They may be hidden from the public eye, but digital emissions — those stemming from the internet and other online services — represent a poignant contributor to climate change. In fact, if the internet were a country, it would be the fourth largest polluter, representing nearly 4% of global CO2 emissions. As a result of the internet’s vast, electricity-consuming infrastructure, everyday tasks like checking email or web browsing are surprisingly carbon intensive. Loading a single online page averages more than 4.5 grams of CO2, presenting challenges not only for global decarbonization efforts but also for businesses as they attempt to adjust to ever-widening ESG mandates.
High web traffic is a near-universal goal but can have negative ramifications on an organization’s ESG performance, namely scope 2 emissions, which stem from the off-site consumption of purchased electricity. Ultimately, the more users a website has, the greater the server power and electricity that’s needed to power it. It’s critical to be mindful of this, as scope 2 emissions are increasingly represented in contemporary ESG disclosure frameworks, including the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).
Fortunately, the tradeoff between web traffic and sustainability can be mitigated through the adoption of sustainable web design best practices. When done correctly, these empower organizations to make the most of their online platforms while minimizing energy consumption, reducing emissions, and driving improved ESG results.
What is Sustainable Web Design?
At its core, sustainable web design is about creating digital landscapes that are good for people and the planet. Primarily, this means minimizing environmental impacts while ensuring audience responsivity. A wide range of best practices exist and can be broken down into four constituent categories: design, development, content, and hosting. While each aspect of sustainable web design can be approached individually, the best results are realized through holistic integration.
The design of a website shapes users’ first impressions, establishes visual impact, and facilitates intuitive navigation. It also guides users’ exploratory journeys, typically with the goal of securing a conversion. Sustainable design is about achieving this as efficiently as possible by providing the right amount of information — no more and no less.
Sustainable designs build efficient user pathways that not only add value through convenience but reduce carbon by decreasing necessary intra-site navigation. They also intelligently incorporate text, visual media, and color. Custom fonts and typefaces should be sparingly used, as stacking them will quickly impact website performance. Imagery should be set to “lazyload” as users scroll (as opposed to loading all at once) with file sizes scaled down as much as possible. Organizations should also strike a conscious balance between energy efficiency and accessibility in their website design palettes, keeping in mind that dark colors illuminate using less energy on OLED screens.
Videos and animations almost always represent the largest individual file sizes, so it’s important to implement them only where they’re truly offering value. If there are other ways to achieve a desired effect or message, organizations should opt for them to improve site sustainability, leanness, and responsiveness. Where videos are incorporated, they should be restricted from freely playing upon page load to minimize bandwidth use.
To get an idea of what sustainable web design looks like in action, organizations should head over to Evergreen Climate Innovations, which is equipped with sleek, contemporary, and low-carbon features. What is quickly made apparent when visiting the website, is that sustainability in no way compromises the brand’s ability to effectively communicate its message.
How websites are developed has just as much impact on their performance and sustainability as the chosen design. Generally speaking, organizations want to avoid methodical and pre-planned development procedures in favor of flexible frameworks predicated on deep collaboration and reactive learning. In the right context, for instance, open-source tools — resources that are freely available for anyone to use, modify, and share — can leverage the power of community to offer enhanced performance, reducing energy use relative to proprietary solutions.
When spearheading sustainable web design, it’s best to limit one-size-fits-all code libraries and frameworks, which have a tendency to add bloatware. There are certainly instances where duplication is valuable — like leveraging reusable code sets for small and repeatable applications — but modular frameworks are generally preferable as they can streamline redundant or irrelevant functionality to deliver the most optimized result.
Content brings websites to life and gives them purpose, but has to be strategically employed to produce sustainable results. Every new addition adds website weight while increasing user journey complexity, meaning content should always serve a clear purpose — be it to inform, inspire, convert, or direct — while remaining easy to find. The longer users spend looking for what they’re after, the greater the emissions, so intuitive information architectures, smart 404 pages and redirects, search engine optimization, and on-site navigation features are critical to sustainable web design.
Longevity is also important to account for, as not all web content is evergreen. Organizations should regularly retire anything outdated while ensuring end-of-life timelines are a point of consideration when spearheading new content campaigns.
Hosting relates to the infrastructure that supports websites, both physical and digital. To minimize environmental costs on the physical side, it’s best that organizations partner with hosting providers that offer regional data centers, as this reduces transmission-related energy usage. For international audiences, content delivery networks (CDN) can help lessen energy consumption. It’s also important to explore different hosting providers, as some might run their servers on renewable energy. Alternatively, organizations can partner with providers like Google Cloud Platform (GCP) — which matches 100% of energy consumption to renewable sources and can sizably reduce scope two emissions.
On the digital side of things, it’s important for web developers to ensure they’re using modern tech stacks, as the latest versions like PHP 7 or 8 are far more streamlined — and thus, carbon-efficient — than older models. Websites utilizing content management systems (CMS) also need to ensure regular server caching to avoid constant file re-processing. It’s also a good idea for organizations to adopt a proactive security approach to cut down on unwanted bot visits, as these too cause carbon emissions while affecting loading speeds.
An Underutilized but High-Impact ESG Strategy
Sustainable web design offers a compelling solution for organizations looking to elevate their ESG performance and play an active role in mitigating one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions. Embracing it not only aligns websites with contemporary ESG objectives by cutting down on energy waste but also offers tangible value for users through faster-loading websites, improved user experiences, and enhanced customer satisfaction. With multiple benefits and no downside, then, adopting sustainable web design best practices should be high on any organization’s ESG checklist.
Contact Antenna’s Web Design & Development team to learn more about how to reduce your organization’s scope 2 emissions with a sustainable website.