web sustainability




Guest author Tom Greenwood is Managing Director at Wholegrain Digital –  a specialist digital design and WordPress agency based in London and focused on creating sustainable and accessible online experiences for positive organisations. Tom is a designer and environmentalist who believes that design, tech and business can be used to create positive change. He leads the team at Wholegrain Digital to push boundaries in web performance and sustainability, and develop tools to help drive progress towards the sustainable web of the future.



When people think about the web, environmental impact is generally the last thing on their minds. Unlike other industries that create visible waste or emissions, the web is generally seen as clean.


In fact, the web and sustainability tend to only be discussed together in the context of digital transformation, where the physical impact of traditional industries can be reduced by moving products and services online. Indeed, this is generally a good thing but the idea that the web is clean and green is far from the truth.


The surprising environmental impact of the internet


Our ever increasing hunger for data requires an ever growing infrastructure of data centres and transmission networks. Such infrastructure has inherent environmental issues associated with construction and manufacturing components. However, the most significant environmental issue is the vast amount of electricity required to power each of these centres across the globe.


The internets electricity consumption amounts to as much as the United Kingdom’s entire electricity consumption. Worldwide, that electricity production requires a great number of power stations and creates 2% of global carbon emissions.


If you think 2% doesn’t sound like much, think again. It’s the same CO2 output as the global aviation industry, which is generally seen as one of the most polluting industries. And as our hunger for data increases, so too will the web’s contribution to climate change.


There is good news though. Unlike aviation, which is dependent on burning fossil fuel to get planes in the air, the web runs on electricity. Emissions can be reduced relatively easily if organisations take responsibility for cutting the carbon footprint of their own web presence.


Three steps to reduce online carbon emissions


Although thinking about the carbon emissions of websites might be a fairly new and abstract concept, reducing website emissions can be achieved in just three simple steps.


1. Calculate the website’s emissions

It is hard to manage performance of anything that you cannot measure. Until recently there was no easy way to calculate the emissions of a website, which is why we created a free calculator tool at www.websitecarbon.com. Using this tool you can understand your current website carbon footprint, benchmark your site against others in your industry, and set yourself targets for improvement.


2. Switch to a green web host

A significant portion of the electricity used to operate a website is used by the data centres that host your website.  A typical data centre can use as much electricity as a medium sized town, not just to power computers but also to power the cooling systems.  


Fortunately, there are a growing number of hosting providers that have committed to purchasing renewable energy to power their facilities, including big providers like Google Cloud Platform and smaller providers like Positive Internet.  Switching to a green web host is fairly quick and easy to do and can make a big difference to your emissions. A database of green web hosts can be found at www.thegreenwebfoundation.org.


3. Improve the efficiency of your website

Just as with any industry, energy efficiency is key to reducing emissions.  Websites use energy when they store and transmit data, so by streamlining user journeys and minimising file sizes as far as possible we can reduce the amount of data needed to deliver the required experience to the user.


This can be challenging but it can yield huge improvements, especially when considered from the very start of a website design process. Some simple techniques include compressing image and video files, using lightweight fonts, eliminating any non-essential tracking scripts and avoiding bloated code frameworks and libraries.


By setting a page weight budget in kilobytes for your web designers and developers, you can focus their efforts to deliver your goals efficiently.


Getting decision makers on board with web sustainability


Although it’s imperative that we reduce internet emissions rapidly, it can be hard to engage decision makers in the issue, even in environmentally conscious organisations. It just not on the radar for most people.


At Wholegrain Digital we have found that the best way to engage decision makers is to find out what matters most to them, as individuals and as organisations. Efficient websites are not just environmentally better, but are better in many other ways too.


Efficient websites deliver faster load times, better SEO, improved user experience and better conversion rates.  They also provide improved accessibility for people on slow or expensive connections, whether they be mobile users, commuters using wifi, or users in developing countries where data can be very expensive relative to local incomes.  


We find that by identifying which issues matter most to our clients, we can get them buy in to the need for efficiency in their web projects, set page weight or carbon budgets and guide them to taking some of the hard decisions required to prioritise efficiency throughout the life of their project.


What is the future for web sustainability?


Looking ahead, I expect web sustainability to become a more mainstream concept and gradually become higher on the agenda for many organisations.


This will lead to a much wider selection of green hosting providers, new tools to help measure and improve performance, and new developments in technology to deliver rich user experiences in the blink of an eye with minimal data transfer. The web of the future will be sustainable, accessible, fast, and fun.