Web design without wings: Do digital professionals really need to fly?

Written by Tom Greenwood - November 22, 2019

When Vineeta and I started Wholegrain Digital, we had an ambition to be a prototype of a truly sustainable business. It was an experiment to test my assertion that sustainable business really is possible and the experiment continues to this day.

As we’ve matured as a business and started monitoring our impact in a more structured way, I realised that travel, especially foreign travel, was responsible for the majority of our carbon emissions. We didn’t make many foreign trips, but even a few people making one trip by air seemed to make other environmental initiatives somewhat irrelevant. Seeing as we are a digital agency and not a huge corporation with global supply chains, it sparked the question:

Do those of us working in digital need to fly?

In this post, I’ll attempt to draw on our past few years of experience to answer that question.

What is the carbon footprint of our work in digital?

At Wholegrain, we’re known for talking a lot about web sustainability and championing the shift to a greener and faster internet. It’s often a surprise to people that the internet has roughly the same carbon footprint as global aviation, but it’s a powerful comparison. In our day to day work though, how big is the impact of the digital products that we build compared to what we do in our daily jobs such as using electricity in the office and travelling for work, especially by air?

Let’s start by looking at data from our website carbon calculator. Our data shows that an average web page produces about four grams of CO2 per page view. If we assume an average of 10,000 page views per month, it translates to roughly 500kg of CO2 per year. You can scale that up and down based on traffic, but hopefully it gives you a sense of scale.

Compare these website emissions to our own business operations, which emit roughly 685kg CO2 per person annually, out of which 47% (325kg CO2) is from travel. As we don’t do a lot of long distance travel, and we don’t fly, most of that 325kg is from regular commuting rather than bigger trips.

Looked at in this context, the impact of a single average website is surprisingly large, coming close to the emissions of a single Wholegrain Digital employee’s work related emissions. We might conclude that operational emissions and website emissions are equally important.

Now let’s throw aeroplanes into the mix

Let’s imagine that we travel by air as part of our work. This could be for meetings with clients, team members and suppliers, or to attend courses and industry events. How would such trips impact our emissions?

Here are some scenarios and associated emissions. All examples are for a single person flying economy on a return trip, using emissions data from CarbonFootprint.com.

  • London to Edinburgh – 270kg CO2
  • London to Geneva – 230kg CO2
  • London to Dubai – 1,640kg CO2
  • London to Hong Kong – 2,880kg CO2
  • London to Vancouver – 2,270kg CO2
  • London to Sydney – 5,100kg CO2

These are big numbers! What’s more, if you fly business class (lucky you), the numbers are even higher.

How does this impact website emissions?

Let’s keep things simple and assume that a digital agency with 10 people produces 10 websites per year. Without any flying, the business produces CO2 emissions (excluding client websites) of 685kg per person. That means that in effect, it takes 685kg of CO2 to produce an average website, which will then emit about 500kg CO2 per year. So in its first year, the impact of the website is 1,185kg of CO2 equivalent.

If the web project involved a client meeting where two people flew from London to Edinburgh, then the website’s CO2 emissions in the first year would be 1,725kg – 46% higher. If a member of the project team flew to Dubai to meet the client, the website’s total CO2 emissions for the first year would be 2,825kg – 138% higher! One London to Sydney return trip produces CO2 emissions equivalent to 7.5 years of working at Wholegrain Digital without flying.

You get the idea. Even though the internet itself has a carbon footprint roughly equal to global aviation, the use of air travel has a huge impact on the sustainability of our work in digital.

Are carbon neutral flights the solution?

The most common question around flying is whether we can deal with the emissions by offsetting them and therefore being carbon neutral. It’s something that has gained media attention recently as airlines promote carbon offset programmes as a way to soften customer concerns about carbon emissions.

EasyJet plane in the air
Come on, let’s not fly! EasyJet are championing carbon offsets as a solution to make air travel sustainable

I’m in favour of many initiatives that help remove carbon from the atmosphere such as planting trees, as I explain in my article about Carbon Synching, but I am a strong believer that you cannot offset your way to neutrality. I asked Dr Roger Tyers, an expert on this topic currently working at the University of Southampton, if he could shed some light on this. His answer is quite definitive.

