collect and store, but unnecessary data collection and storage also has a digital carbon footprint impact, too. Read more.

Equitable Wealth Distribution: Sustainability is much more that carbon footprints, our sister site Well, That’s Interesting Tech! talks about this in great depth using the UN SDGs as a framework. In this instance, SustainableWebDesign includes a number of non-carbon-related strategies to ensure the broader sustainability considerations are not forgotten. Read more.

These examples are provided simply to illustrate the holistic nature of sustainable web design. We highly recommend you head over to sustainablewebdesign.org to explore all their tips and strategies.

Abstrakt on Sustainable Web Design

One of our clients is a brand and design agency with a strong focus on sustainable web design. Their Digital Design Lead, Lucy Williams, puts some of the topics above into context and provides a list of practical points and tips for both designers and developers.

Lucy’s tips cover conscious use of imagery and external resources – including unnecessary downloads, external code libraries and trackers – as well as mindful decision making around user journeys, hosting and server requests. Read the full article here.

Sustainable Web Design as Part of the Brand

In another article on becoming a sustainable brand, Lucy also talks about the value of talking about your green credentials (avoiding both greenwashing and greenhushing). Read that one here.

The Impact of Technology Stack on Sustainability

When we talk about sustainable web design it is easy to focus on the design and development aspects, but as covered above it is broader than that.

From a technology point of view, the sustainability of a company’s web presences starts with technology choice. This technology choice is in part a design/development decision but has more far-reaching implications across the offices of the CTO, CSO and CIO.

These articles address the topic of technology and stack choices and their impact on sustainability.

  • 5 ways to reduce the carbon impact of your tech stack – more on Vapourcloud.com here.
  • Making software and data architectures more sustainable – more on Mckinsey.com here.
  • Addressing AI’s sustainability conundrum – more on GreenBoz.com here.
  • The ultimate guide to low-impact web development – more on NoughtsandOnes.com here. (This also includes suggestions for more sustainable alternatives to Google Analytics).

Digital Carbon Footprints

Our founder, Scott Stonham, has written a lot on the broader topic of digital carbon footprint, here are a collection of papers, articles and interviews on the topic.

LaWebVerde

Columbia-based sustainable web designer, Catalina Zapata has an excellent resource of tips and ideas to help reduce the carbon footprints of websites.

In her guides you will learn about the importance of perfecting the user experience (avoiding unnecessary page loads and navigation), optimising images (using webp or SVG where possible), the impact of colour choice (blue uses 25% more energy), reducing motion effects, reduce tracking scripts and much more.

Check out her guides here. (It is in Spanish, but don’t fret. If you’re not a native Spanish speaker, Chrome’s translator does a great job.)

In summary

Achieving a lower-carbon web is possible, but. it relies on collaboration between many domains, across all sectors and disciplines.

This article aspires to b a reference point for the latest thinking and practical advice on the rapidly evolving topic of sustainable web design.

If you feel we’ve missed an important article or reference point, please do get in touch to let us know.

The role of Digital Carbon Online in a more sustainable web.

Embracing carbon emissions measurement and reporting solutions is not just a step towards a greener future; it is a vital contribution to a sustainable and responsible digital ecosystem.

Digital Carbon Online provides many key capabilities for organisations that are serious about reducing the carbon impact of their websites.

Our clients are able to measure the real-world carbon impact of their websites (as defined by the SustainableWebDesign.org methodology), to report and track emissions over time (what gets measured gets managed), provides an opportunity to showcase green website design as part of a sustainable brand, and support credible, verified carbon removals.

If you’re serious about tackling your website’s carbon impact, or you’re an agency working to lower the carbon footprint across all your client’s websites then do get in touch to see how we can help.

Find Out More

Get in touch to find out more about our service, and receive an initial assessment of the carbon impact of your website for free.

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