Carbon Footprint

How do I reduce my site’s carbon footprint?

Living and operating sustainably — as an individual and as an organization — is more than just recycling and eating better. If you’re operating a website, particularly if you’re a tech business, then your site has a carbon footprint that you need to pay attention to.

In 2010, the internet was already estimated to be emitting “around 300m tonnes of CO2 a year – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland, or more than half of the fossil fuels burned in the UK” (source: The Guardian). And that’s ten years ago.

In 2018 similar research showed the internet having a carbon footprint that is already larger than the global aviation industry. And that’s two years ago.

The internet’s illusion of cleanliness — created by our ever more polished and glossy cases and screens — masks the carbon spewing underbelly of our tech: data centers, routers, infrastructure, device charging, and cooling systems. Not to mention the actual production of all these devices.

So what do you do as a website owner? If you’re thinking that you want to reduce your site’s carbon footprint you’re thinking on the right track, and here we’ll show you a few pointers on how to do that.

In this post we’ll cover four key areas:

  1. Measurement (and offsetting)
  2. Hosting providers
  3. Site infrastructure
  4. User experience (and design)

Measurement (and offsetting)

We won’t go into a lot of detail on this topic because it will be covered in a separate, and more in-depth, post. But ultimately, if you want to optimize or reduce something, measuring a baseline is usually a good idea.

Currently its hard to get an accurate reading of the true carbon footprint of your site. Even more so if you’re running a fancy React (or similar) app.

However you can get a sense of how your site fares by simply plugging in your site URL into (which will also give you a few handy recommendations).

If you’re technically inclined you can delve a bit more deeply into your site’s footprint by using the open-source API the above tool is based on.

Although this approach is not super accurate, with some back-of-the-napkin math you can work out your site’s carbon footprint on a monthly basis. By simply multiplying the grams of CO2 your site emits per visit by the number of visits you have, you can easily get a ballpark figure of how much you should be offsetting.

Hosting providers

It will come as no surprise to you that your hosting provider is a big link in the carbon emission chain. In fact, where you host your site or app can have the biggest impact ultimately on your site’s footprint.

This is because for your site to be online, your hosting provider is using an array of machines and servers housed in data centers (typically) all over the globe. Each of these data centers uses vast amounts of electricity not just for keeping the lights on, but also for cooling (computers create a lot of heat).

So one of the biggest things you can do is switch to a “green” hosting provider. While we are not linking to any just yet (we are still vetting them) you can find a fair few from a simple search and the things you need to look out for are:

  • Energy sources. Are they using their own energy sources, are they using third-party renewable sources, or are they using coal- or oil-fired sources?
  • Cooling systems. Are their data centers located in areas naturally suited to cooling? Are they using natural cooling systems or are they using brute-force air-conditioning? Is their data center layout conducive to natural cooling?
  • Recycling approaches. Are they re-using the heat generated from their machines to power (or heat) other parts of their operation? Are they re-cooling their water and reusing it?
  • Organizational culture. As a company, are they genuinely committed to being carbon neutral? Do they offset their travel and promotional footprints or are they just greenwashing?

True green hosting services are likely to be more expensive than the cheapest you can find. But bear in mind that the expense there, is, well, offset by the fact that you will pay less in offsetting. (And of course you can sleep happier.)

Site infrastructure

With hosting out of the way, you should turn your attention to how your site is actually built and served. Put simply, the fewer requests and kilobytes your site needs to load on a user’s browser, the smaller its footprint.

This section is possibly the easiest for experienced designers and developers to understand intuitively because, luckily, the things that make a site “greener” are the same things that make a site faster. And we know that high-speed sites tend to perform better in terms of their effectiveness.

The things you should ask your designers and developers to look out for here are:

  • Making each page as small as possible. This includes things like removing unnecessary scripts, code, and html. Minifying external assets like CSS and JavaScript files. Reducing the number of requests by combining assets. And zipping or compressing assets where possible.
  • Aim for static HTML performance. A static HTML page is always better (carbon and speed) than one generated on-the-fly. While its not always possible to serve static HTML (ideal), you can implement clever caching strategies that approximate the effect.
  • Reduce and optimize API calls. This one sort of speaks for itself but, to summarize, each additional API call adds to your carbon footprint to reducing the total amount of requests, combining them, and reducing the amount of data transferred each time is important.
  • Image optimization. Try to use smaller images. This could be using SVGs instead of pixel-based formats, reducing the file size of photos, and not pre-loading too many images if they’re not necessary. (The same applies for video.)
  • Device awareness. When creating responsive versions of your site or app aim to reduce the assets and calls required as the device screen size reduces.

User Experience (and Design)

Finally we come to the actual design and user experience of the site. While this may at first seem far-removed from carbon footprints the truth is that they can both have a big impact.

