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Eco-Friendly Web Design: Why Having A Sustainable Website Matters

Written by Eggs, Not Robots

We don't expect you to read something that we couldn't be bothered to write, and that's why we don't use AI to create our blogs. The info, advice, and opinions you're about to enjoy are straight from the brains of Holly and Sophie AKA The Good Eggs.
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Everything is on fire and the ice caps are melting. And as a website designer for women business owners, it feels like I’m only adding to the problem.

Firstly, all our digital activities — from sending an email to sharing a video or updating our website — have an environmental impact (known as “digital pollution”), which ultimately contributes to global warming. Secondly, climate change and gender inequality are inextricably linked, with women and girls most affected by the climate crisis.

What can we do as online business owners to reduce our carbon emissions and protect the Earth for future generations? A good place to start is looking at the sustainability performance of our websites…

P.S. We’ve tried not to use too much jargon in this blog post, but making eco-friendly websites is quite a techy subject. If there are any bits of jargon that you’re not sure about, we’ve also put together a web design glossary, which will help explain them further.

Dry landscape

Why Environmentally-Friendly Websites Matter

In real-world places, like houses and offices, it’s relatively easy to picture how we can be more environmentally friendly: recycle, reuse, turn things off, you hopefully know the drill. But when there’s no physical stuff to sort out and the lights are technically always on, what does sustainable web design actually mean?

For websites, a lot of it comes down to energy, in particular…

  1. The devices we use to browse the Internet
  2. The server facilities and data centres that store websites, process search queries, and hold the web’s content

The energy consumption of all this online activity is obviously pretty big. In fact, if the Internet were a country, it would be the sixth biggest consumer of electricity, sitting in between Japan and Brazil. Environmental agencies also estimate it would be the fourth largest polluter in the world.

That pollution doesn’t just come from power consumption but from the environmental impact of all the other resources needed to keep us online. For example, digital communications also use a huge amount of water. Data centres produce a lot of heat — think about how hot a laptop can get when you’re doing an intensive task — and they’re cooled using our old friend H20. Microsoft’s latest sustainability report revealed that their water consumption jumped by 34% between 2021 and 2022 to around the size of 2,500 Olympic swimming pools.

There are also loads of sustainability issues around manufacturing computers, phones, and other hardware, but we’ll stick with looking at online presence for now.

Hand holding up a protest sign saying 'There Is No Planet B'

What Is Sustainable Web Design?

The Sustainable Web Manifesto has six key principles for creating a more sustainable digital landscape. You can sign up to the manifesto and read the policies in more detail on the Sustainable Web Manifesto website, but in brief, here are the positive actions needed for a greener web:

  1. Clean – The services we provide and the services we use will be powered by renewable energy.
  2. Efficient – The products and services we provide will use the least amount of energy and material resources possible.
  3. Open – The products and services we provide will be accessible, allow for the open exchange of information, and allow users to control their data.
  4. Honest – The products and services we provide will not mislead or exploit users in their design or content
  5. Regenerative – The products and services we provide will support an economy that nourishes people and planet
  6. Resilient – The products and services we provide will function in the times and places where people need them most

Find Out How Eco-Friendly Your Website Design Is

If you knew you wanted to get better with money, you’d probably start by taking stock of what you already had. Even if you’re scared that you’re quite deep into your overdraft, the only way to find out is by checking your bank balance. Similarly, to make your website more eco-friendly, you’ll need to know where you’re starting from. We’ve found two really helpful carbon calculator tools for doing just that…

[As with most free online rating tools, the results from these sites are estimates, rather than hard-and-fast measurements, but they’re still useful as general guidance]

  1. The Website Carbon Calculator estimates your website’s digital carbon footprint and gives general guidance on how to improve it.
  2. Ecograder gives a much more granular breakdown of factors affecting your website’s environmental impact and carbon emissions. It gives lots of recommendations, but these could be overwhelming if you’re not super-techy. If so, we’d love to give you a hand — get in touch to work with us on improving your site.

Don’t be down-hearted if your score is bad. The fact that you’re even checking is a great first step. Keep a note of where you’re starting from, and if you can implement some of the recommendations, your score will hopefully improve.

This also isn’t meant to be a biodegradable stick to beat yourself with and we don’t want to add to your ‘green guilt’. As with most things, we think it’s just a case of recognising the areas for improvement and trying your best to make things a little better.

A group of people working at a table in front of a living wall of plants

Sustainable Web Design Practices

There are lots of small but impactful changes that you can implement to make your website more energy-efficient and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

As well as contributing to broader sustainability goals, lots of these changes are also good for your website’s overall user experience.

Power Your Website With Renewable Energy Sources

Your website needs energy to run — especially to power where your website data is stored (or ‘hosted’). As we mentioned above, these data centres use a lot of power, so choosing an eco-friendly hosting company to look after your website is a good sustainability strategy. Just like picking a green energy supplier for your house, you can pick a green energy supplier for your website. According to Ecograder, choosing a web host that powers its servers with renewable energy can reduce your digital product or service’s environmental impact by an estimated 15%.

We currently use Siteground for our hosting, which runs all of its data through Google Cloud data centres. As an organisation, Google is a carbon-neutral platform and has good sustainable practices. They can’t run all of their power grids with renewable energy sources, but they do match 100% of their global annual electricity consumption with carbon offset projects like purchasing renewable energy.

However, depending on how and where you’ve built your website, you might not have a choice about your hosting. DIY builders like Squarespace, Wix, and ShowIt generally don’t prioritise sustainability, but it’s worth having a snoop through their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting to find out what they’ve actually committed to.

