The notion that digital is the greener alternative to a world of information on paper has fallen away in recent years. The impact of our digital lives has come into focus, from the resources consumed by data centres to the materials mined to make the billions of devices connected to the internet. The environmental implications of the digital world are undeniable. The economy built on digital is predicated on a cycle of unsustainable consumption, and when tech breaks new ground, from AI to Web3, it does so in energy-intensive ways that demand ever more resources.
For end users, the gap between the tiny impact of a single interaction and the cumulative impact of the internet is difficult to grasp. We rely on technology, and technology can be used to do great things. But we need the technology we rely on to be built with planetary boundaries in mind, to be designed and built by people who consider the weight of each decision, and its impact on the ecosystem.
Sustainable Web Design
While much of the weight of the digital world is about physical impact, from powering infrastructure to mining precious metals, the digital products and services we design have a considerable impact. The emergence of the sustainable web design movement in recent years has helped us begin to measure kilobytes and megabytes in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. Website Carbon by Wholegrain Digital, Ecograder by Mightybytes and Ecoping are just three services which measure the weight of websites and web pages with a view to driving awareness, building understanding, and motivating change. These services are typical of the efforts of a movement of developers, designers, and technologists who believe that it is critical to share strategies, resources and knowledge as we tackle the environmental impact of the digital world. You can see this community in action (and join in) at ClimateAction.tech. The impact of the work is taking effect at the heart of the web. Environmental sustainability is now one of the W3C's Ethical Web Principles. This year, for the first time, the HTTP Archive's Web Almanac, their annual state of the web report, includes a full chapter on sustainability written by, among others, Irish web pioneer Gerry McGovern.
If you're a designer working in digital, the challenge can feel overwhelming. You’re faced with choices which demand technical knowledge and ethical consideration. But reducing the impact of our work, whatever our area expertise (or role), starts with simple steps, and much of what is considered ‘sustainable’ in web and digital design is about returning to first principles. Sustainability often aligns with existing best practice, so, if this is a new consideration for you, here are three ways to reduce the impact of your next web project.
Make it simple to find, easy to use
When products and services are easy to find and easy to use, the people using them spend less use less energy finding and navigating them. Of course, this is what we're trying to do already, identifying unmet needs and helping people meet them efficiently. Simpler user journeys, good information architecture, and content design reduce the energy used to access digital services. When we think about the energy users consume, we move beyond user-centred design and towards what research and design lab Space10 call a ‘people-planet’ approach. We add a new dimension to our thinking, and make better decisions with our clients.
Make it leaner, lighter
For the web to be sustainable, we have to reduce the weight of the pages we create. Every resource used on a page has to be stored somewhere, and processed by your device. Heavier web pages take longer to load, and cost more in data and time. Thanks in part to the wider availability of high-speed internet (particularly in the places where web pages are designed and built), mobile page weight has ballooned by 594% over the last 10 years (according to the HTTP Archive’s latest State of the Web report). Page weight budgets are a simple, powerful tool to make pages lighter. They help us to prioritise and make conscious choices on what should go on a page (and what shouldn’t). Making 'low carbon' web pages doesn't mean abandoning images or web fonts (imagery and typography contribute to usability), but it does mean that each choice should be considered, and weighed against its impact.
Use as little energy as possible, and choose renewable sources
When we build web projects, we make choices about where to host our sites, our images and what content management systems to use. Consider what functionality is really necessary. A simple, static site might use less energy than a content-managed one, and still meet the needs of your project. You can choose infrastructure powered by renewable energy. The Green Web Foundation provide a list of hosts who use renewable resources. By considering the energy a system uses, we can make better choices about the type of project to build, defaulting to simpler, static projects that use less energy when possible.
Making the web lighter is a good first step, but it won’t be enough on its own. The attention economy is predicated on constant growth in consumption. If we don't challenge the underlying model of the ‘free’ internet, then the weight of our consumption will outstrip any gains in efficiency. It won't be enough to build a lighter web if we don’t find ways of aligning consumption and value. The revenue model of Meta and Alphabet means we have a web designed to consume us, and to use as much energy as possible in doing so.
The work we do represents an opportunity. We are problem solvers. We help people to see things from new angles and find opportunities. We can adopt new mental models and use our work to effect change. We can question what we make, and choose to build leaner digital products and services. We can help the people we work with to make more sustainable choices. And we can make it so that people use less energy as they navigate the digital world.
One of the first things I often do when I encounter an article like this is to weigh the page. Before publishing, I weighed Brian’s post introducing the series. It performs pretty well on Website Carbon, lighter than 92% of pages tested. But it was not using non-renewable energy, so Ecograder scored it 65/100.
Our host has since been added to the Green Web Foundation's directory so this article is rated 90/100.
An incomplete list of useful links and starting points:
Guides and Best Practice
- An introduction to digital eco-design by Aurélie Baton and Anne Faubry.
- Sustainable Web Design Guide by Mightybytes & Wholegrain Digital
- Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood
- World Wide Waste by Gerry McGovern
- How bad are bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee
- Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick
- World Wide Waste by Gerry McGovern
- Green I/O by Gaël DUEZ
- Conscious Communication Design by Lisa Zimmerman
Workshops / Training
About the writer
Kevin Horan is a UX designer at Wove. He is interested in sustainable, ethical design and humane technology.