MozFest 2021: Making sustainability mainstream

Written by Tom Greenwood - March 17, 2021

The tech industry claims to be focused on creating a better future, yet for so long it has been eerily quiet about the issues of climate change and the ecological crisis.

Yes, there’s been lots of talk about how technology can help provide solutions to some aspects of climate change, but rarely has the tech sector looked inwards and had an honest conversation about its own environmental impact. Having already missed any realistic chance of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5oC and now being on track to overshoot the critical 2oC, this seems like an enormous oversight for an apparently forward thinking industry.

Starting the conversation

Within this context, our team here at Wholegrain Digital have been working hard for several years to not just make our own work more sustainable, but to get sustainability onto the agenda of the web design and development community.

We’ve spoken at a ton of events, written many articles, created the world’s first carbon calculator for websites, co-written the Sustainable Web Manifesto, partnered with Mightybytes to reinvent, launched a Digital Declutter Toolkit with Business Declares and I recently wrote a book on Sustainable Web Design. And breathe…

Let’s just say we’ve been working hard to get our sector talking about sustainability.

Then last year I got chatting with Gauthier Roussilhe about digital sustainability and we noticed that there are some big differences in culture around this topic between the UK and France. He wrote a great article about it that he published in both French and English. Through these conversations we realised that sharing knowledge between cultures could help accelerate the shift to a greener digital sector.

Making sustainability mainstream

So we decided to run an event together with the aim of facilitating this sharing of knowledge.  As one of the world’s biggest digital conferences with a strong ethical slant, what better place to run the session than at Mozilla Festival 2021?

We ran an event on 9th March titled Making sustainability mainstream, in which we introduced the topic of digital sustainability including its scope far beyond just carbon emissions, including water consumption, materials and e-waste, and emphasised why it is essential that sustainability be a key focus for all industries, including digital.

We then split into groups to discuss a series of questions designed to help us identify ways to make sustainability a mainstream topic within the digital sector.

This is a summary of what we discussed.

Were you taught about digital environmental impact in education?

The overwhelming response to this question was a big fat NO, that digital sustainability (and in some cases sustainability full stop) had not been taught during their education. The only exception was one person noting that there was some discussion about e-waste.

This highlights that there is a huge missed opportunity to introduce digital sustainability as a concept within the broad spectrum of the education system, and that doing so would mean that people start their careers with some foundational knowledge and awareness from which they could build.

It seems that currently the education system is failing us on this point, along with many others. This was highlighted by one comment from the group that “They didn’t teach me about taxes either”.

Wow, our education systems have a long way to go!

Is digital sustainability part of the conversation where you work? If so, what actions helped make this happen?

The response to this question was very mixed, with some saying that it was not discussed in their workplace at all, with some others having fairly active conversations about digital sustainability at work.

Of those who did have more of a culture of talking about it at work, some things that seemed to help were having some champions or enthusiasts at the workplace organise internal talks, workshops or write articles and newsletters to get colleagues interested and start the conversation.

It was also suggested that a focus on the commercial benefits, such as improved performance of web services, or demonstrating to customers and funders that the organisation truly cares about sustainability, can help get buy in from teams and particularly managers. Not to mention the potential benefit to recruiting talented staff who want to do meaningful work and are looking for interesting challenges to help solve.

What do you expect from the public and private sectors on this issue? And which sector do you think is a better stepping stone?

Regarding whether the public or private sector should lead on this, there was a definite sense that both private and public sectors need to take real action. However, there was also a sense that government action can not only be used to accelerate action, but may be required to nudge (or force) the private sector to improve its practices.

This could include publicly funded research into the impact of digital services, public procurement as a lever to prioritise more sustainable products and services, as well as the potential for regulation such as energy labeling or mandatory carbon reporting.

This also led into a discussion about how the open source community, particularly the large open source projects, could influence the digital sector in quite a significant way by including sustainability as core project values and even forming sustainability teams like Mozilla have done.

How did issues like privacy and accessibility become more mainstream in the digital sector?

This was an interesting one. There seemed to be a feeling that ethical issues are often championed by groups of passionate people within the digital sector, but they tend to sit on the fringes until either the public sector introduces regulations (think GDPR), or there is a big scandal (think Facebook). In essence, the industry tends to be reactive rather than proactive on ethical issues. So much for being forward thinking!

However, it was also noted that independent organisations like W3C have helped define best practices and standards that then provide a foundation from which governments can introduce legislation and procurement policies. This could therefore be something that could move the needle on sustainability too.

Which actors do you think would be the best entry point to promote digital sustainability?

In terms of which people in the tech industry are best positioned to make a change, I think there was general agreement that everyone has a role to play, but it did inspire some interesting suggestions.

Media companies are well positioned to help raise awareness through their programming, and the BBC has already produced a number of shows that talk about digital sustainability. Perhaps others like Netflix will follow, although they’ll need to be careful to avoid their own internal bias to want to make themselves look good. That said, Netflix did touch on digital sustainability in their Clouds issue of Connected, which is an excellent show.

Search engines were also highlighted as being well positioned to have a big impact, with Ecosia being highlighted as one example of a green approach to search. It suggested that Google could have a huge impact by adding sustainability to it’s ranking factors, incentivising website owners to make their websites greener. Let’s be honest, many organisations care more about their search rankings than they do about the environment! It was great to hear others suggest this as I recently wrote about the idea of green search engines here on the Wholegrain blog and I think they could be a powerful lever for change.

Of course, we need to be careful that any “green” ranking factors used by search engines truly represent better environmental performance and are not easy to manipulate by website owners simply trying to game the system to improve their Google rankings.

What new ideas could help make sustainability a mainstream priority for the digital sector?

This question was really a catch all for “any other ideas”.

One of the most interesting for me highlighted how there are many countries that have currently low digital adoption, and rising fast. As western countries have raced towards digital adoption with little thought for the environment, there is an opportunity for other countries to stop and learn from before racing ahead, so that they can do things better and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Other suggestions focused around more tools for reporting digital environmental impact and optimising web services, as well as more regulatory suggestions such as mandatory page weight budgets on websites, carbon taxes, some form of data rationing for providers, as well as initiatives to incentivise the reuse, repair and extended life of IT hardware, such as the Repairability Index being introduced for electronic goods in France.

It’s time to take action

I’ll admit that I had been a bit nervous about facilitating a session as MozFest as it’s a big event and I have never run a session quite like this before, but with Gauthier’s support I feel we covered the topic well with a really great group of people. I certainly learned a lot and came away with lots to think about and hopefully, take action on.

I hope that it inspires some positive action and sparks more conversation about digital sustainability to help our industry align itself with wider society’s need to rapidly reduce our demands on the natural environment.