“Under existing regulation and even with potential improvements in efficiency, aviation needs to be recognised as an unsustainable fossil fuel industry, and its predicted growth means it will only become an even bigger polluter. Whatever claims may be made about breakthroughs in electric flight or biofuels being ‘around the corner’, there are no viable alternatives to carbon-intensive kerosene-fuelled aircraft for commercial flight available within any timescale compatible with targets to avoid climate breakdown. Carbon offsetting, at an individual or industry-level, is a diversionary PR tactic. Nationally and globally, our policy priorities should be twofold:

Firstly, to reduce unnecessary air travel especially among richer frequent flyers.

Secondly, to change market signals so that lower-carbon transport modes are cheaper than flying, and to incentivise a long-term industrial transition away from kerosene-heavy aviation.”

The simple answer is that we need to fly less.

How can we cut down on flying in digital?

It’s important that we all start by getting a handle on our own emissions and understand how flying contributes. By assessing not just our emissions but the needs that drive our travel, opportunities for reduction will naturally present themselves.

A few years ago, three of us went on a company trip to Romania. The CO2 emissions from just three of us flying on that one trip added up to about two tonnes. This seemed like a lot for a trip that was entirely discretionary. In fact, per person, the emissions from that return flight to Bucharest of around 650kg were almost exactly our total emissions from all other activities for the year. In other words, we could each halve our annual emissions from our work by avoiding that one trip.

Once we realised this, we were able to start making more informed decisions about how much we actually needed to fly. We asked ourselves the following questions about trips that we’d been on recently.

  1. Was the trip optional?
  2. Would the trip have a benefit that seemed great enough to outweigh or justify the environmental impact?
  3. Were other modes of transport available?
  4. Were other (closer) locations available?

You can learn a lot by asking these questions about past and future trips. They give us a much needed reality check regarding our own travel habits. When we asked ourselves the questions above, our answers were as follows.

  1. All of our overseas trips are optional. We don’t have any clients who demand it and we have no operational or financial requirement to visit foreign countries
  2. There are no significant benefits to the environment or humanity from our overseas trips, at least not to the extent that justifies us flying
  3. No other modes of transport were viable for the trips we did, so if we were to visit the same locations, it would require flying
  4. We did have specific reasons for the locations we chose, but the trips (such as conferences) were totally optional and we could therefore have chosen events that were accessible by rail or car

For us, it was clear cut. We don’t need to fly.

For others it might not be so clear cut, but likely you can identify areas where you can cut down. Even if you need to fly the same amount, you may be able to reduce emissions by choosing a more efficient airline or flying economy instead of business class, as suggested in this article by Tina Casey.

Formalising a policy on business flights

Four years ago after we realised how big the impact of flying was, and that it wasn’t required for our business, we introduced a ‘no fly policy’. Nobody at Wholegrain Digital has flown for business since we introduced it and our business has not suffered at all.

Making it official was important and so we documented it in our sustainability policy. If we had not done so, we would undoubtedly have gone on at least a few flights since then. The policy gave us clear boundaries to help us avoid the natural tendency to self-justify and bend our own rules.

In the past few years, I hadn’t come across any other businesses with an official no fly policy. However, I recently came into contact with Stephie Keilholz and Philipp Stakenborg at Das Gute Ruft, a like-minded creative agency in Cologne. They not only have a no fly policy, but have started a scheme called Loving the Atmosphere, where businesses can pledge to not fly. They told me that:

“We started lovingtheatmosphere.org to raise ecological awareness when it comes to business travel. We invite businesses, freelancers and workers to take a pledge, to reduce their business flights and to support the position paper from Stay Grounded network.”

Loving the Atmosphere badge
Wholegrain Digital have pledged to not use flights for business

It’s currently in German only but I’m told that an English language version is in the pipeline. What I love about this is that although zero flying is the goal, they actually allow different levels of pledging, avoiding the common hazard of an all or nothing approach.

The levels of pledging are as follows:

  1. In the future, I will no longer use business domestic flights
  2. In future, I will not use domestic flights or flights to neighbouring countries for business travel
  3. I will no longer use any aircraft for business travel

Do any of these options seem possible? Think about how they could potentially reduce your carbon emissions and how they might (or might not) impact your business on a practical or financial level.

What’s stopping you from stopping?

I know that there will be people reading this who feel that a strict no fly policy for their business simply isn’t viable. Perhaps that is true, but perhaps you could still cut down on flights.

