New publication: Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood
An interview with Tom Greenwood from Wholegrain Digital in London.
Tom, congratulations on the release of your new book Sustainable Web Design! Great that you are willing to answer some of our questions here. Let’s start with at the beginning: when and why did you come up with the need for this book?
It has been in my head for a few years as our team has been getting deeper and deeper into web sustainability. I became acutely aware of the paradox that on the one hand the digital sector is always looking to the future and on the other hand, sustainability is almost never mentioned. There seemed to be a blind faith that digital technology is at best good for the environment (which it can be), or at worst has no environmental impact at all. And yet digital technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in terms of energy consumption globally with no sign of slowing down.
So the book project started in mid-2019 as a way to help raise awareness and establish sustainability as a topic that the web design community takes seriously.
What would you describe as the main difference between other well-known books in this field, like for instance Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick?
Firstly, Tim’s book is excellent and I highly recommend it. There are a few key differences but I think the main thing is that by virtue of having written this a few years later, I have been able to introduce examples, tools and actions that were not available before. I wrote my book with A Book Apart, who specialise in concise books to introduce topics, so it’s also a fairly quick read to get people started on their journey.
Another good book is Gerry McGovern’s World Wide Waste, which looks at the big picture of waste across the spectrum of the digital sector to highlight the scale of the problem, whereas my book is specifically focussed on web design and written for people working on web design and development projects.
I know you have been doing a lot of work to help create more light-weight open-source WordPress-themes, could you tell a bit more about that and explain how that aspect features in your book?
Yes, so WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system and has many great qualities, but it is not inherently very energy efficient. This is partly by virtue of it being a dynamic CMS, and partly due to the huge ecosystem of themes are plugins, that are great at delivering functionality, but can lead to bloated websites if you’re not careful.
So our team at Wholegrain have spent the last few years exploring opportunities to squeeze ever higher amounts of efficiency out of WordPress, through a combination of a well optimised hosting platform, super optimized code, and highly optimized assets. Our open source development framework called Granola is structured in a way that makes efficient, modular development easier, and has build tools designed to ensure everything is as optimised as possible. It is the basis for everything that we build for our clients, and is available for anyone else to use in their projects too.
In my book, I look at a range of practical actions that can be taken in design, development and hosting of websites to make them more energy efficient, not just for WordPress but for any web platform.
Wholegrain Digital is a member of the B Corp community. How much awareness is there in the community about the impact of (non)sustainable web design?
Very little, but it is growing. B Corps is an amazing community full of people who are genuinely passionate about using business as a force for good and there are many really pioneering companies pushing boundaries in sustainable business. However, like the rest of society and even the digital sector, digital sustainability has been something that most people still don’t know is an issue.
This is illustrated quite nicely in EcoPing’s B Corp league table for digital sustainability. It is only a small snapshot of the total B Corp community, but it highlights how even companies committed to sustainable practices are often unaware of their digital impact. That is starting to change and we are seeing a lot more discussion about it in the community recently, which is encouraging.
Do you expect it will become a criterion in the future that will bring extra or even necessary marks in order to be able to cross the application threshold for membership of B Corp?
That would be my hope. The B Impact Assessment (BIA) is very rigorous, but that rigour means that it can be slow to adapt to new criteria. We have been gently nudging B Lab, the non-profit behind the B Corp certification process, to include digital sustainability. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hopeful that it is just a matter of time.
That said, at Wholegrain we have led the way in trying to quantify website emissions, through our tool Website Carbon, as well as more tailored variants of it that we can use in-house. This has enabled us to benchmark environmental performance of websites and demonstrate reduced impact, which we do now score points for in the BIA under the product and services section.
Let’s wrap up with one final question about the last chapter of your book. Would you be willing to explain how you see that climate change will impact the internet itself?
Yes, I think it is important that we don’t just think about how the internet impacts the environment, but also how the environment impacts the internet. Our societies are increasingly dependent on web based services and while that can have many benefits, it also creates a vulnerability.
Extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes are already far more common than a few decades ago and this will continue to intensify, yet it is during these disasters that we need the internet more than ever, for communication and information. Designing web services to maximise resilience to these types of events can help ensure that web services are available at the times when people need them the most.
There is also a wider set of climate change related risks to the infrastructure of the web too. Data center energy consumption is heavily impacted by cooling demand, which will only increase in a warming climate, while many of the world’s major data hubs and networks are in areas at risk of coastal flooding in years to come as sea levels rise.
