Designing for sustainability – can the internet damage the environment?

Posted on 28/04/2021 by Francis Williams

It's been an unusual and challenging year for us all, Covid has forced us into our homes more than we probably ever thought it would.

Lockdown has seen a surge in our online use so that we could keep connected; working from home, Zoom calls, quizzes, TikToks, and Joe Wicks’ classes. This more digital lifestyle has helped keep us close, sane, and healthy.

How lockdown changed the physical world

While for us humans it has been stories of staying in more, for nature it has been stories of getting out more. The pandemic has brought so many fantastic stories to us about nature renewed, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a generation. The canals of Venice were so clear, fish could be seen, air pollution so low in India people can see the Himalayas from their homes, and dolphins returning to Hong Kong. Who doesn’t feel a swell of positivity hearing these stories?

Our impact on the environment and how we can be more sustainable is complex and will likely be one of the most defining issues of our civilisation. David Attenborough has told us to think about how we use plastics, Greta Thunberg has told us to think about how we travel, but why has no one asked us to think about how we use the internet?


Is the environment affected by the internet?

The digital and the physical feel inherently disconnected but, what we do online does affect what happens to us offline.

63.9% of global electricity is generated using fossil fuels which goes towards powering and charging our phones, laptops, tablets, and smart TVs. Whenever we open an email, tweet, or watch Netflix, we are using this energy. The data centres that power our internet use currently produces approximately 3.8% of global carbon emissions, which is similar to the aviation industry, and this is rising in line with our hunger for more data. Some estimates predict that by 2025, global communication technologies will be responsible for more carbon emissions than any country except China, India, and the United States.

The Hallam homepage generates 0.37g of CO2 every time someone visits it. Based on traffic, in a year that will generate the same amount of CO2 as boiling water for 2,131 cups of tea. Our homepage is also cleaner than 76% of other web pages.

cup of tea

Improvements are being made in energy and technology efficiency, but with such a complex issue there won’t be a silver bullet to fix it, we all have to do our part to safeguard the environment and we as web professionals can also help out.

The good thing for us is that a lot of the goals we have when creating web products alight to decreasing our energy consumption and environmental impact. Here are some things we should all think about next time we are creating a digital product or experience.

1. SEO

SEO is all about helping users find the information they want as quickly and easily as possible. When SEO is doing what we want it to, users spend less time browsing and clicking links that don’t meet their needs, so consumes less data and energy.

2. Copywriting

The same is true of copywriting. Sometimes we want users to take time to read what we have to say, but what they don’t want is to waste their time digesting content that adds little value. Clear and effective copy works for the user and the environment.

3. UX

An aspect of good UX is streamlining the journey for users, allowing them to get where they need to easily and efficiently. A user wasting their time struggling to navigate a website won’t only get frustrated but will increase their time online. Make things simple so users don’t have to deduce what they should be doing.


4. Imagery

Imagery typically contributes the most to page weight. The bigger the page weight, the more data is required to load it and the more energy is used. Designers and content creators should consider if an image is really adding value and contributing to the experience, if not, then is it required? Optimising imagery is also key. Uploading images at the correct size rather than relying on CSS is the first step to reducing energy usage. Further steps include using image compression tools like Kraken, and uploading image appropriate file types for example JPGs rather than PNGs, or GIFs rather than JPGs.

5. Video

The same is true with videos as images. Ask yourself, is it adding to the experience, is a user going to watch my 5-minute hero background video or could it be 10 seconds long? Can it be compressed, does it need to be 4k? Does a video need autoplay or could we leave it for the user to decide?

6. Fonts

System fonts typically aren’t the first go to in design choices but they don’t require any loading as they are already on our devices. Sometimes, using a custom font is unavoidable, but when using them,keep the variation to a minimum. There are technical choices that can also help, such as using web-specific files like WOFF rather than TTF, and only loading in weights that have been used in the design, not the whole family.

7. Code

Writing clean code is the goal of any developer. The code that we write needs to be simple and efficient, but also consider the code we copy and borrow – does that need more of a cleanup? Also, when using a CMS, we can try to keep the plugins down to a minimum.

8. Carbon offsetting

Helping the environment isn’t just about reducing, it’s also about giving back. We can offset our carbon footprint but partnering with services and schemes that reduce our impact like planting trees.

Being more sustainable will likely bring changes for us all, but some of these changes we can do now and are ones that we hardly notice as they require little to no effort. Next time you start a piece of work and are asking: Why? Who? What? let’s just make sure we ask: How?

Want to know how you can be more sustainable when using the internet? Get in touch with us today or learn how we are doing our part for the environment.

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Designing for sustainability – can the internet damage the environment?

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