Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How brands can build a greener internet in the new digital age

By Rick Madigan, Lead Technology Strategist at UNRVLD

Digital has a large sustainability problem. Yet, if we view the carbon footprint of digital at a company level, it is a relatively small percentage which has pushed many organisations and companies to deprioritise it.

However, if we gathered all the internet resources together and viewed it as a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter in the world. That is just the internet, that doesn’t include the pollution from manufacturing, or the mining for metal components to build our computers and even the waste created when that computer’s life has come to an end, but that’s a story for another day.

The Sustainable Web Manifesto, and the ensuing practices of sustainable web design and development, has tried to galvanise people into action, bringing organisations and companies together to make a difference, however the pace of change is not yet promising.

The key for companies and users is in realising that sustainable web design and development is more than just making greener sites. The idea is that if your site is easy to find (your SEO and content), easy to navigate (your UX and design) and loads quickly (Development and Hosting), then a site visitor uses less energy. It’s encouraging as little digital use as possible. Flipping that, it’s also business outcome efficient- all these things are the makings of a strong customer experience as users want to be able to do things quickly, simply and reliably. It’s about building more effective sites and with that achieving a greater ROI.  

We can break this down further. With SEO and content, optimised SEO and a carefully constructed content strategy, you can quickly increase your visibility and get people to information they need faster, thereby using less energy. But also, you are attracting more, higher-quality users to your site and into your funnel.
Design is a more complex proposition. Optimised UX (accessibility, navigation, search and beyond) not only boosts conversion rates but uses less energy. The tricky part comes with creative design. Low-carbon sites (Volkswagen ID4 site, Organic Basics) are not for everyone.

When there’s a brand style to consider it’s hard to be pragmatic, we are always looking to showcase the brand in the best light we can, but at the same time we need to focus on what is important for the user – where do we really need images, image formats, video resolution, standard fonts over custom fonts? Brand style is important, but an easy to use, simple and sleek site is often the most desirable for the user.
We know that we can’t all go low carbon, but we can at least reduce the intensity and, as a by-product, reduce the load and boost the performance, a key part of user experience.

Which leads into Development. Simply put, clean sites run faster. Modern frameworks, web standards, reusable code, smart tracking (what data you actually need), optimised tag management and more are all considerations in building clean sites which in turn gives us those important performance figures.

This is not only a user issue though, we shouldn’t forget our own employees as well. If they can do what they need to do faster in the CMS or other, they not only use less energy, but we get business efficiency, yet again.

And finally, Hosting. Two examples of hosting that we use are – Azure (via Rackspace) and Vercel (which leverages the AWS edge network). There are many things to consider in hosting – from the resources you are using to the distance of the data centres from the core user base and the energy effectiveness of the vendor. It’s thinking beyond somewhere to put a website and understanding what the vendor can offer. In both of our examples, we have vendors who operate the latest approaches and, as a result, are able to deliver lower carbon scores.

To sum up, sustainability in digital is not a tick in a box or a “nice to have”. By implementing greener practise, you are boosting your chances of higher ROI. There is a clear marriage between delivering exceptional user experiences to produce higher conversions and having greener user experiences on your site. It’s this realisation which will lead to increased sustainable practices in 2023.