How to Build a Greener Web
It's no secret that web sustainability is on the rise – but what does a sustainable website actually look like? What can we do to reduce our own carbon footprint? Can sending less emails really make a difference? Nika spotlights two website founders who are taking an eco approach.
All living things require power. Websites are no exceptions to this rule. Every website that’s online is hosted on a server. When you access the site, the web browser requests the file from the server and sends it back to the browser. This process feels instantaneous. The ability to message a friend, identify a song through its lyrics, or see the reviews of a movie in a matter of seconds is at once comforting and no longer noteworthy – it’s become a matter of habit.
At the time of this writing, Internet Live Statistics, a website that provides live counters based on statistical analysis of data, estimates that there are 1,821,648,525 websites online right now, and of these, less than 200 million are active.
The carbon footprint of a website is multilayered, but one way of thinking about it is that intentional, lighter weight websites are quicker to load, and in turn, less wasteful.
Websites are getting bigger, too. The HTTP Archive highlights the median size of a website as 2062.4 KB for desktop and 1891.6 KB for mobile. Since 2010, these page sizes have increased 341% for desktop and 1206.4% for mobile. In the past 10 years, websites have become increasingly more visual with heavy use of imagery and videos as well as more aggressive marketing strategies that store user data, all of which contribute to more bloated websites and in turn, larger carbon footprints. Large tech companies are making decisions to increase their sustainability, with Google describing its plans to be carbon free by 2030 and Netflix publishing its efforts to reduce its environmental impact.
In 2019, the energy company OVO Energy published a study about the environmental impact of sending unnecessary emails in the United Kingdom.
The study found that over 64 million unnecessary emails were sent a day (examples being: “Thanks!” and “Received.”) and that if each adult sent one less “thank you” email, 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year would be saved.
This amount is equal to 81,152 flights to Madrid, the study reports. While the carbon footprint of an individual email is fairly small, the study highlights that unnecessary emails add up, and perhaps a more mindful approach over content could inspire people to reflect on their actions, which could make a bigger change possible.
Here is a look at two websites that highlight the ecological impact of the internet.
Kris De Decker
Low-tech Magazine is a publication that poses unexpected approaches to sustainability from experimental solutions to historical references. “Could We Run Modern Society on Human Power Alone?” one article explores, while another examines the sustainability of mist showers. You might not be able to access the publication on an overcast day, however, because the site is run on a solar powered server at founder and author Kris De Decker’s apartment.
At the time of this writing, Low-tech Magazine’s power supply is 14%, as indicated by a battery meter (a battery icon and yellow page overlay) prominently displayed on the website. If the battery drops below 12V, the battery meter disappears and the site goes offline and won’t come back until the solar panel receives full sun again. The site has an uptime of 1 week, 1 day, 15 hours, 21 minutes according to the site’s power statistics.
“My old website was like an SUV,” he says about the energy usage of the previous version of the site. De Decker started the publication in 2007 and like most people, was less aware of the carbon footprint of the internet until he started working on the current iteration of the site in 2018.
Working with designers Marie Otsuka and Roel Roscam Abbing, the team fashioned a website that felt true to its content – educational, conscientious, and engaging. In addition to being a solar-powered website, the site design takes inspiration from the world’s first webpage. The first iterations of the internet were defined by typographic lead pages and hyperlinks, overtime becoming much more visual and heavy. To help keep the page size down, Low-tech Magazine is static, meaning that it does not use a database-driven content management system. Default typography, a limited color system, and a dithered image technique all communicate this “back to the basics” visual language while working to make the website’s carbon footprint as small as possible. The solar-powered website has encouraged slower behavior into De Decker's publishing practice, too.
Once he’s ready to publish a story, he first checks the weather. “If tomorrow or the day after it looks like the weather is bad, I better wait,” he says.
The website also provides a glimpse at the weather of his apartment when he’s traveling, and when he’s at home, he can see how busy the website is by glancing at the server, which has a blinking light when there is a lot of traffic.
Making the website solar powered was a bold move for De Decker who relies on the site for income, based on book orders and donations. The alternate solution inspires many questions regarding speed and connectivity. While natural-powered websites might not be a possible solution for essential websites, it might work for others. Brick and mortar shops have regular working hours, but we expect e-commerce stores to always be online. “We can question that,” says De Decker.
In 1998, the internet was still a new territory, defined by excitement and anticipation of the possibilities on how it could change the world. This was the year that Tim Frick started Mightybytes, a Chicago-based digital agency and Certified B Corporation.
Since starting Mightybytes, Frick has remained consistent to his initial goal of helping organizations with strong missions develop conscientious web presences, though the process looks a bit different in recent years.
“Over time, the excitement of the internet turned into a bit of dismay and concern with the proliferation of misinformation and all of the ways digital technologies and design are being used for nefarious purposes,” Frick says. This implored him to evaluate how his own business could adhere to a higher set of standards and how he can help other people do the same.
Back in 2013, Mightybytes released Ecograder, an online tool used to evaluate the carbon footprint of a website. The website is fairly streamlined – the homepage instructs you to input a URL and optional email address and then provides a rating of the site. The metrics are based on page speed, findability, design and user experience, and green hosting (whether or not the server is hosted using renewable energy). With these metrics in mind, websites that are built with simple HTML, less imagery, and renewable hosting should score better. Each section provides additional details on how the score is calculated and ways to improve and you can learn a little more about the ratings on Frick’s 2018 article, “What Grade Does the Internet Get for Sustainability?” As of 2018, Ecograder has reviewed nearly 1.7 million URLs and they publish annual reports using this data to continue creating educational resources around digital sustainability.
Ecograder was intentionally designed to be simplified and was initially created as an awareness tool to help illustrate concepts to people that are unfamiliar with digital sustainability, but it was never intended to paint a full picture, Frick says. After seven years, it’s time to update the resource.
While the scores from the tool are a helpful starting point, they aren’t as accurate as they could be. Additionally, some aspects of web sustainability cannot be qualified quickly.
“[A tool] can make an audit of traffic, an audit of engagement, audit of metrics, of interactions,” Frick says, “but it isn’t going to truly assess the human qualities of it. There’s always going to be some level of creative human thinking there that is needed to make those assessments and value judgements.”