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Web Sustainability and the Ethical Dilemma

Last week I had the privilege of participating in Smashing Conference in Freiburg. One of the standout sessions was from Asim Hussain, of the Green Software Foundation, who talked about what a Net-Zero strategy means for organisations building websites. It was interesting to hear about the challenges of measuring the carbon emissions of a website, and the many different aspects that must be considered while doing so.

Asim pointed out that offsets are not an effective way of getting to Net-Zero, which might seem controversial to some, given that many companies that claim to be carbon neutral are at least partly counting carbon offsetting towards that goal. I’m inclined to agree with Asim here. Offsetting feels (to me) a lot like creative accounting: in the best case simply moving carbon around the system, without actually contributing to the zero-carbon goal.

It makes choosing an electricity supplier, or hosting provider a more difficult task if you want to be sure of their green credentials. In theory choosing a green web host should make a big difference to how clean your website is. If they exclusively use renewable energy, the carbon footprint should be very small. But many don’t explicitly make it clear how much of their trumpeted green claims are achieved through offsetting.

Another illuminating talk came from web performance expert Harry Roberts, who shared some useful insights for how optimising your <head> element can result in big performance gains. I’m always in favour of us developers doing whatever we can to make websites faster for our users, and often web performance and sustainability make great bedfellows. Reducing data transfer and CPU load inevitably reduces the carbon emissions generated by our website. As well as saving energy serving data to the user, we can also improve the longevity of devices, meaning they will need to be replaced less often. Device manufacturing and disposal uses a huge amount of energy and natural resources, and generates a lot of waste.

But is it always the case that faster websites are greener websites? We reluctantly have to consider another facet: if making a website for a car manufacturer faster leads to an increase in the number of cars sold, can we really say that our website is greener?

It applies to websites for many industries, of course: fast fashion, electrical goods, airlines and many more. Working in tech we’re accustomed to thinking of what we do as “clean” because we can’t see the carbon emissions. But in reality we service some of the dirtiest industries on the planet. We can try to justify it to ourselves in all sorts of ways, but in the end this is perhaps a problem without a technological solution, something that makes us developers extremely uncomfortable: to choose not to build.

Often web performance improvements are framed in terms of saving a company x amount of money or resulting in increased turnover, sometimes totalling millions of dollars, through better, faster user experience. But to frame it from a purely ecological perspective, is this really a better outcome when the end result is enabling environmental destruction on a greater scale? I’m not saying we should endeavour to make websites slower. Faster websites are nearly always better than the alternative. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about whose needs we’re servicing.

That’s not to say you can’t do any good if you’re working for a company that is contributing in some way to climate change (and let’s face it, that’s probably most companies). Many people don’t have a choice, and there’s something to be said for being able to influence change from the inside. But in discussions of digital sustainability, it sometimes feels like the elephant in the room.

Accessibility and green software

While we’re talking about sustainability, Asim and a few others recorded a thought-provoking podcast episode on accessibility and green software, including exploring what’s driving increased interested in green software, and what those interested in digital sustainability can learn from the sustainability space.

Listen to the podcast

Sustainable Web Design W3C community group

If you’re interested in helping drive the increased adoption of sustainability principles on the web, a W3C community group has been created with the goal of making the process of creating digital products more sustainable, and creating products that encourage better practices for users.

It’s important to ensure a diverse range of voices are represented when creating new guidelines. Join the group and help be part of the solution.