Accounting for carbon emissions is more than a box ticking exercise.
ESG - Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance - is a set of metrics used to assess a company's social standing. Sustainability is a key factor in determining how successful a company is in this respect.
Regulation, public scrutiny and the concerns of employees and users mean fewer companies can ignore the effect of their products on others or the 9 planetary boundaries.
Web and app developers monitor and report on the performance of software running on the Internet, set budgets against which a changing codebase can be checked, monitor progress using browser tools and extensions to review a range of metrics, and report on data from live sites (RUM - Real User Measurements) to assess performance outside lab conditions.
But the performance of a website reflects upon everyone who contributes to it. Design, marketing, and product decisions all affect the 3 pillars of responsible development: performance, accessibility, and sustainability.
Content that downloads quickly and that is responsive without delay is critical to attracting and retaining users.
For users coming to your site via search or external links, a good SEO strategy is essential; directing users to the page they want first time benefits everyone.
Well planned features can be configured, tested, retired or dropped with ease. The least intrusive feature is the one that isn't built.
If you have the resources, ask users of screen and braille readers to test your site. If not, and you have the patience, use a standard screen reader to navigate your site and to test its functionality.
Setting a budget
Budgets involve everyone responsible for digital products. Adding new features places a load on every part of the system - more meetings, more designs, more code to maintain, more data to analyse, more bytes running over networks and on devices, the upsetting of users’ mental models, and the penalty of unwinding it all if things don’t work out. Digital products may be lighter than air but they weigh us down.
Establishing a budget means first knowing your site's current performance. This can be set against that of your competitors or exemplary sites. Making the budget a shared responsibility is important. An affiliate script, a large gif, or a reference to a code library can instantly undo the good work of others.
Team discussions on the sources and costs of a poorly performing site are segues to reflection on energy usage, the wider digital environment, and the responsibility companies and individuals have to act sustainably.
Websites and native apps have been growing in size, making greater demands on servers, networks, and user devices. The toll a piece of software makes on the environment depends on where the boundaries of energy consumption are drawn. Study of this complex problem is in its infancy.
In recent years, the additional energy cost of Internet use has been mitigated by the improved efficiency of data centres, networks and devices. The cost of moving bytes around is cheap to creators. For customers with poor connectivity, data limits, low end devices or old devices, bloated sites hurt. And we all pay a price in increased carbon emissions.
Out of sight no longer cuts the mustard
As a percentage of world energy consumption, digital is rising. Companies will have to account for their own carbon emissions, and those of their energy suppliers (Scope 1 and Scope 2). Emissions from everything else - infrastructure, transport, general services (Scope 3) - is harder to account for. But companies that make things, trade, or sell physical goods may in time become accountable through regulation. In some sectors it will be driven by the expectations of their customers - and their employees.
As data related to carbon emissions, water usage, land use change and the political and social conditions under which products are made become available, companies will have a choice as to how transparent they wish to be.
A rich stream of product data is an opportunity to extend customer contact throughout the lifecycle of that product.
Setting up a green team
You don't need permission to gather together like-minded people who want to decarbonise your company's website, or to introduce practices that reduce its consumption of natural resources.
Green teams are groups of people acting - with or without the support or blessing of their company - to improve the sustainable practices of the organisation of which they are a part.
Links to external references
- The intro guide to digital eco-design
- Wholegrain Digital | 17 (+3!) ways to make your website more energy efficient
- Greenhouse Gas Protocol
- Making supply-chain decarbonization happen | McKinsey
- The future of trade and value chains | McKinsey
- ClimateActon.tech | Slack workspace
- Work On Climate | Slack workspace