Volkswagen’s low-carbon ID4 website

Written by Tom Greenwood - February 3, 2021

For the past few months, we’ve been collaborating with Canadian agency Type 1 and Volkswagen on a project called Carbon Neutral Net. Volkswagen has made a commitment to decarbonize every aspect of its business and when planning the launch of the ID4 electric car in Canada, their agency Type 1 asked if the ID4 website could embrace the company’s mission and also be low carbon.

VW embraced the idea, and the result was a low-carbon alternative to the main website with visitors being given a choice between the two experiences.

VW ID4 car fading into ASCII text

Our role at Wholegrain Digital was to provide consultancy to the creative team behind the project, advising on opportunities to improve technical efficiency and conducting a manual carbon emission assessment. The resulting low-carbon website is 50% cleaner than the standard version of the ID4 website.

Why create a separate low carbon website?

So here’s the question. Does it make sense to have a separate low-carbon website? Why not just make the main website super low carbon?

I wrote an article back in 2018 about Bayern Munich’s separate “Lite” website, in which I stated that I thought they had somewhat missed the point. Indeed, in my new book, Sustainable Web Design, I state that creating a secondary version of a website is not ideal. Just as we’ve moved away from separate mobile websites to building responsive websites that work on all devices, we should aim to follow the same approach with sustainable websites.

So if that’s the case, why do it?

Despite my own reservations, I actually think there’s real value in occasionally creating separate low-carbon websites like Volkswagen’s Carbon Neutral Net, but only if they meet certain criteria, which in this case, I believe they do.

1. Raising awareness

The concept of digital carbon footprints still has incredibly low awareness, both within the digital industry and society at large. By creating a separate low-carbon website, brands like Volkswagen can use their high profile to make an invisible issue visible. Having a separate low-carbon website acts as a visual aid in this education piece because it gives people something to compare against. It helps sustainability gain attention as an issue within the digital industry and gets people talking. And getting people talking is the first step to creating change.

2. Pushing boundaries

The teams at Type 1 and Volkswagen wanted to push boundaries as far as possible, and they created a radical design concept where all images were replaced with ASCII text. This was a great experiment in pushing their own teams to learn about web sustainability and visually getting people’s attention.

However, its fair to say that it would be too high risk if it was the only web experience for visitors looking for information about the VW ID4, a vehicle critical to Volkswagen’s de-carbonization and electrification plans. It would be a false economy to risk slowing their shift to electric vehicles with a website design that might not be as effective.

Just as the creation of a super-efficient race car like the Volkswagen IDR can lead to innovation that feeds back into road cars like the ID4, the same can be true with a low carbon website. In this case, the low-carbon website acted as a proof of concept that pushed the envelope, opened people’s minds and did indeed feed learnings back into the main ID4 website to help make it more efficient. It also helped the team gather knowledge and ideas that could be applied to more mainstream VW web projects in the future.

For example, it was found that there were limits to the efficiency that could be achieved due to overhead in Volkswagen’s global content management system. While that couldn’t be solved in this pilot project, it is now something that VW are aware of and hopefully, will lead to efficiency improvements in the global CMS itself in the future.

3. Inspiring change

Volkswagen is not the only company to create a separate low-carbon website. Organic Basics, the organic German clothing brand, produced a low-carbon website a couple of years ago. I know firsthand that the Organic Basics website has been hugely inspirational to a number of designers, developers and businesses who have seen it, and have then been inspired to make their own websites more sustainable. The true impact of the work that we do is never limited to the work itself, but extends through the ripples that we create within society. The value of inspiring others should never be underestimated, and there is a good chance that with VW’s high profile, their low carbon web experience could well create positive ripples into the future.

A time-limited approach

I think that at this point in time, there’s real benefit to some organisations creating separate low-carbon websites as a way to accelerate their own learning and helping the industry to wake up to the issue of digital sustainability.

Over time however, these benefits will gradually fade away, and my naively optimistic hope is that within a few years, Sustainable Web Design will be standard practice. When that time comes, dedicated low-carbon websites will no longer make any sense.

In this case, I’m excited to see Volkswagen do something brave and different, not only to help their own efforts to de-carbonize, but also help inspire others to do the same.