If you are on the fence, I’m going to guess that you have at least one of the following excuses… I mean reasons:

“We have clients abroad and they would not hire us if we didn’t fly to see them”

This is a fair concern, but one that is worth questioning. We have clients abroad who are more than happy to communicate over video call. Even if occasional face to face meetings are required, could you make them less frequently, involve less people and possibly even travel by land? Even more radical, if you need to see them regularly, perhaps you should employ someone more local to the client (although that brings us to the next challenge).

“We’re a distributed team and cannot meet our colleagues without flying”

We have found in past years that one of the big downsides of a distributed team is that if it isn’t planned with some careful geographical boundaries, it can come at a very large cost to the environment. It is possible to work with team members entirely remotely (we’ve done it successfully) but it’s also natural that people want to meet face to face and build stronger connections. This can therefore be a real sticking point. The question is whether a distributed team is compatible with a sustainable future? I don’t know the answer, but it certainly won’t be easy. My advice is to think carefully about where you hire people and plan any team meetings in locations that minimise the total amount of flying for the team overall.

“Train travel is too expensive”

It is true that long distance train travel is often more expensive than flying. This is because air travel isn’t on a level regulatory playing field with other forms of transport, but it doesn’t change the reality.

It’s quite feasible to simply cost overland travel into the business finances. Implementing a self-imposed carbon tax is a strategy you could use to stop air travel from being artificially cheap.

If you are a profitable business then cost is likely not a real problem, and if it is, then the cost can actually be a helpful lens to challenge you on whether the trip is necessary at all. The cheapest, and most sustainable, trip is no trip.

“Give me a ticket for an aeroplane, ain’t got time to take a fast train”

The song might ring true in a love emergency, but for typical business scenarios, long distance train travel (especially in mainland Europe) can actually be quite productive. It may take a bit longer than flying, but the real impact on productive time is likely less than you imagine because flying involves a lot more faff than most of us would like to admit. The bigger issue with time is whether it means more time away from family, and that’s a very personal factor that needs to be considered.

“Long distance train travel is not an option where I live”

Here in Europe we might complain about our railways, but we are privileged with some of the best rail networks in the world, as well as excellent road networks. If you live and work in almost any other region, you’ll likely find travelling long distances without flying almost impossible. This isn’t something that you can solve on your own, and so your best bet is to focus on ways to reduce your need to make these long distance trips.

“Flying to far flung places is part of what I love about my work and I don’t want to give that up”

In a lot of cases, this is the real reason. The single biggest challenge for most of us is coming to terms with the fact that our EasyJet lifestyles are not sustainable, and then comitting to set boundaries for ourselves. Luxury and privilege is a one way street and we have been spoiled with cheap air travel for so many years that we cannot imagine life without it.

We must accept that life in the climate emergency cannot be the same as it has been in the past few decades, but we should also open our minds to the possibility that this may not be a bad thing. Developing local and sustainable businesses, and travelling overland are all things that foster a greater sense of community and personal well being. Maybe we should give it a try.

So, do web designers need wings?

Over the past four years, our no fly policy hasn’t hampered our business commercially and it hasn’t limited our enjoyment or professional development from attending events. It has, however, changed which events we go to, with more focus on the UK and some foreign trips by train, including Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Vienna. In fact, we’ve discovered that international train travel is a real joy, helping us to slow down, giving us a sense of place and when needed, also providing a fairly comfortable place to get some work done.

Vineeta and Tom outside Vienna central station
Vineeta and I on arrival at Vienna’s central station for WordCamp Europe

I think it’s fair to say that in the majority of cases, those of us who work in digital don’t actually need to fly. Considering the current climate emergency, we need to recognise that flying is currently unsustainable and we must tackle the issue head on.

We can power our offices, cars and websites with renewable energy, but there is no getting around the huge amount of greenhouse gases that planes emit directly into the upper atmosphere. Cutting down or stopping our business flying is a clear action that most of us could take to make a big difference. After all, if digital workers can’t do video calls, then who can?

To wrap up, here are the steps I recommend you take to reduce your emissions from business flights:

  1. Calculate your emissions for the past year or so
  2. Analyse whether these flights could have been avoided or reduced, and whether you can optimise your business model to reduce your need for flying
  3. Make a formal commitment on Loving the Atmosphere and declare it publicly

Please do get in touch and share your ideas and experiences on how we can all reduce carbon emissions from our work in digital.