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.
Today, we’re chatting with Tim Frick, a true pioneer in building greener digital products and services. Tim started his digital agency Mightybytes in 1998, and his 2016 book, Designing for Sustainability, was the first title to combine sustainability with digital design. Tim’s passionate about helping create an internet that is clean, efficient, open, honest, regenerative, and resilient.
Here he explains why digital isn’t as environmentally friendly as often thought, suggests solutions for reducing your business’s greenhouse gas emissions, and shares what he’s learned from trying to reduce his agency’s emissions to zero.
Finding out about the impact of digital on the environment can be a real eye opener. Can you share some facts with us that might surprise people?
Sure, consider these two points:
By some estimates, the internet is responsible for about 1.6 billion tons in greenhouse gas emissions each year. Depending on which study you reference, that adds up to around 5% of overall global emissions. With our growing appetite for data, this number is rising quickly.
Over 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually, a number that’s expected to rise by 8% each year. In addition to polluting waterways and adding toxic chemicals to landfills, discarded digital devices like laptops and printers produce significant greenhouse gas emissions as well.
We often hear that digital is more environmentally friendly because it replaces paper, but that’s not always the case. A media-heavy webpage for example – if left open long enough – can have a larger environmental footprint than its printed counterpart.
Plus, digital technology is ubiquitous in our everyday lives: videoconferencing, GPS and location-based services, streaming video platforms, mobile apps, security systems, wearable tech, “always listening” smart devices, the list goes on. Then there’s behind-the-scenes computing required to host online stores, train AI algorithms, mine cryptocurrencies, process IoT data, and so on. Each of these things requires electricity and, currently, most of that electricity comes from fossil fuels, which makes the internet a significant contributor to climate change.
For eCommerce companies, emissions from transportation could be even greater than those from digital products, so it’s important to look at your entire supply chain to identify where emissions come from and how you might reduce them.
Digital technologies offer chances to improve and transform society in amazing ways. However, they are not in themselves net-zero or waste-free solutions. We have to be smarter and more responsible about how we design and develop digital products and services, including online stores.
How did you get into sustainable design, and how has the movement evolved since Mightybytes became a B Corp?
I have always been interested in using design and technology for good. How that plays out has changed over the years, but the foundation of our work at Mightybytes has always been to help mission-aligned clients build capacity and make more sustainable, ethical, and responsible digital decisions.
For years, “sustainable design” usually meant choosing recycled materials for packaging or otherwise reducing the environmental impact of a physical product in some way. Within the last few years, sustainable digital design – reducing the environmental impact of digital products and services – has become more mainstream.
Climate change is the existential crisis of our times, and we need to treat it as such. Everyone – individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies alike – must prioritize moving to a zero-emissions economy that regenerates rather than destroys ecosystems. This also means putting people at the heart of every environmental strategy since our most vulnerable communities are the most disproportionately impacted by climate change. Equity must also be a priority.
To do this, we’ll need to fundamentally redesign our products, services, and programs, the policies we turn into law, how we conduct business, and, generally, how we live our lives. It’s a lot, but entirely within our reach… if we set our minds to it. But we must act quickly.
Certified B Corps are companies that meet the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. Mightybytes has been a Certified B Corp for ten years now. During this time, and especially since COVID-19, we have seen increased interest in the B Corp movement from companies of all stripes.
With their focus on creating long-term shared value for stakeholders, this makes sense. The pandemic taught many companies valuable lessons about the dangers of short-term thinking. B Corps is modeling how impactful business can be done at a time when it’s needed most.
Mightybytes declared a climate emergency in January 2020 and has been moving towards becoming a zero emissions company. What lessons are you learning?
Learning is the keyword here. First, I want to acknowledge that this is a learning journey for everyone. While the science of climate change is clear, how organizations incorporate circular economy and emissions reduction practices into their operations will differ from industry to industry, company to company. While I think we’ve made great strides on our net-zero commitment, we also have a long way to go. We’re always learning.
Currently, 70% of Fortune Global 500 companies lack a 2030 climate plan, which is really a shame. Mightybytes declared a climate emergency to hold ourselves accountable and make as bold a public claim as our company’s resources will allow.
We have been trying to reduce our impact for years, for example with in-office composting and changing our light bulbs for more environmentally-friendly options, but in 2020 we decided we wanted the process to be more rigorous. We also measured the impact of our client-hosted websites and offset the emissions through a local reforestation project. Offsetting is not a best-case scenario, but sometimes you don’t have control over emissions reduction.
Then define and categorize your organization’s emissions:
Scope 1: Direct emissions from company-owned and controlled resources, including onsite HVAC units, company vehicles, industrial processes, etc.
Scope 2: Indirect owned emissions from energy purchases
Scope 3: Indirect not-owned emissions from a company’s upstream and downstream activities, usually in your supply chain
Next, measure emissions from the sources above to set a baseline. This can be a time-consuming process that requires mad spreadsheet skills.
Once you’ve set a baseline, create a plan to reduce as many emissions as possible over time and measure your progress.
Finally, offset what you can’t reduce to reach net zero.
I want to stress that offsets are last on the list after emissions reduction. Some companies have jumped right to offsets rather than finding the resources required to first reduce their footprint. Don’t take this approach!
Finally, earlier this year, the B Corp Climate Collective released the Climate Justice Playbook for Business. This is definitely a worthwhile read. When doing this work, it can be easy to focus only on emissions, data, and other scientific components of climate change. However, as noted above, people are at the heart of this work.
What’s your chapter in the Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook about?
In 2016, I wrote a book called Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, published by O’Reilly Media. It was the first book to apply sustainability principles to the process of designing websites, mobile applications, and other digital products. While it mentioned eCommerce practices, it wasn’t specific to eCommerce. This chapter is an attempt to help eCommerce managers incorporate responsible, ethical, and more sustainable decision-making into their work.
How can ecommerce managers get started and help build online stores that are more sustainable?
Looking at your supply chain to reduce emissions is really important. Ecommerce has a lot of transportation built-in, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Reducing these emissions is important. There are also simple tweaks we can make in the shopping experience itself like highlighting more sustainable shipping options.
Here are some specific things eCommerce managers can do:
Ecograder: Mightybytes created this free tool to help people understand how to improve digital products and services with a focus on sustainability. We’re currently in the process of redesigning it to be more useful and actionable.
What’s the next step? It’s not just about the environment, is it?
The next natural step in digital sustainability is Corporate Digital Responsibility. It’s a shared set of values and practices that guide an organization’s digital operations and data: a holistic blend of social and environmentally-focused guidelines to ethically govern how an organization uses digital tools and technologies.
It used to be that most organizations had a ‘digital’ department, usually a small team of designers, developers, and project managers who ran the company’s website and social media channels. Today, however, digital tools and practices are ubiquitous within an organization and, generally, in our lives.
Among other things, this has led to the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation, discriminatory AI algorithms, widespread privacy breaches, and the growth of the “digital divide” between those with access to digital tools and bandwidth and those without. Organizations must adopt governing practices that ensure the digital strategies we employ are ethical, equitable, responsible, and sustainable.