The alternative guide to scaling a sustainable digital business

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 12, 2023

In November I travelled to Italy by train and electric car to the Digital Ethics Forum in Treviso, where I had been invited to give a talk about scaling a sustainable digital business.

It sounded like a simple request seeing as I had run Wholegrain Digital for over 16 years, but when I sat down to prepare this talk I thought, “what do I know about scaling a sustainable digital business? That’s not something I’ve ever actually tried to do!” In fact I have worked really hard at times trying to not scale Wholegrain Digital and instead to keep it small and beautiful. However, the more I thought about giving this talk, the more I realised that actually I could talk about this topic, just not in the way that might be expected. 

This post is an attempt to share in writing what I shared in person in Treviso. I hope it provides some food for thought.

Gerry McGovern, myself (Tom Greenwood), Mizzi Filippi and Leonardo Romanelli at the Digital Ethics Forum in Treviso

Small is beautiful (to me)

Vineeta and I started Wholegrain in 2007 for a variety of reasons, one of which was a desire to see whether it was possible to be a truly sustainable business. In line with that objective, we started off with two pillars of sustainability; the first was that we run our day to day business operations in a sustainable way, such as the office space, travel, stationery, IT equipment etc. and the second pillar was to align the projects we work on with our ethos.

This second pillar felt important to us as a digital agency because we would be creating things for other people to influence change in the world and it would be counterproductive if we were helping to encourage or enable things that weren’t aligned with our own mission as a sustainable business. This is why we have always screened our clients and projects to try and make sure that our work is having a positive impact. What we are perhaps now best known for, digital sustainability, was a third pillar that we added later when we went through the process to certify as a B Corp and were inspired to explore the environmental impact of digital technology and our own ‘virtual’ creations.

So we have always strived to be a sustainable digital business, but actually scaling the business in size has never really been an objective. We’ve never had visions of having a large business and we’ve always felt somewhat uncomfortable in the agency world where there’s a lot of bravado among agency owners and managers about how fast their agencies are growing, what their head count is and what their turnover is. It can feel like there’s a pressure to grow and that big is better. It can feel like there is an expectation that success is defined by growth.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable in this world because I have never felt that growth means success. Maybe it’s just that small is my comfort zone. I live in a small house in a small village and that’s where I feel happy. It’s only natural that I also run a small business.

Now having said all of this, Wholegrain has grown from just Vineeta and I to a team of about 20 people, which if I was a cheesy silicon valley growth hacker I would boast about as having achieved “10x growth!” OK, we’re not exactly Google with its nearly 200,000 employees, but it certainly feels like we have experienced significant growth beyond what I had planned and beyond what I am comfortable with. Contrary to what you are apparently supposed to do, I’ve actually tried to restrict growth at times, albeit with limited success. The company has continued to grow because there’s been a genuine need. We’ve been fortunate enough to have clients who like our work and have a good relationship with us and therefore want more work from us. Sometimes when this happens we have a shortage of capacity and if we want to serve our clients and maintain the same level of quality, then we need more people. 

This is what I call organic growth and it is what has led us to be the size we are today. It’s growth based on genuine demand and success rather than growth for growth’s sake or growth driven by ego. Over time I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not for me to decide what size Wholegrain should be but for Wholegrain to adapt in size to meet the needs of the clients that we serve. In other words, relax and go with the flow.

Small size, big impact

Having said all that, there have always been people who have said that we should really pursue growth because “if you grow faster, if you grow bigger, then you can have more impact”. On some level, it might be true that a bigger company has more resources, has a higher profile and does more work with more clients and can therefore have a bigger impact. So there is a credible argument for pursuing growth, not for money and ego but for positive impact.

I think this approach can work for some companies, but I’ve often felt that it is hard to prioritise more than one thing and that if we put our focus on growing the company then we would end up taking our focus off our core objectives. We might end up having less positive impact because when push comes to shove, our focus would be on commercial growth rather than on the impact we’re having in the world. It could end up diluting rather than amplifying our impact.

