Green web design should not be our USP

Written by Tom Greenwood - July 1, 2020

Over the past few years, we’ve done a lot of work to raise awareness of the carbon impact of the web and to help our clients reduce their digital carbon footprints. Despite our small size, I feel that we’ve made some ripples in the pond and helped to inspire some others in our industry to put sustainability on the agenda. In doing so, we’ve developed a reputation for being leaders in sustainable web design and that’s something that our whole team is proud of.

But while it’s positive and exciting in many ways, it also worries me. It worries me because sustainability should not be a niche or a novelty. Low carbon web design should not be a unique selling point (USP). It should be the industry standard. 

Yes, there are a few other like-minded companies doing amazing work and who inspire us, but in the giant ocean of the web, us eco-web designers are like a rare breed of penguins living on a rapidly defrosting island that most people have never heard of. Basically, we’re cute but not exactly top of their minds.

So I want to put this challenge out to the rest of the digital industry. Please copy us and take away our unique selling point. The truth is that we don’t need this USP to be a viable business, and the longer it remains a USP, the weaker the chances of a positive future.

Why should you bother greening digital? 

If you’re a business in the digital sector, you might be wondering why you should treat sustainability and climate action as anything more than a nice to have. I could try to make the argument that focusing on resource efficiency will save you money or that it will be good for your brand and help you to earn customer loyalty. These things are true to a point, but they will only take us so far. 

At some point, we just need to call a cloud a cloud, and admit that we need to take radical action to decarbonise our global economy. Not because it will make us look good or increase this year’s dividend payment, but because it’s our responsibility as citizens not to destroy our own future.

For those of us working in digital, we’re responsible for an industry with one of the fastest growing carbon footprints globally, but which is also one of the easiest industries to decarbonise. We’re a sector that likes to shout about how progressive and forward-thinking we are, so if we don’t rally together and tackle this head on, what hope is there for other sectors to take action on climate change?

Is climate change really that serious? 

I first learned about global warming in Geography class in the mid-90’s. As a child, I assumed that by 2020, we’d have solved climate change and would be living in a world entirely powered by renewable energy, and where we all travel in flying cars. OK, maybe the flying cars were a bit optimistic, but thinking that the “grown ups” could solve the self inflicted existential crisis in a quarter of a century doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Apparently it was. Here we are 25 years later, having not just failed to decarbonise our economy, but having carbonated it a lot more. Crack open the window and listen to it fizz!

So it’s painful that the seriousness of climate change is still not common knowledge.

If you want to know the urgency of the situation, take a look at some of the recent reports by Kevin Anderson. Not the South African Tennis pro; the Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Universities of Manchester, Bergen and Uppsala. 

Anderson’s approach is to take the politics out of climate science and present objective, quantitative data about the action we need to take, in contrast with the qualitative statements made by most governments that sound good, but have little meaning in science.

The summary of his findings is that the UK and Sweden are two of the most climate progressive developed nations in the world, with climate legislation and official government committees on climate change to oversee progress. Yet when we look beyond vague statements like “net-zero by 2050” and assess the actual plans, both the UK and Sweden are planning actions that will emit 2-3 times the greenhouse gases that would fit within a carbon budget compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement. Even these most progressive nations have made plans in line with 2.6oC-3oC of warming, condemning much of humanity and the natural world to devastating consequences.

Why are the numbers so far off? 

There are a few reasons why government plans are so far out of alignment with scientific reality, including:

  • Some don’t fully account for non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, as focussing on “carbon emissions” alone is an easy way to make the carbon budget look bigger. 
  • Most do not include aviation or shipping on the basis that it doesn’t happen inside their own borders and is therefore not their problem. 
  • Rich countries assume that the majority of emissions from deforestation and cement production will be assigned to the carbon budgets of developing nations, thanks to rich countries having already cut down most of their trees and already built extensive cement intensive infrastructure. 
  • They blindly assume that global scale negative emission technology (NETs) will be invented in time to suck all of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere before we turn to toast, meaning that it’s OK to ignore the problem for a while longer. 

Most of all, though, they refuse to confront the reality that we need to make changes now, not in 15 to 20 years’ time, and that means that lifestyles will need to change. It’s not a vote winner, nor will it please the wealthy donors of political parties, so they choose to brush it under the polyester carpet and hope we don’t notice. 

The data presented by Anderson and his colleagues shows that Paris-compliant carbon budgets for the UK and Sweden would require them to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 10 and 12% per year respectively, starting in this year! And even that leaves little or no margin of error.

What does this mean for the digital sector? 

To bring us back to our own industry, we need to recognise that this is not a government problem, but our collective problem to solve. If emissions need to be dropping 10 to 12% per year with immediate effect, then as businesses we need to be looking at how we can contribute to that. 

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Eliminate business air travel entirely, or at least set strict limits of when and why it can be used. We must recognise that it will need to be eliminated soon anyway unless zero-carbon flights are made commercially available, so we better start adapting our businesses fast. 
  2. Reduce unnecessary travel of any kind as far as practical, including commuting. 
  3. Purchase renewable energy for premises and all digital services where available, and lobby suppliers where it is not available. Also, support staff in switching to renewable energy at home. 
  4. If you have the resources, fund the construction of new renewables to supply your own operations, either directly or indirectly. 
  5. Prioritise energy efficiency in software design and development, creating products that are low energy, fast and accessible. 
  6. Design software to work on older devices, increasing the lifespan of servers and end user devices. Not to mention, buy less new hardware in your own business.
  7. Think about what you eat. Just as electricity fuels the internet, our food fuels us as digital professionals, creating an opportunity to make choices that reduce carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction.
  8. Measure the carbon impact of your operations and products so that you can pursue tangible improvements and inspire others to do the same. 
  9. Focus on real emission reductions, not on future pledges or carbon offsets.

Anderson points out that the changes required do not actually need the invention of new technology, but simply require the wealthiest 10-20% to dial down their carbon intensive activities to be more in line with the rest of society. To be clear, most people in the digital sector are in the welathiest 10-20% (check your wealth level here).

It’s not fundamentally difficult, but it requires a massive shift of mindset to recalibrate our perspectives on what “normal life” should look like, and a lot of determination to resist peer pressure and challenge the status quo.

Let’s make the green web the normal web 

I hope that over the next few years, sustainability will become a central issue in the digital sector and that together we can inspire other industries to pursue rapid decarbonisation. 

We recently recertified as a B Corp and were I believe the first company to certify websites as eco-friendly products, thanks to our pursuit of energy efficiency in digital projects. I hope that by time we recertify again in 3 years time, this will be the norm in our industry. 

If this happens, then the sustainability work that we are doing here at Wholegrain Digital will no longer seem remarkable and it will no longer be a USP. I look forward to that day, and in the meantime, I’ll ponder what our new USP will be. 

If you’re doing good work in this field, shout it from the rooftops and help shift mindsets in our sector to put sustainability at the top of the agenda.

We’d love to hear your ideas and experiences on how we can accelerate this transition, and would be very happy to chat with you if you’d like to pick our brains on what we have done so far. Get in touch!