As an agency with a digital focus, we offer services and products that require the Internet. The fact is that hardly anyone is aware of how our surfing behavior affects CO₂ emissions and thus our climate and environment. More search queries, more mails and more streaming logically also require more energy.
Using the Internet consumes electricity. However, few people are aware of how much energy is consumed in the process.
"If you think of the Internet as a nation, it would be one of the biggest energy consumers in the world, ranked about fifth or sixth."
In fact, the Internet currently accounts for about 3.8% of the world's carbon emissions - and that figure is rising.
By comparison, Germany accounted for 2.1% of global carbon emissions in 2021; global air travel is about 3.1%. Thus, the Internet today already exceeds the much-discussed global air traffic.
Scientists even predict an increase to as much as 14% in 2040, which would put the Internet on par with current (2023) U.S. emissions, according to climatechangenews.com.
"One tweet requires 0.63 kilowatt hours; with the German electricity mix of 470 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, this corresponds to CO2 emissions of 294 grams. With an economical gasoline engine, you could drive a good 2.5 kilometers, with an efficient e-mobile it would even be 4.3 kilometers." – Meteorologist Sven Plöger
So what is the solution? Simply tweet less? Environmentally conscious surfing is definitely possible: if you want to reduce your screen time anyway, you can cut back on social media consumption or stream more consciously. Sustainable organizations also often offer ways to offset the CO₂ footprint through donations.
Even more important than social media postings, however, are currently the large AI models such as ChatGPT and others. Unfortunately, concrete figures are still in vain, as are quick solutions. More information about this can be found here.
However, we have mainly dealt with how we can contribute to a more climate-friendly Internet with our web design.
Sustainability: What role does the website play?
The term sustainability is based on three pillars: ecology, economy and social issues. In sustainable web design, all three pillars are taken into account and are incorporated into the design of a website. "Environmental awareness and sustainability are increasingly advancing from an individual lifestyle and consumer trend to a social movement - and a central economic factor that influences all corporate spheres," according to Zukunftsinstitut.
"Sustainable web design is an approach to web service design that focuses on people and the planet. It delivers digital products and services that respect the principles of the Sustainable Web Manifesto: clean, efficient, open, honest, regenerative and resilient." – SustainableWebDesign.org
Ok, but what is a sustainable website and what are the benefits?
Important: what is quickly misunderstood and what we want to point out explicitly is that sustainable web design or a sustainable website can never compensate for the complete economic actions of a company. Companies acting responsibly in terms of sustainability is the fundamental requirement for making a climate-conscious contribution to our society. Sustainable web design is just one way of minimizing CO₂ emissions.
1. Better performance through faster loading times
Sustainable and therefore also environmentally friendly websites have an enormous advantage: thanks to small file sizes, they have significantly faster loading times. This also improves user satisfaction. According to a Google study from 2016, 53% of visitors leave a website early if it takes longer than three seconds to load. Faster loading times in turn ensure lower power consumption, which leads to more cost-effective energy management.
2. CO₂ emission reduction and resource conservation.
The more data a website consumes, the higher its power consumption. For example, a simple web page generates around 1.76 grams of CO₂ per view. 20,000 views are already 352 kilograms of CO₂.
Sustainable web design (or green web design) can therefore reduce electricity consumption and thus CO₂ emissions. A valuable contribution to climate protection and resource conservation.
"Saving a single kilobyte in a file loaded on 2 million websites reduces CO2 emissions by an estimated 2950 kg per month." – Danny van Kooten,
CO2 Emissions on the Web
3. Good for the environment, good for the budget
An extremely important point, especially for businesses, is the cost savings that are achieved when relying on sustainable websites. This is because a green website has lower energy consumption and is therefore cheaper. The one-time saving of bytes provides cost savings in the long run.
The following formula summarizes the problem in a simplified way: Data = electricity = emissions. Basically quite logical. More data produced also has to be uploaded and downloaded and sent back and forth between servers. The power consumption of a user's own computer should also be taken into account. By consuming less electricity and using green hosting with green power, CO2 emissions can be reduced. Thus, sustainable websites not only burden the environment less, but also the wallet.