Sustainability Optimisations to Make Your Website Design More Eco-Friendly

When your car is very full, it uses more fuel. Similarly, if your website is very resource-heavy (lots of large photos and videos, big plugins, etc.), it needs more energy to host it and also more energy for Internet users to view it.

A big website will also have a big load time, and you’ll know from personal experience, no-one likes slow loading times. They have such a negative impact on website users, in fact, that 40% would abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load (Kissmetric).

Here are a few ways you can lower the resource usage of your site:

  • Optimise your images to reduce their file sizes
  • Pick the right image formats for the job
  • Don’t autoplay videos
  • Enable lazy loading of images
  • Use content delivery networks (CDNs)
  • Limit how many custom fonts you use

If figuring out how to do all this feels a bit overwhelming, we’ve put together something to help. You’ll find details at the end of this blog.

Three wind turbines

More Eco-Friendly Practices for Online Businesses

Even if you’re not in a position to make any changes to your website, here are a few other ideas for sustainable web practices that you can incorporate into the day-to-day of your business.

Use Your Website as a Hub

We’ve talked about ways your website is using energy, but there’s a great way that your website can help you save energy too.

Looking at digital carbon emissions, an email without attachments produces 2-3 grams of CO2 (depending on whether you’re viewing it on a computer or a phone) while an email with attachments produces 50g. If you replace an attachment with a link to your website, that will massively reduce the carbon footprint of the email. This could look like recreating a PDF brochure for potential buyers as a page on your site or having an online client area for people to log in to and see information about your business.

Slim Down Your Email Inbox

On a similar note, reducing the number of emails you receive will have a positive impact on your carbon footprint. Reading and storing emails both have a carbon cost — it’s not huge, but it can soon mount up, and it’s a straightforward issue to tackle. Plus it has the added benefit of making your inbox feel less overwhelming.

An easy place to start is by unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters. Next time one lands in your inbox, here are a few signs that you should unsubscribe…

  • You delete it straightaway without opening it
  • You don’t remember signing up to the mailing list
  • It’s not adding any value to your life
  • You’ve not opened any of the last three emails from this newsletter

You could also search for the word “unsubscribe” in your inbox and see what comes up.

Even if the sender has a whiny “don’t leave us” message when you try to unsubscribe, just remember you’re also doing them a favour in terms of sustainability, as it’s reducing their carbon footprint too.

And if you know you’re never going to refer to an email again, delete it. It uses power to host it and adds unnecessarily to your digital footprint.

A person looking at a mobile phone

Be Choosy About Using AI

Artificial intelligence will have a huge impact on energy consumption, especially as more software integrates AI. Even though it has great potential for helping to solve climate change, there’s no way of getting around it: AI uses a LOT of energy.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), ​​a single Google search takes 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, while a ChatGPT request takes 2.9 watt-hours. That’s almost 10 times the amount of energy. AI has its place for helping us with more complicated or time-consuming tasks, but if you’re basically using ChatGPT, Gemini, or Claude as glorified search engines, maybe consider the environmental impacts before you use it for very simple queries.

And if you’re creating something using generative AI, like an image, the energy use is even higher. According to the excellently named study ‘Power Hungry Processing: ⚡️Watts ⚡️ Driving the Cost of AI Deployment?’, making one image with AI uses the same amount of energy as fully charging a mobile phone. As AI is integrated even further into daily life, a BBC News report suggests that by 2027, AI’s energy consumption could be comparable to that of the Netherlands.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere on our blog, in an article about AI and copywriting, artificial intelligence is a complicated subject with a whole range of ethical considerations to take into account. We know there are a lot of valuable use cases for it, so this isn’t us telling you not to use it, but, in terms of sustainability, maybe use it sparingly…

Don’t ask ChatGPT something you could very easily Google,and hire a real-life photographer or copywriter to make things for you.

We particularly like this quote from a Vox interview with climate researcher Sasha Luccioni (one of the co-writers of the Power Hungry Processing study):

“I’m definitely not against having a smartphone or using AI, but asking yourself, “Do I need this new gadget?” “Do I really need to use ChatGPT for generating recipes?” “Do I need to be able to talk to my fridge or can I just, you know, open the door and look inside?” Things like that, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it with generative AI.”

A black cat rests its paw on a person typing at a computer
Eco-friendly cat suggests paws-ing before you use AI

Sustainable Design For Business Websites

The digital landscape doesn’t have to be an energy-hungry wasteland. If you’re keen to implement a sustainability strategy for your digital presence, there are lots of straightforward changes that you can make to aid in sustainability efforts. Being environmentally friendly can look like using a green energy supplier, adopting good content management practices, and prioritising energy efficiency in your online activities. And the bonus is that lots of elements of sustainable website design also help provide an optimal user experience, so it’s a win-win.

If you’re running a business and want to improve the sustainability performance of your site, we’ve put together a non-judgy live training session on ‘How To Be An Environmentally Responsible Website Owner’. In it we’ll talk about:

  • Sustainable practices that will have a positive impact on the environmental footprint of your website
  • A comparison of which website builders and hosting platforms are best (and worst) for the environment, and how to switch to more sustainable hosting
  • What type of content is the least sustainable
  • Why responsive design is good for the environment
  • Free tools and digital products that will help you reduce your carbon footprint, without having to build a whole new website

And if all of that feels a bit much, we love working on business websites to help them become more environmentally friendly. Get in touch to find out how we can make your digital presence more sustainable.