‘The internet is dirty’: is it possible to design a carbon neutral website?

Our use of the internet accounts for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Lancaster University researcher Mike Hazas. This is similar to the carbon emissions from the airline industry, and it’s predicted to double by 2025. And yet, it’s a seldom discussed area of carbon emissions — probably because we’re so reliant on the internet and technology in our working and personal lives today.

Sending a single email accounts for 4 to 50g CO2e (4g for a regular email, 50g for one with a photo or attachment). Mike Berners-Lee calculated that a typical company worker will generate 135kg CO2e every year just from sending emails.

There are some simple ways to reduce our digital carbon impact: unsubscribing from mailing lists we don’t read, reducing unnecessary email correspondence (stop sending ‘thank you’ emails!), only cc in those who need to see the email, and send links to shared documents instead of attachments.

But much of our digital footprint is more difficult to mitigate. Many of us are required to use the internet in our day-to-day working lives. Much of our shopping is now done online via websites — as are our social connection.

So if the use of websites is unavoidable, is it possible to create a carbon neutral (or even carbon positive) website?

This remains to be seen. But ethical and eco-conscious fashion brand Organic Basics are giving it a go.

Organic Basics recently revealed their ‘low impact website’. Now, when you visit their website, you are offered the choice to continue browsing their usual site, or to switch to the low impact version of the website.

This low impact version of the website has been designed and built with carbon emissions in mind. Compared to a usual online shopping experience, one of the most noticeable differences is the lack of video. This is because streaming videos is energy intensive, accounting for a high proportion of carbon emissions from internet use. Streaming a 2 hour Netflix film, for instance, is roughly equivalent to making 60 cups of tea.

You might also notice that there are no photos of their clothes, with line illustrations filling the space instead.

All photos are screenshots from https://lowimpact.organicbasics.com/

If this is the case, it’s because it’s a carbon intensive time for the Organic Basics server, meaning that loading the photos will result in more carbon emissions than usual.

Of course, seeing a photo of the item of clothing you’re buying is fairly important, so you are given the option to load the photo — but it’s made abundantly clear that this will use more energy than usual (you’re even shown the figure of how much CO2e loading the photo would cause), and that if you’re looking to reduce environmental impact you should probably check back another time.

As well as this negative reinforcement, the Organic Basics website also offers you positive encouragement. If you choose to use the low impact version of the website, you’re regularly reminded of the environmental good you’re doing, with messages like:

Organic Basics have also made the coding they used for the low impact website available open source i.e. free to anyone who wants to use it, to promote sharing and learning on the topic and solutions. This includes the ten core principles the team used to build the website:

  1. Does not load any images before they are actively requested by the user.
  2. Minimizes the power consumption on the users device.
  3. Adapts to reflect the amount of renewable energy it’s currently running on.
  4. Informs the user of the impact of their browsing behaviour.
  5. Does not make use of videos.
  6. Stores data locally on the user’s device to minimize data transfer.
  7. Compresses all data to the greatest extent possible.
  8. Loads only the most crucial programming scripts, frameworks and cookies.
  9. Limits the amount of light emitted by the screen.
  10. Optimizes and limits the use of custom fonts.

In creating this low impact version of their website, Organic Basics have not only reduced the impact of their own customers and business, they’ve also effectively brought to light the environmental impact of our internet-browsing habits and encouraged their consumers to think differently about how they use websites. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty cool.

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