Sustainable websites, and your digital carbon footprint
“Sustainable web design” may seem like a strange topic. The web is just floating bits of code right? And since it doesn’t take up any ‘space’, how could it affect our physical world?
Believe it or not, the internet has a huge impact on our planet. It gobbles up lots of electricity, contributes to pollution, and affects how you run your business.
In the next few sections, we’ll talk about how your website affects your carbon footprint, what contributes to it, and what you can do to reduce it.
Before we talk about carbon footprints, we need to talk about the internet.
Imagine you want to borrow a book from a library. You walk down the road, saunter into the building and up to the front desk and ask if they have War and Peace. The kind librarian behind the counter asks you to wait a minute while he goes and has a look.
They do have the book, but it’s quite big and heavy, so the librarian takes a while bringing it back, pausing every few steps to catch his breath.
Eventually he makes it back to the desk and props the book on the counter. That’s it, the book is yours, you can take it home. Believe it or not, this whole process is pretty similar to loading a website on your phone.
The library is like a data centre, storing rows and rows of books like the thousands of websites stored on their servers. When you Google ‘who won the football last night’ or enter in a URL, your device is effectively making the walk to the library and asking if they have that particular book.
And just like books, some websites are big and heavy and take a while to end up in your hands, while others are lightweight, and compact, and can be delivered almost instantly.
What does this have to do with your carbon footprint?
Whether it’s books or bytes, storing, sending, and receiving stuff uses energy. And creating the energy that powers our computers, our servers, and our satellites generates greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide.
The good news is that you can do something about it.
First, let’s look at storage.
Books live in libraries, websites live in data centres. Both need power to keep the lights on, and things running smoothly.
When you add up all the electricity of all the data centres in the world, it comes to nearly 1% of the world’s global electricity use.
The first thing you can do to reduce your digital carbon footprint is make sure your data centre runs on clean energy, like wind or solar. If they don’t, consider switching to another provider.
Fetching books takes energy, so does fetching websites.
Remember how the librarian had to walk from the desk to the shelves to get the book? In our example, the further the book is from the desk, the longer it will take the librarian to bring it to you.
The same is true of websites. If you store your website in a data centre that’s thousands of miles away from your customers, it has a long way to travel. The greater the distance, the more energy used, and the longer it takes.
So, another way you can improve your website’s carbon footprint is to move it closer to your customers.
Even data weighs something.
The last thing we consider when calculating how much carbon your website produces is how much ‘stuff’ is actually on it.
Going back to our librarian example once more, it would take him no time at all to bring over a copy of James and the Giant Peach. It’s small and light-weight, and there aren’t very many pages. But it would take him much longer to bring over a big, heavy set of encyclopaedias.
The more you cram into your website, the heavier it gets, and the more electricity your phone, or laptop needs to load it. To reduce your impact, de-clutter your website.