Once again, as an industry that spends so much time looking to the future, we need to also look ahead and see the risks presented by climate change so that we can manage them proactively.
Tom, thank you very much for your time, and we hope with you that book will inspire people to rethink their digital strategies in the light of speed, efficiency and Climate change!
René Post, co-founder The Green Web Foundation
Continued support from Leaseweb
Due to the serious numbers of daily checks against the Green Web database, the server was running out of disk space. After talking to several partners, we are now happy to announce that Leaseweb again proved to be a dedicated partner to the greening of the web, by adding of 1 TB SSD RAM to our server at no additional cost. This not only solved the immediate need for more disk space, but has sped up the user-experience of the site and API’s as well.
So we want to express a heartfelt thanks to Leaseweb because of this, and hope we can continue the partnership in the years to come!
What your company needs to know about carbon and technology
The future of technology is low-carbon, and why companies should be paying attention.
Messages, tweets, and streaming videos—the electricity needed to keep these and the rest of our digital lives churning adds up to an estimated 830 million tons of CO2 annually. Put another way: if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest in energy consumption.
Last fall, in an effort to convince corporate America to lower carbon emissions, the White House announced the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. By signing the pledge, companies are demonstrating an ongoing commitment to climate action. The 154 pledges include longtime renewable energy investors—Apple, Facebook, Google—and relative newcomers, including Airbnb, Bloomberg, Disney, and Starbucks. Meanwhile, the European Commission has set out its vision for data centers to be powered by 80% renewable energy by 2020.
It’s a lot of talk, but evidence of follow-through is growing. Apple used Earth Day to remind us that renewable energy powers our iMessages and Google is putting its weight behind expanding renewable certification programs in Asia.
You’ve probably heard the rumblings. If you run (or help run) a company, here’s how it will affect you.
Every day is impact assessment day
Chances are, your company is affected by impact assessments, whether you know it or not.
Impact assessments exist for many reasons. Sometimes an assessment is required by law—as is true for federal agencies subject to the The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example. Other times, an assessment is intrinsically motivated. It could be the outcome of a mission statement, or part of an opt-in certification.
The last category is the one that Etsy, Kickstarter, Patagonia, Seventh Generation, and Warby Parker all have in common. Each of these companies are subject to an impact assessment as part of their B Corp certification, a designation that aims to be to businesses “what Fair Trade certification is to coffee,” according to the B Corp website.
Even if your company isn’t subject to an impact assessment, you may be part of another company’s assessment.
Image Relay is in the digital asset management business—in other words, the company will host your files, photos, and videos for a fee. Image Relay hosts files for Citrix, Michigan State University, and PayPal. Image Relay is also a B Corp.
“Our carbon footprint does factor into our B Corp score, “ says Skye Chalmers, founder of Image Relay. “Our energy provider, Green Mountain Power, helped in this direction. They recently became a B Corp and are taking a progressive approach to renewables and energy efficiency.”
The key for impact assessments is reflecting how much carbon is released—or not—according to your company’s technology use.
If you don’t think this applies to your company, remember: technology always comes with a carbon footprint. It comes from the daily operations of email and file hosting, to running a website or app, to high-performance computing, including the transactions processed by data centers on behalf of financial institutions.
Next level cost-cutting
Data centers use a metric called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) to measure efficiency. The magic number is 1.
Facebook and Google are pushing the efficiency limits of their custom-built, single-tenant data centers, scoring PUEs as low as 1.05. Meanwhile, the rest of us tend to rent space in multi-tenant centers, where reaching maximum efficiency isn’t always possible.
Jim Smith, Chief Technology Officer of Digital Realty Trust, the world’s largest operator of data centers, spoke about the predicament back in 2012. “I’m approaching my limits,” says Smith. “We find ourselves at a point of diminishing returns.”
What’s next when efficiency can only cut costs so far? Switching to an energy source that requires less electricity to run. It’s a move that can bring cost-cutting to the next level, bypassing hardware and software efficiency limits.
It’s also a proactive move, explains Jack Pouchet, VP of Market Development at Emerson Network Power and board member at The Green Grid.
“Electricity is one of the single biggest operating expenses you have,” says Jack. “If you use renewable energy, you can be sure you’re not going to have a carbon tax. Whether that means a carbon tax from the country or the boardroom carbon tax—an organization coming after you for your business practices—if you can avoid that, you have an advantage.”
The transparency advantage
Every year, Greenpeace spends months researching and writing a report called Click Clean. The report meticulously scores companies on transparency, commitment, and championship, and breaks down energy use by renewable, coal, gas, and nuclear sources.
