The internet has certainly made all our lives far more convenient and connected than it has ever been. Yet, the environmental impact of the world wide web is an area of increasing concern. Melbourne-based CEET research center’s study revealed that the internet accounted for 1.5% to 2% of the world’s energy consumption back in 2013 – a number that has only doubled to reach the 4% a decade later. If the internet were a country, it would rank fifth among the top energy consuming nations.

Clearly, the internet is a good servant, but a poor master. The hunger to consume more data and unethical practices using web technologies are further aggravating the scenario. The need of the hour is for businesses to adopt a sustainable web design approach that puts people and planet first.

First Things First: Understanding the Web’s Carbon Footprint

Every organization today, irrespective of the industry or vertical they are engaged in, is actively producing digital content in one form or another. Websites are a key element, and so are social media updates, virtual seminars and workshops, mass emails, cloud solutions, mobile and desktop applications, and so on to market their services and acquire or cater to customers.

What organizations fail to realize is that each of these activities has a carbon footprint of its own. Over time, with the compounding of activities by the growing number of digital businesses, the internet as a whole significantly contributes tons in annual emissions.

A single email with a photo attachment results in around 50 grams of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) or other Greenhouse gases. This is equivalent to the amount of CO2 released from the burning of 380 g of municipal solid waste. Now consider the number of emails your organization alone sends in a day, and you will not even have to think of the number of organizations involved all across the globe.

What this clearly establishes is that “going green” and “going digital” without carefully auditing the carbon footprint of your online activities is doing little good. Sustainable practices need to be adopted from the bottom-up, such as sustainable web design alternatives for a heads up.

What is Sustainable Web Design?

It wouldn’t be wrong to acknowledge sustainable web design as a movement, wherein organizations, owners, managers, and marketers are taking upon themselves to reduce emissions and minimize the carbon footprint of their websites using a few best practices.

Sustainable websites are created with the user experience in mind, loading quicker with less traffic and costing less to operate because of decreased hosting companies' electricity costs. Because they concentrate on information rather than needing to include a lot of elements that make the site visually appealing, sustainable web designs are considerably simpler and have less clutter.

Most importantly, a sustainable web design accomplishes its goals of communicating the content well, making navigation quicker and easier, and attracting customers to an online business or organization, while still curbing any negative side effects on the community and environment.

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To ensure that your website is as equitable and effective as possible across user groups, they must be designed with greater focus on accessibility, economic responsibility, and environment-friendly techniques.

The Pillars of Sustainable Web Design

The Sustainable Web Manifesto outlines the following pillars of responsible, sustainable web design for all stakeholders to follow:

  • Clean: Renewable energy will be used to power both the services we offer and the services we consume.
  • Efficient: We shall use the least amount of energy and material resources possible in the production of our goods and services.
  • Open: The goods and services we offer will be easily available, permit the free flow of information, and give people access to and control over their data.
  • Honest: The designs or contents of the goods and services we offer won't deceive or take advantage of customers.
  • Regenerative: The goods and services we offer will contribute to a healthy economy that benefits both people and the environment.
  • Resilient: When and when customers need our goods and services the most, they will be available.

Best Practices for the Sustainable Web Design Approach

Check with Your Hosting Data Center

Data centers that host websites frequently replace outdated equipment, which results in mountains of e-waste as well as significant emissions beyond the server racks itself. Organizations must verify that the company providing hosting for their websites have a strong environmental policy in place, spanning business emissions, responsible use of new equipment, and safe, green disposal or recycling methods of old equipment.

Get a Third-Party Business Certification

Business certifications offered by sustainability-agnostic third-party groups, such as B Corp, One Percent for the Planet, and Fair Trade, among others, can help assess your policies, initiatives, and marketing efforts. Look up to them as standards to follow when treading on the path towards sustainable web design practices.

Set a Page Weight Budget

A page weight budget specifies the maximum weight that a webpage may have, in kilobytes or megabytes of files. The page’s weight significantly impacts the loading time of the web page, besides webpage sharing. Web design teams must ensure they are adhering to the specified page weight budget, maybe even lesser than what has been defined. Take care of elements like images, animations, videos, and so on.

Keep Accessibility and Energy Efficiency in Mind

Web designers can use OLED screens, which independently illuminate each pixel, to conserve energy when designing for the internet. Practices such as using darker colors that need less energy to illuminate, using red and green pixels instead of blue which require about 25% more energy, and striking the right balance between energy conservation, accessibility and ergonomics is the way to go.

Mobile-First Design

For mobile websites to load more quickly on smartphones, they must be lightweight. Using a mobile-first design approach can help designers both enhance user experience and preserve the environment at the same time.

Using Fewer Web Pages

UX Teams should evaluate each project to decide how to condense or reduce the number of pages wherever possible. Single-page layouts are more user-friendly for visitors using mobile devices and are better for the environment.


Miscellaneous

  • Optimizing visual content and lazy loading
  • Reducing emails
  • Optimizing design workflows
  • Minifying HTML and CSS resources
  • Choosing the right content management system
  • Selecting the right fonts for web pages
  • Designing hierarchies, navigation and links responsibly

Interested to see sustainable web design and development in action?

Read about the project in a detailed case study for Earth Observatory Singapore on our website.