In this series, we’re introducing the authors of The Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook, our ebook on building green and lean online stores, available to download for free here.
This time, we’re getting to know Neil Clark, service design lead at Manifesto and environment strategist at The Panoply. Neil is passionate about helping to save the planet and over the last 18 months has been researching and raising awareness of the digital industry’s impact on the climate, while identifying and implementing solutions that help reduce carbon emissions. He’s also chair of the digital carbon footprint steering committee at the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance and a member of the BIMA Sustainability Council.
Here Neil explains how design, content, and technology decisions can improve the sustainability of websites, why we need to change the way we measure the success of digital products, why every digital project should have a carbon budget to sit alongside a financial budget, and why it’s all about effective collaboration.
What does digital sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability in its broadest sense is about having everything that inhabits the earth on a more level playing field. It's crucial for governments, businesses, and individuals to put sustainability at the heart of everything they do.
In terms of digital sustainability, in particular, it's just another lens through which to look at a whole bunch of other best practices that are good for the end-user, too: SEO, accessibility, and performance, for example. It means some upfront investment but it will undoubtedly reduce your carbon footprint, which is going to reduce your costs.
At Manifesto, I talk to our clients about the sustainability of their services, digital products, and websites. It can be difficult for a small group of people to wrap their heads around the size of their footprint and how to control it. But you need to understand it to be able to implement meaningful change. That’s a key part.
What’s your chapter about?
The crux of what I go into is that you've got these buckets around content, design, and technology that you need to consider how to reduce data transfer. It’s what makes the web fairer and less carbon-intensive.
If you’re enabling someone to find content on your site really easily, for example, they won’t search Google over and over again and visit several pages just to find an answer to their question. That’s good from an emissions perspective but it’s also a good user experience.
Time on site is a key performance indicator in the digital industry. We try to constantly keep people’s attention on our sites, measuring how many minutes they spend on it and how many pages they look at. But actually, we should be flipping it on its head and measure how quickly we can get someone on a website to complete a task and then off the site to get back on with their lives.
As for the design, it’s important to have less imagery and video. That doesn’t mean black and white text everywhere, but images should be there for a real reason. We need to get rid of stock imagery and autoplaying clickbait videos.
Technology, finally, is about making websites faster and as performant as possible, which also reduces emissions. This includes static websites, the latest content management systems and decoupling them from your front-end, as well as constant code reviews.
Why should a digital project have a carbon budget alongside a financial budget?
Obviously, ecommerce sites are quite image-heavy. You need images and videos to showcase the products, but the file size is going to be big. If it eats up a big chunk of your carbon budget, you then need to figure out how to reduce emissions elsewhere on the site, if you can switch hosting providers to one powered by renewable energy, or if you can rip some emissions from your supply chain.
We need to think about carbon alongside money in exactly the same way because, as a society, we’ve got very little carbon literacy. We don’t really know where our emissions come from and what’s a lower versus a bigger emission. Putting carbon budgets on our projects is the only way we can learn to understand how to reduce our emissions. Once you know where they are, you can go and attack them.
At The Panoply, I’m responsible for measuring, reducing, and offsetting our carbon emissions. We’ve just finished our carbon audit of the last couple of financial years and now know where every bit of carbon in our business is coming from.
We discovered that 98.5 percent of our emissions are locked up in scope 3, the more indirect emissions that occur in a company. A vast majority of that is our supply chain – and we’re a digital consultancy, we’re not making any physical products! Another big chunk is employee commuting, which includes remote working. Our houses are less efficient than our offices, and we discovered that during the COVID-19 lockdowns our emissions actually increased. There’s no way that we would have known that unless we’d looked at the data.
How important are collaboration and starting conversations across teams?
When Manifesto worked with the Climate Group to reduce its digital carbon footprint, we got together as a team and started bouncing ideas off each other. The development team understood what we were trying to achieve as well as the design team. That's when the best ideas happen. People were suggesting things I would never have thought of.
One of our Drupal developers, for example, rewrote the templates that make up the Drupal content management system. It saved a huge amount of data transfers by reducing the stuff that was just baked in. No one ever bothers touching the templates because they come straight from the latest Drupal release, so people think all that stuff needs to be there. But he went in and got rid of a load of default stuff that wasn't necessary.
It’s often said that you can innovate better when you introduce constraints, and this is a really good example of that.
Are there any resources that you'd like to recommend?
Tom Greenwood's book Sustainable Web Design is excellently written and nicely steps through the phases of addressing this situation. There's an accompanying website called sustainablewebdesign.org, which Wholegrain Digital has created together with Mightybytes, which features a great list of resources.
I’ve also worked on The Green Pages by the BIMA Sustainability Council, a crowdsourced list of resources to help organisations and individuals understand, measure, and reduce their digital carbon footprint. It includes everything that we found useful when we were reading up on the subject.
I’ve also signed up to the brilliant Carbon Brief newsletter, which talks much more broadly about climate change but features a lot of information that is transferable to the digital industry, for example how sustainability is related to your supply chain and transportation network.
And way before I got involved in sustainability, I subscribed to the innovation newsletter from Springwise. Obviously, sustainability is a huge growth area in terms of innovation at the moment, and their latest newsletter – Sustainable Source – is a bi-weekly curation of the newest and most inspiring green innovations, such as new sustainable packaging materials, along with deeper dives into all kinds of challenges related to sustainability.
There’s also some new research on the carbon impact of video streaming, which suggests that the idea of reducing the data transfer of a website might actually be the wrong way to think about it. The whitepaper recommends looking more at the infrastructure because reducing the size of your website has only little impact on your emissions. This is still a young subject area that’s changing quickly.