But there is a type of growth that I fully embrace, which is growth of impact. My belief is that we can have a much bigger impact than the size of our company by punching above our weight and pushing the industry forward in terms of how we think, the best practices that we pioneer, the principles that we follow and the ripples that we create in our industry (and beyond). We create this impact by showing leadership in areas such as digital sustainability, how we run the business and more broadly in terms of how we think about life and work as the group of human beings that we call Wholegrain.

I think the foundation of creating these ripples is to stay true to what we believe in, always trying to do the right thing, trying to do our best and sharing that journey as openly as possible even when we struggle or falter. By sharing things openly and creating these ripples, we can create positive change on a large scale rather than just within our business. And that’s the point. In some ways, the direct impact we have within our business, no matter how large or small we are, is a bit of a red herring. Even if we did a perfect job as a model of sustainable business, in some ways it wouldn’t matter unless others are also making positive changes. The world is a big place and we’re a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things but when that drop sends ripples out across the entire ocean, it can be transformative. 

That’s why we’ve done lots of things over the years to try and inspire positive change. We’ve done this in the digital sustainability space with projects such as, our free tool to raise awareness about the environmental impact of the web. It’s also why we made the methodology behind it open source so that other people could learn from it, critique it, build on it, build their own tools and develop new methodologies that take it further. It’s why we collaborated with Mightybytes on to inspire and educate people to create a better web for people and the planet. It’s why we partnered up with industry peers to create the Sustainable Web Manifesto to provide a simple framework to put sustainability on the agenda of digital teams, and why we created the Digital Declutter Toolkit with Business Declares to help raise awareness of digital sustainability beyond of the digital sector itself. It’s why we write lots of blog posts, publish our Curiously Green newsletter and give regular talks and interviews to share as much knowledge as possible. And it’s why I wrote my book, Sustainable Web Design, to give other people in the industry a head start to embrace what our team had learned over several years. Not to mention it is why we are giving copies of my book for free to charities to help them embrace sustainable web principles. We now even have organisations that ask us for consultancy and help upskilling their teams in digital sustainability, allowing us to amplify our impact in collaboration with other teams.

On the business operations side, it’s why we are so open sharing our experiences of trying to run a sustainable business, why our company handbook is open source, why we partnered with Business Declares to release an open source blueprint for a company activism policy and why I personally write my Oxymoron newsletter on Substack to explore the topic of sustainable business more deeply.

The more we share, the faster and wider the impact spreads. This ties in with the middle two principles of the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which are Open and Honest. When we adopt these principles and share things as openly and honestly as we can, we help everybody progress and inspire others to share their experiences too. There’s an urgent environmental crisis and time is of the essence, so when we all embrace this spirit of sharing as far as we are able to, our individual ripples layer up into waves of collective progress.

The exciting thing is that we can really see the industry changing. We’ll never know how much of that is down to us and it is my belief that most of our true impact can never be plotted on a graph, but we know that we are playing a part in helping to move things in a positive direction and that’s what matters.

Image of the pages of the Sustainable Web Design website displayed on mobiles against a dark blue background
Mightybytes invited us to collaborate on to openly share knowledge to help our industry embrace sustainable principles and practices.

Let’s make waves together

Digital sustainability, and sustainability more broadly, is not just a technical challenge. We can have all the technical solutions in the world and we won’t solve the environmental crisis unless we address the very human challenges that have led us here. Digital technology is tightly interwoven with our culture of consumerism and to really create the future we want, we need to take a more holistic view of things including the indirect rather just direct impacts.

Wholegrain has always intended to be a holistic organisation and so the next step for us is looking at how we broaden the impact of our work to explore the deep interconnections between humanity, digital technology and our environment. In doing so, we’ll hopefully be able to scale our impact further and contribute to the shared forward progress of society in our own unique way.

I hope that other organisations will join us in exploring this challenge (and opportunity) with a similar spirit of curiosity, optimism, openness and honesty, so that our ripples can join together and make waves of change.