The research, facts and figures surrounding digital sustainability are solid, but the one that always resonates with me the most is ‘The carbon impact of digital is equivalent to the carbon output of the entire airline industry’ (Gerry McGovern, World Wide Waste 2020). Action is required for the planet and I’ve had many a sleepless night thinking about where to start, especially when I work in the digital industry creating digital products and services for clients.
For many, the images that come to mind when the word sustainability is mentioned are endangered sea turtles tangled in plastic, the inconvenience of a mushy paper straw and extreme weather conditions. Whilst these images are totally valid, the reality is that digital is being totally overlooked, and is a massive contributor. I get it, it’s hard for people to imagine what goes on behind the scenes when they’re accessing websites, apps, social media platforms and their device’s most basic features such as taking photos and storing them. We talk about “the cloud” as if data is hosted somewhere in the sky, when it is really 7.2 million data centres across the world, powered by huge amounts of electricity and cooled by millions of gallons of water, 24/7.
A single email can be responsible for 10g of used carbon, increasing to 50g if sent with an accompanying attachment. When taking into consideration how often emails are sent and received in a business setting, especially when replying to a large number of recipients at once in email chains, it is clear why digital carbon output needs to play a greater role in sustainability strategies.
Recently I took part in Alastair Sommerville’s ‘Using systemic design in the climate crisis’ workshop at our annual event Camp Digital. One of my main takeaways was that to tackle any crisis, and work towards systemic change, there has to be a strong community behind doing so. The enormity of the climate crisis can be really overwhelming. When you feel like you and anything you do is a drop in a proverbially polluted ocean, you realise how much power there is in being part of a community. Collaboration and working in the open are key to making a difference, we need to approach solutions that can be applied at scale, and co-created with end users so that adoption and behaviour change occur.
We need to start looking at how we design, produce, consume and dispose of digital products and services, and the devices that access them. Planned obsolescence is a major contributor to carbon-intensive wasteful practices around the manufacture of technologies. It’s estimated that globally only around 5% of electronics are recycled, and of that 5%, we only recover between 30% to 40% of the materials used to manufacture. By designing and building products which work on older devices we enhance the longevity of devices. We can reduce the amount of waste and carbon generated through manufacturing and extracting resources. By designing for older devices, we can ensure the benefits of the products we create can be enjoyed by more people, for longer.
At Nexer Digital, we have started this journey by launching our sustainability strategy and commitment, this is supported by the wider Nexer Group, which is aligned to the United Nations Compact Sustainability Initiative. Nexer Group has committed to reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. Our strategy looks at how we might work with our technology partners to contribute to and influence the direction of travel towards a more sustainable future.
Earlier this year, Umbraco launched it’s Sustainability community team, which I feel really fortunate to be part of. Not only because it’s helping the CMS I love transform it’s products and services to being more earth-centred, but also because I get to work alongside some great team mates who are also prioritising sustainability in their work too, be it technical or client side. We have big plans for creating a digital sustainability best practice guide for developers and content editors, and release a course that people can take to learn how to make real differences in their work based off of these best practices.
We need to start working together now. To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C – as called for in the Paris Agreement – emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This has been the catalyst for the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) formalising the European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS) earlier this year. The first companies that will have to report on these standards need their reports to be published in 2025. These standards mandate stricter reporting on environmental performance for organisations with more than 250 employees. By proactively adopting digital sustainability practices now, by 2025, organisations will be in a good position to report on their standing and avoid penalties and reputational risks associated with non-compliance.
What if the first step is changing how we do things?
Change can be scary, but what if we all started making small incremental steps in our organisation and in our personal life. With 7.8 billion people on our planet, that’s going to add up.
We’ve seen a rise in popularity of tools such as the Website Carbon Calculator and Microsoft emissions dashboard, which are all good places to start, and begin taking initial benchmarks from. We’ve been working with clients to audit their estates and provide tangible recommendations around their digital infrastructure and their content.
A good place to start is by looking at hosting. Data centres require a large and constant supply of electricity to operate and keep the servers cool. So much so that some nations are seeing the advent of new policies and guidelines governing the location of centres, to avoid overloading the power grid. In fact, Lancaster University estimates that the cloud is responsible for up to 1.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, equating to at least 100 million tonnes per year. Moving away from traditional data servers to cloud-based servers will have a less significant impact on the environment. Moving to a green hosting model can cut emissions by 9%. The Green Web Foundation has a directory of sustainable hosts, which is a good place to start if an existing host isn’t committed to being green. Hosting providers such as Microsoft Azure have MS Azure has made a commitment to running all data centres with renewable energy by 2025 and become replenishing more water than they consume by 2030.
Once a website is hosted efficiently, it can be optimised to further cut emissions. Generally speaking:
- Content optimisation can make information easier to find and cut the time users spend navigating. Using compressed or optimised images and videos can make a dramatic impact on a site’s carbon footprint.
- Information architecture and taxonomy. By ensuring web pages have clear and concise information on them, site visitors and consumers can find exactly what they’re looking for quickly and with fewer searches.
- Using a CDN to deliver resources instead of having to download them from the originating server.
- The more complex the webpage is, the more carbon it emits. For example, heavy use of colours, images, videos and anything else that puts more strain on bandwidth will use more energy. Consider whether these things are needed before plastering web pages with them.
Organisations that are looking at their Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) strategies should be considering the impact of digital should ensure that they are robust and holistic if they want to stand a chance at making a real difference.
But changing the tide on digital sustainability doesn’t just fall to organisations, it falls to consumers to demand better and be vocal about behaviour change. Look at Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, a great example of activism and global solidarity from a youth-led and organised movement. We all have a part to play.
Those who create technologies and build digital estates for their clients have an opportunity to do so in a more sustainable way. There are a wealth of tools and emerging knowledge from sustainability and digital leaders. There is power in community, working in the open and together make a considerable impact.