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Why Eco-Friendly Web Design Matters

Katie Powers

How digital marketers can implement sustainability principles in their online presence

As brands increase efforts to lessen their impact on the environment, their online presence shouldn’t be an afterthought. The internet’s annual carbon footprint is 830 million tons, which puts it on par with the aviation industry. If the internet was a country, it would rank sixth in electricity usage. But digital marketers and web designers can lessen their organization’s impact and improve consumer relations through efforts to create energy-efficient user experiences.

Marketing News spoke with author and entrepreneur Tim Frick, founder and CEO of Mightybytes, a Chicago-based Certified B Corporation that provides web designers and developers with resources to create sustainable products and strategies. He offers insight into why brands should opt for an eco-friendly online presence and how they can achieve it.

What are some eco-friendly web design techniques that digital marketers could use and how might implementing these techniques benefit a brand?

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Designing for Sustainability, the book I wrote about creating digital products and services and using sustainability principles to do that, outlines different techniques that range from SEO to performance optimization. Essentially, if you think of things you should do [in web design]—such as making it accessible for people with disabilities, using web standards and tools when you program it, making it load quickly, making it user-friendly—all those things are about making it more efficient and optimized. That means it’s better for people and less time-consuming.

Because websites are powered by energy, they use less electricity. So, by making your site fast, efficient and easy to find and load, you’re making it better for the planet.

If brands are interested in implementing some of these techniques, what are some resources or tools they could consult to get started?

[Mightybytes] has built something called Ecograder, in which you enter a site’s URL and it spits back a report with things you could do to improve that page. It’ll rank you based on high-level indicators for performance, user experience, SEO ranking and whether your site is using renewable energy. If you wanted to estimate how much CO2 your website emits, you can go to the site WebsiteCarbon to get a general estimate of your emissions, so you can work to reduce or offset that by investing in renewable energy projects.

An example of Ecograder’s green findings for Google.com.

When looking at the internet’s impact on the environment, why is it urgent that web designers and digital marketers implement these sustainable practices?

We are in the process right now of dematerializing many of our products and services and putting them online at a massive pace. Historically, the internet has been thought of as a green solution since it replaces paper. The virtual version of something is supposed to be the green version, but digital is growing at such a rapid pace across the world.

On its own, a digital product might be lighter in terms of carbon emission and environmental impact, but when you multiply that by the number of users on the internet, that’s a potentially very large environmental impact and a big concern. It’s especially concerning because so many people aren’t thinking about it alongside their other environmental efforts. People say, “Oh, my website doesn’t emit that much compared to the products I make or the way I produce, so I’m going to focus on those things.” It should be in addition to, as opposed to instead of. It should be about including your digital footprint as part of your overall carbon footprint.

[The University of Massachusetts Amherst] put out a report saying that training a single AI algorithm emits the same amount of CO2 as five average American cars in the (vehicles’) lifetimes. That doesn’t seem like much as a single algorithm, but when you talk about the fact that people are creating thousands of algorithms and constantly training them, it’s a scale thing. The fact that these things are scaling up rapidly shows the amount of damage they could potentially cause, and we need to talk about the number of people using them.

How might implementing green web design techniques improve consumer-brand relationships?

One way is mapping out your stakeholders and including the planet as part of your stakeholders. When many people build websites, it’s about who they’re trying to target. The whole UX world is focused on making sure you’re creating something for the user—and that’s completely valid. But there could be other stakeholders in that process—internal stakeholders, external stakeholders and the environment. Make sure that you’re casting a wide net and doing system-thinking exercises at the start of a project that includes all players, especially your consumers. Having those conversations early and being upfront about potential impact is important.

At a recent sustainability conference, I consistently heard people saying, “This is a design problem.” What they were getting at was that designers weren’t really thinking about end-of-life. They were thinking about launch and upfront instead of long term, which is just as important. Otherwise you have a lot of unused stuff that’s sitting up there burning pixels.

In terms of how those kinds of exercises can positively impact consumers, I think another component is making sure you do good sustainability work and tell that story in a compelling way. Otherwise, things like climate change and recycling are concepts that don’t immediately hit people up front in terms of their impact. When you’re telling that story in a compelling way, it’s going to help people clearly understand why you’re doing it, why it’s the right thing to do and why your company is focused on it. That is really the best way to engage the consumer. More and more people coming into the consumer market are looking for that kind of stuff. They want to buy in to a brand or a company making good decisions for the future.

Do you predict that more brands will begin to use these techniques over time?

One of the reasons we built Ecograder was because, back in 2011 when we started talking to our customers and even other web designers about this, we kind of got glazed-over pinwheel eyes. People didn’t understand what we were talking about. There was a huge education hurdle there. That was seven or eight years ago and since then, we’ve seen communities popping up.

There are Slack groups about climate tests. Fast Company, Wired and other organizations have written stories about the rise of green UX. We’ve seen this burgeoning community growing globally, but I would say it’s far from the majority. The only way to make a good, positive impact is at scale, so I would like to see most web designers and developers doing this as opposed to a minority.

Image courtesy of Mightybytes

Katie Powers is editorial content intern at the American Marketing Association.