Click Clean takes a lot of the mystery out of the internet as we know it. Turns out, the technical infrastructure running our daily lives and business operations are owned by a few.
Greenpeace makes this information accessible, digestible, and relevant. As transparency becomes status quo, not disclosing energy sources or communicating a sustainability policy will become a disadvantage.
“I think the trend is towards more visibility on IT infrastructure and data,” says Aaron Binkley, Director of Sustainability at Digital Realty and board member at The Green Grid. “As a result, people are going to start seeing that there are facilities that ‘house’ the internet and they’re using incredible amounts of energy to do that on behalf of the customer. That’s an awareness that not everyone has, but it’s growing.”
The bottom line is that your company doesn’t have to be in the technology business to be affected by the low-carbon internet. On some level, we’re all “in technology”. Knowing the carbon footprint of your supply chain—or where you fit into someone else’s—is a start.
Jenn Schlick is the Web Manager at the MIT Energy Initiative. Jenn’s work focuses on the benefits of using renewable energy in digital products and services. She spoke about Low-Carbon Web Design at WordCamp Finland 2016. Follow Jenn on Twitter: @jennschlick
Germany has the most green hosted domains within the top 1m sites
The Green Web Foundation in Sweden has compiled a top 10 of countries that harbor the most green sites within the Alexa top one million: sites that are running on green energy.
Of the 185 countries that have at least one site within the top million, only 41 countries have green hosted domains, so there is clearly still a long way to go before the Internet is completely green hosted! The aim of The Green Web Foundation is to monitor and promote this development, till the day that it is no longer needed.
Of these 41 countries, the top five covers already nearly 97% of all green domains, and the top 10 over 99%:
|rank||country||# green hosted domains||percentage|
The same data, but visualized in a graph:
So Germany is the big winner here, even more so when considering the fact that the United States has around 7 times as much domains in the top million as compared to Germany.
When looking at the total number of sites that came green out of The Green Web API, it shows that around 10,4% of all popular sites are green hosted now, a development we will monitor closely in the future.
If you know of any hosters that are not yet in The Green Web Directory, please let us know so we can add them – especially in countries where we have not identified green hosters yet (see map)!This way we can fulfill our promise to The Green Web App-users, and show directly in your browser, for any site you visit, if it is green – or not yet!
Thanks for your support,
The Green Web Foundation, Sweden.
.Koeln is the greenest city domain!
Last year saw the introduction of many new Top Level Domains (TLD’s). A special class are the city TLD’s, like ‘.amsterdam’, ‘.rio’ or ‘.tokyo’. It makes sense for cities, companies and non-profits to use these domains, for instance travel.taipei is short and to the point. So the registrations go well, NYC is on top with close to 85.000 registered domains. But is it for many buyers just another referrer, bought to prevent others from using it, or are they actively marketed and used? And, important from out point of view, do these sites run on green energy? Read about this and more below.
There are currently 211 domains in this category within the Alexa top million. The distribution and popularity is very uneven, take a look at the following toplist:
|ranking||city TLD||# sites in top|
So although NYC has around 2,5 times more registrations, the .tokyo brand is clearly much more actively used in practice.
If we look at the number of city TLD sites in use per continent, Asia is a clear winner:
When we greencheck these domains (click here for free API access) to find out if they are green hosted, we get a different picture: only seven out of the 21 city TLD’s have sites that run on green energy. If we factor in how many times a site is visited, we get the following weighed ranking:
|position||City TLD||percentage green|
So for every time a .koeln-site is visited, in 3 out of 4 times the page was served by a green hoster. The .wien TLD is doing equally well, with .london on a respectable third place.
When we distribute this outcome again against continent, green hosting in this domain is clearly a European affair, with only .NYC having a tiny percentage of green hosted sites. But where is Asia in this list, no green hosting at all?
So where Asia is clearly outperforming Europe and the USA in the actual use of city TLD sites, when it comes to green hosting, Europe is – for now at least – doing quite well.
Note: do you know of any green hosters in Asia? Please drop us a line!
The Green Web Foundation, Sweden.
Disclaimer: the Alexa top million changes rapidly all the time. This dataset was compiled early September 2015, and does not necessarily reflect the current status and ranking of these sites.
Why every greencheck counts
As you know, we have compiled a list of hosting companies that run on renewable energy. Others do not have that option, but make sure their operations are at least carbon neutral. Most hosting companies however, simply do not care much about the environmental impact of their activities, and they think that you will never find out anyway.