On the design side, you have the following opportunities:

  • Use less images. Optimized images are great, but the best optimization is no image. Challenge your designers (or yourself) to achieve the same stunning visual effects without requiring vast amounts, or large, images.
  • Limit animation and auto-play. Videos are huge carbon sinks. Reducing animation, animated images (GIFs), and auto-playing videos will have a big positive effect on your site.
  • Reduce brightness. The brighter your site colors, the more electricity the user’s device requires. I don’t mean you should use black backgrounds, but even going from a bright white background to a light grey or pastel shade can help.

And lastly on the user experience side of site design, there are various factors you can pay attention to:

  • Information architecture. The less clicks a user needs to make to get to the most popular content, the less pages loads required, and consequently the less carbon emitted.
  • Simplification. Reducing the number of steps in any flow — search, signup, checkout, common tasks — directly impacts the number of page loads per user session.

Carbon Footprint

Why should I care about my site’s carbon emissions?

Good question. Chances are that if you’re reading this you already have a gut feeling that there’s a good reason to care. There’s a few different reasons that I personally thing are important. (And a few have direct business impact.)

Ultimately the main reason I think you should be caring is the same reason for which you should be caring about everything else: its good citizenship. We have ample evidence that carbon emissions change our environment for the worse and we’re already seeing direct effects of that change.

But let’s break that down into some specifics.

Personal and business ethics

Simply put, there is a good reason to care about the carbon emissions of all aspects of your personal life and business operations. From travel, commutes, and office or household operation to food production and clothing, everything can have a positive or negative impact.

If you simply think of carbon emissions as “littering” it might become easier to grasp. We tend to frown upon littering of any kind: be it simply throwing a wrapper away in the street or leaving a mess in the office toilets. There are good reasons for that including respect for co-workers and neighbours, creating or maintaining a good home or work environment, and basic hygiene.

Carbon emissions are a form of litter as well. Just because we don’t see them directly doesn’t make that any less true.

So just like after an expo or conference you clean up your shit, you should be cleaning up after yourself on the broader environmental level as well.

And for many businesses, especially online-based operations, the website used to sell your products or provide your service is something you should pay attention to. Once again, just because you don’t see the direct effect (much exacerbated by the fact that the actual hosting typically happens very far away from your physical location) doesn’t mean its not there.

Therefore if you subscribe to the fact that carbon emissions are a form of litter, than you should care about your website’s emissions even if they’re not in your backyard.

Improve company culture and employee retention

Being an ethical organisation contributes to a world-class company culture, which in turn attracts top talent, which in turn attracts loyal customers. Its a simple equation that has been well-explained by better people than me.

Environmental ethics are the next step of world-class company culture. They go hand-in-hand with diversity, inclusion, income equality, parental rights, and flexible work environments.

On the flip-side you also stand to create strong bonds with your staff and generate higher levels of employee loyalty. More and more people are looking to work for companies who have genuine environmental credentials. Caring about your environmental impact — including at the website level — is likely to generate stronger feelings of pride in your workforce and long-term reduce your staff turnover.

Promotion and customer loyalty

Not every customer cares about environmental issues but it’s a growing segment. And all indications are that it will keep growing.

Customers of all kinds are both being pressured to make more environmentally conscious choices and they’re becoming much more educated about the issues involved.

Being able to genuinely say on your website that your service is provided in a carbon-neutral way (even if its just the website for starters) will help you attract a new and growing group of people. If you want to think about it in pure economic terms, it’s the same reason companies publicise their sponsorships of local or global charities and groups.

There is also a first-mover advantage here. Being a carbon-neutral tech business is a not a common thing but it will likely become one. Acting early and being one of the first will make sure that you’re not playing catch-up down the line.

Additionally, you can use your environmental credentials to deepen your existing customer loyalty and improve retention. If you’re not sure how, your marketing department can probably come up with some neat ideas but, at a basic level, even including a short note in a regular newsletter or at the bottom of transactional emails can make an impact.

Ensure the industry’s sustainability

If you’re a climate emergency agnostic (or denier) then this bit is probably not for you.

But if you do think that human-made climate change is a problem, then you need to understand that its a growing problem. We have not yet hit a downturn in global CO2 emissions and while governmental policy changes are required for a that, personal and corporate responsibility are also a big part of the equation.

The unfortunate logical conclusion to this (without being too doom-and-gloomy) is that without collective action we are going to hit a point of significant disruption to what we nowadays consider “normal life”.

This includes the ability of online business to transact.

So if you care about your employees’ welfare and your ability to remain in business for the long-term, then paying attention to your carbon emissions — and this includes your website — is of extreme importance.