We use websites almost every day. Without them, modern work – and modern life – would be impossible. But what damage is the internet doing to the environment?
We tend to focus on what a website can do for us, or how it is designed and the user experience it provides. However, it’s not often that we think about the resources required for a website to exist, and more importantly, what those resources are costing our planet.
And it’s more than you might think. At a minimum, electricity from a power grid is required not just to support your device in accessing a website, but also for the server that’s hosting the site, and for the ISP connecting your device to the internet.
At worst, this power is sourced from fossil fuels, while at best the power comes completely from renewable sources. In the UK we’re currently using a combination of both as we transition towards using only renewable energy sources.
Why does it matter?
Data centre web servers, such as those used by the likes of Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook, are to blame for no less than 2% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This might not sound like much, but this is actually on a par with greenhouse gas emissions from air travel.
We’re spending more and more time online, and if we aren’t careful, emissions will inevitably increase as well. The internet is indispensable to the modern global economy – nothing has shown this more clearly than the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s no denying that digital technology has a firm foothold in our daily lives – but there needs to be a global effort to offset the growing number of emissions.
Who is leading these efforts?
One tech company stands out here, and that’s Google. Google became the very first major company to become carbon neutral, achieving a carbon footprint of zero in 2020.
By reducing their footprint to zero, Google are offsetting the damage caused by running their services in most areas of their business through the use of renewable energy sources.
In becoming carbon neutral, Google have managed to vastly reduce harmful emissions produced as a result of people spending time on the internet, whether they’re using Google for emailing, searching or hosting.
In Finland, Google have experimented with using hardware cooling methods that utilise the environment in a sustainable way, instead of damaging it. With a data centre built beside a flowing lake, this data centre uses local water to cool its computers before returning the water at a safe temperature to the flowing stream.
The cooling method is unique, as it requires no power, and is a great example of innovative thinking and use of natural resources.
How we are achieving sustainability at Organic
At Organic, we aim to create a ‘lean’ experience for all of our users. This means we’re reducing the overall weight of every web page in our sites as much as we possibly can, by minifying our delivered assets and content.
We still ensure that we always deliver a great experience for the user – we simply reduce how much it costs us to send data to users, and for those users to receive that data, and this in turn reduces our environmental impact on the plant.
Where we host our products
We’ve already highlighted how well Google has done with its environmental mission, which made it a no-brainer to use them as our hosting provider. In fact, we host our own website with their Cloud Platform Technology Partner CloudFlare, meaning we’re using green energy for our own site too.
Not only is Google environmentally conscious, but their services are some of the best on the market, with data centres all over the world, and development operation services that allow us to safely deploy our products for our clients with no downtime.
Hosting with Google covers a large amount of our carbon footprint, but we didn’t stop there.
What we measure
We try not to rely on third party scripts and add-ons for our sites. This way, we can make sure our products are secure, have control over the weight of the code, and reduce our imports per site.
We take ownership of the products we develop and the impact on the environment. Here’s what we assess and measure on all of our website products:
- Are we loading libraries for basic operations? Can we build this ourselves?
- Do we have a large number of images? Is it better to lazy load content which is large in file size?
- If we are using a lot of images, would we benefit from using WebP image formats? We utilise modern website development methods
- Are we loading hundreds of kb of web fonts? Making use of fonts already installed on user machines would increase the performance of the site and reduce the weight
- Are we embedding YouTube videos and iFrames?
- Are we lazy loading large assets and embeds?
Do we need the feature?
This is a question we’ll always bear in mind when it comes to our website products. A feature that doesn’t bring value to a web page in some way simply shouldn’t be there.
As designer and UX engineer Heydon Pickering says: “The most performant, accessible, and easily maintainable feature of a website is the one that you don’t make in the first place.”
Putting it into practice
A recent UI design project for luxury yacht charter business Yomira proved the ideal project for us to test our checklist and then review our sustainability score using an assessment tool.
We wanted to deliver a seamless, visually stunning online user experience without it being of great cost to the environment. With this in mind, we ensured the following throughout development:
- Images were compressed and cropped appropriately
- The content was lazy loaded when off-screen (fewer requests)
- We built functionality in-house where possible
- We hosted with Google
At the end of the project, we tested the site against a carbon analyser to assess the impact it was making against the environment.
As mentioned, we offset the majority of our emissions through the use of our hosting provider, Google. Google’s efforts have a large ripple effect on all businesses that make use of their services, and we can’t recommend them enough.
Want to learn more about sustainable websites, Digital for Good, or what we can do for your business? Get in touch.