4. Better SEO through good search engine ranking and high user satisfaction.
Fast page speed and user-friendly design can also have a positive impact on search engine ranking. The website can be found faster by the target audience and a short loading time additionally treats their resource time respectfully. Modern front-end technologies can also shorten loading times even further. At the same time, the user experience is improved as well.
5. Positive brand and company perception
It is important for companies not only to think about sustainability strategies, but also to implement them and communicate them to the public. Sustainable web design can be a building block of this sustainability strategy.
"Sustainable website design means smarter, not necessarily less."
Now, one or two people may cry out and say, "If we start making websites green, it's at the expense of aesthetics and innovative design."
The first step for change: we need to stop thinking "either-or" and start incorporating "both/and" thinking into our lives. The solution - as is so often the case - is balance. And critically questioning whether certain design elements are absolutely necessary. This doesn't mean that we should only build websites that are black and white and don't include any design elements. What we should keep in mind, however, is what impact our design decisions have on energy consumption. If it's decided in the design process that a video will run in the background of a web page, that's fine. Likewise, it's okay to question whether that needs to be the case all the time, everywhere.
The best time to incorporate sustainable web design is at the beginning of a new website design. Here, attention can be paid right away to reducing power consumption, etc. - to completely restructure existing websites afterwards means extra work. Also, the scope of the website and what it should offer is decisive for which functions and design elements are used.
Example: A photographer will hardly be able to abandon photos. However, the images can be compressed to reduce their data volume. Or only a few images are loaded at the beginning and only when the user clicks, more images are loaded.
Now, of course, it can be argued that all of this is just eyewash and the contribution is way too small to really change anything. If then just reduce everything and take out any design elements that require a lot of energy to load. But it doesn't get us anywhere to point fingers at others. Rather, it's about finding the set screws and adjusting them. We must stop seeing ourselves as victims and allow each other to develop and grow, to learn new things. It is about taking responsibility, questioning one's own past actions and learning from them so that we can do better in the future.
And since our words are followed by actions, we took a look at our own website. We used the Ecograder tool for this, which provides initial optimization suggestions:
- Image elements should always have an explicit width and height.
- Avoid a long cache: Static resources should be cached.
- Server requests should be reduced as much as possible.
- Passive listeners can improve performance.
- Deploying smaller JS payloads can reduce the work of the main thread.
As you can see, even small things can be adjusted to reduce CO2 emissions especially in the long run. Something classic like compressing images and videos is also one of them.
There are those who prefer to point fingers and do nothing. And there are those who are aware of the responsibility of their actions and decide to make a difference within their scope of action. We prefer to belong to the last group. In the awareness of not being able to be perfect, we want to turn the adjusting screws that are achievable for us, in order to reduce the CO2 emissions of our website and those of our (future) customers, even as a digital agency. We have the ambition to learn from the past and to be better tomorrow than we are today. Not to whine about what we could have done better in the past, but to look to the future and courageously take new action in the present. This is how growth and development emerge.
As a digital agency, we have just started to take a closer look at sustainable websites. Where can we start to make our own website more sustainable? How can we incorporate our experience into client projects? How can we create more win-win situations between our customers and ourselves? These are just a few of the questions we are addressing.
Sustainability and environmental protection alone are often not effective arguments for customers. However, since energy consumption in web design is closely linked to performance and loading time, these in turn are directly related to corporate and business success. In the future, the energy consumption of a website should be a KPI used to evaluate good design.
The topic of sustainability in web design has become indispensable due to the challenges we face in the world. We also believe that this topic will become more and more important. Future generations will increasingly make their purchasing decisions based on how sustainably the companies whose products or services they use operate. Thus, sustainable web design can contribute to the success of a company. We are aware that we cannot solve the entire climate problem by doing so. However, as an agency we can make our contribution together with our customers. After all, the big picture is always greater than the sum of its parts.