In this series, we’re introducing you to the authors of The Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook, our ebook on building green and lean online stores, available to download for free directly from The Ecomm Manager.
Today we’re getting to know Tom Greenwood, co-founder of the London digital agency Wholegrain Digital, a Certified B Corp and a specialist in WordPress, web performance, and sustainability. He is the author of Sustainable Web Design from A Book Apart, co-author of the Sustainable Web Manifesto, and editor of the monthly green web newsletter, Curiously Green.
Tom tells us how he became active in the sustainable design scene in the early 2000s, explains the particular sustainability challenges of the eCommerce industry, and suggests ways we can help support people to make more eco-friendly choices when shopping online.
What is sustainable web design, why is it important, and how did you get into it?
Sustainable web design is the process of looking at the environmental impact of digital services during the web design process so that we can minimize the amount of energy consumed and the carbon emissions caused by these services.
I’ve been interested in environmental issues since I was at school. I then studied physical product design at university and got into digital as a way of trying to move away from the physical environmental impact of products that have to be manufactured and shipped across the world before they get thrown on landfill sites when we've used them a couple of times. I thought with digital you can make stuff that doesn't have any impact at all!
Wholegrain Digital was founded in 2007, and our founding principle was trying to be a sustainable agency. There are lots of benefits to digital from an environmental point of view but a few years ago, when we were looking to certify Wholegrain Digital as a B Corp, we started interrogating the impact of the products that we make and our own impact as a company a lot more thoroughly.
We realized that digital has a huge environmental impact through the vast amount of energy consumed globally by data centers, telecoms networks, end-user devices but also the physical
impact of all of this electronic equipment that's manufactured and disposed of as well as the water consumption in data centers, which people don't really talk about. We've made it part of our mission as Wholegrain to try to demonstrate best practices in minimizing our impact.
What are the main challenges the ecommerce industry is faced with when it comes to its impact on the planet?
A huge part of it is the impact of shipping and returns. It's so easy to buy things online. They can arrive at your door the next day or at least within a few days but the downside of digital is that you can't try on clothes or feel a product. In order to get around that the eCommerce industry made returns really easy so that people feel like there's a low barrier. You can just order stuff, and if you don't like it, you’ll send it back.
The actual impact of shipping the products to the customer and then sending it back again is really significant, and a lot of items don't even get resold. Unfortunately, there's a huge financial but also the environmental cost to the eCommerce industry. The challenge is always going to be the need for the industry to constantly sell more and that's always going to be a challenge. But awareness is rising, and that can only be a good thing.
What’s your chapter in the Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook about?
It’s about how eCommerce websites can implement user interface tweaks to encourage more sustainable behavior choices from their customers.
For example, this could include not ordering multiple sizes of the same product with the intention of sending two out of three back because you know they'll be the wrong size. I explore how you can use the user interface to help people choose the right product in the first place, how you can guide them to choose a more energy-efficient or eco-friendly product over another one by the way that you communicate online when they're faced with multiple product choices. It’s about that aspect of the user interface tying in with consumer education to encourage more eco-friendly lifestyles.
How can ecommerce managers get started and help reduce carbon emissions?
Ecommerce managers can get started by looking at what they're already doing and identifying some low-hanging fruit that benefits the company, their customers, and the environment.
Using the interface to educate customers about the benefits of certain products from an environmental point of view and discouraging them from ordering multiple sizes only to return them doesn’t cost a lot of money to implement if you get them right. Look for the low-hanging fruit that’s a win for everybody.
Are there any resources that you'd like to recommend?
Check out sustainablewebdesign.org, which is a fairly comprehensive resource of strategies you can apply in web projects that benefit both the environment and people. The Digital Declutter Toolkit, meanwhile, is more of a holistic look at the digital impact of web services.
At Wholegrain Digital we’ve also built a Website Carbon Calculator: You can run any web page through it and get a carbon score of how much carbon is emitted each time somebody visits that page. It's a really good way of benchmarking not only your current web pages and future improvements that you might make but also benchmarking against competitors. We’re currently working on an update, and the new version will have more information and more up-to-date data.
For more expert advice for building a sustainable eCommerce brand (and world) download The Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook for free!