Using web design and development as a gateway into digital sustainability

Published by Chris Butterworth
on 28/09/2022

The Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES), an international multi-stakeholder alliance, was created in response to the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

With contributions from over 1,000 people with a diverse mixture of backgrounds including academia, civil science, private sector government and non-government organisations around the world, the CODES Action Plan was published with a comprehensive plan to explore the intersection of and close the gap between digital technology and sustainability.

This plan contains a list of principles for organisations adopt (where possible) and are split between 3 areas representing the fundamental systemic shifts needed to implement digital transformation in a sustainable way.

These are:

  1. Enable Alignment: Aligning vision, values, and objectives of the digital age with sustainable development
  2. Mitigation Negative Impacts: Ensure sustainable digitalization to mitigate negative environmental and social impacts
  3. Accelerate Innovation: Directing innovation efforts toward digitalization for sustainability

Whilst we believe this is a brilliant and critical piece of work towards reducing the carbon impact of digital, the CODES Action Plan proposes a set of impact initiatives that are global in their vision and multi-stakeholder in their application. As a result, it will have a limited impact on SME’s or organisations that don’t have a global reach.

Luckily though, there is still a number of direct actions that these businesses can take as almost all organisations manage, own or use products and services that are digital in nature. All of which have a negative carbon impact that can be lowered.

These can include:

  • Marketing & Comms: Website, social media, instant messaging, newsletters
  • HR, Sales, Finance, Operations: Data management services usually as a SaaS subscription or licensed software
  • IT, DevOp, WebOps: Web hosting, office hardware e.g. laptops, networking etc

With these in mind, we thought it would be useful to list some of the tasks that any organise or any size can take to mitigate the negative impact of their website or web application on the planet.

Swap to renewable energy

It’s obvious to most that having your website or web application hosted by a provider who uses renewable energy instantly reduces the negative impact of your hosting. The Green Web Foundation is a great resource here with a list of hosting and infrastructure providers who are carbon neutral, either by using renewable energy or offsetting the emissions caused by their energy requirements or other operations.

However, for some web applications this may be easier said than done especially when wedded to other services. If that’s the case for your product or service, then our next recommended task may be more straight forward.

Ensure products and services use the least amount of energy and material

By following sustainable design principles we can overall lower page size which improves performance by reducing loading times. By reducing load times we reduce the amount of energy needed by networks and end user devices helping reduce data poverty to help close the digital divide (another principle within the CODES ActionPlan).

Maintaining these principles whilst editing or creating content for your website as well as managing the growth in traffic and user base for your web application means the performance should be close to constant.

When it comes to web applications, efficiency is key to reduce the power demand on services. This can be as simple as reducing the amount of data stored and processed or as complicated as completely restructuring how the data is stored.

If you’re fully with specific services a provider, such as AWS or GCF, offer then this is the best way to reduce energy demand and the emissions caused by that. CloudCarbonFootprint has a great way of measuring the impact of these providers where renewable energy isn’t used.

Improve access to information

Lack of access to information for individuals can have a massive impact and in some cases potentially be life-threatening, the same can be said for personal data.

Following your territories respective accessibility guidelines (Section 508, n° 2005-102) in addition to the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) whilst still following sustainable web design principles means that your service will be accessible to the highest amount of users. These accessibility guidelines can be tested at both the design and development stage and tests should be run whenever new content is added or new features are created.

Sustainable web design guidelines also talk about privacy concerns when it comes to tracking and potentially sharing data with third parties which can have disastrous effects. For organisations based within the EU, there’s GDPR which regulates this and gives users a huge amount of protection. In the US, there’s the CCPA which offers the same protection and the UK will follow suit shortly with its own regulations. Following the appropriate legislation for your territory in addition to either GDPR or CCPA will then give your users the most protection.

Ensure your digital products and services do not mislead or exploit users

Focusing on web design and development, we can help accomplish this by ensuring that we avoid using dark patterns to force users to carry out certain actions as well as fight against surveillance capitalism by using tracking providers who don’t share information with advertisers or using advertising providers who don’t enable this where needed - when content needs to be monetised in some way.

Ensure your digital products and services function when and where people need them the most

Sustainable practices have already been mentioned which massively help with performance and accessibility which are incredibly important for users. Ensuring your service is online is just as important. There are a handful of ways to reduce downtime but the key things would be having a recovery and maintenance plan to ensure that downtime is kept to a minimum and for this to work you also need some form of monitoring. There are a multitude of services that can offer this with an alert in case anything does go wrong and action is required to get your digital product or service back online.

“There has to be more”

There is.

Websites and web applications tend to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital sustainability but they represent a huge gateway to explore the topic and its impact throughout an organisation and its digital ecosystem.

When it comes to estimating the impact of your web presence or application you can take a look at Beacon, our website carbon calculator which can be used along side analytical data to estimate the full impact over the course of a year. We do this as part of our free audits to give you a baseline to start from, if you’d like one or would like to discuss anything within the topic get in touch using the form below.