What is Digital Sustainability?

Digital Sustainability means the practice of a kind internet and digital world.

It means creating and using products, services and websites that work efficiently and easily, contribute to the greater good and don’t have anything shady going on in the background.

This is going to be an overview of digital and web sustainability, and there will be follow-up posts to expand on various topics. My references will be listed throughout this post, as well as on this dedicated resources page.


WHY does the internet and digital work need to be sustainable?

Electricity

The internet and digital work is growing rapidly, and uses vast amounts of electricity to keep running. Our devices obviously use electricity, but all the websites, apps and “cloud storage” use electricity too. They’re not just floating innocently out in the ether. All that data is housed in data centres, which “are one of the fastest growing sources of electricity demand globally, and with much of the world’s energy still produced by burning fossil fuels, they present a genuine threat to our chances of meeting the Paris Agreement goals.” ~ Sustainable Web Design eBook, Tom Greenwood. Just ONE typical data centre can use roughly as much electricity as a town of sixty thousand people (Sustainable Web Design), and there are over 7 million data centres worldwide (datacentremagazine.com).

Electricity is pretty easy to come by these days, of course. It just comes magically out of your wall without anything obvious like exhaust fumes, so it’s harmless to use in excess, right? Unfortunately, not all electricity is generated in environmentally friendly ways. There are more sustainable technologies being created and used, like wind and solar power, but when we’re still burning fossil fuels to produce the electricity to run our devices and data centres…then our Netflix sessions, websites and Fitbits all have a carbon footprint. Only about 28% of the world’s electricity comes from renewable sources, with about 60% still coming from coal and gas (iea.org).

Therefore, seeing as we’re contributing to greenhouse gases and climate change just by using the internet…we need the ways we use it to be more sustainable.

Integrity

The internet isn’t always a safe or carefree place these days. There are hackers, spammers, malware, trolls, inferior apps and software, developers and designers that aren’t supportive of their clients or hold websites hostage, and much more. For the internet to live on and be a productive, supportive place for us all, we also need to be kind to each other online. We need to provide services and products that we would want to buy and use, and share our knowledge with others openly so we can all benefit. We all need to become Webhuggers!


HOW can web and digital work be sustainable?

So glad you asked!

I personally agree with and follow the guidelines of the Sustainable Web Manifesto, created by Wholegrain Digital, who are by all accounts the pioneers of sustainable web design.

The guidelines are as follows:

  1. Clean: The services we provide and services we use will be powered by renewable energy. Some data centres are green powered, meaning that they run solely on renewable energy. There’s a list of green web hosting services on this website. You can also ask your host and if they ARE hosted green, they will be very happy to share that with you!
  2. Efficient: The products and services we provide will use the least amount of energy and material resources possible. For web design, this means creating clean and lean websites that don’t have long load times and don’t take up too much storage.
  3. Open: The products and services we provide will be accessible, allow for the open exchange of information, and allow users to control their data. People who create open source software and share their knowledge freely on places like Github are living this guideline. It’s also important for our clients to understand the web or digital services and products we provide to them, and for website users to not be taken advantage of. Read more about how to keep your website privacy focused on Fathom Analytics. Also make sure your website is accessible to users of ALL abilities.
  4. Honest: The products and services we provide will not mislead or exploit users in their design or content. You know that suspicious, defensive feeling you get when you think an email or website is trying to scam or hurt you in some way? Let’s not cause that feeling for others. Be open and honest online, and don’t trick people. It doesn’t serve anyone.
  5. Regenerative: The products and services we provide will support an economy that nourishes people and the planet. We want our work to contribute to the greater good, not add to the noise. We should always create and serve with a purpose, and always question whether that purpose is still valid. We should also support others in their endeavours, and give back to the planet whenever we can, like pledging 1% for the planet. The planet literally gives us EVERYTHING…but how much do we give back?
  6. Resilient: The products and services we provide will function in the times and places where people need them most. We should build things that will last and don’t break down. Whatever happened to buying something that was guaranteed to last a lifetime? Let’s take the extra time to build resilience into everything we create online.

What if I don’t offer products or services online? How can I make the internet sustainable?

There’s lots you can do as a user of the internet! I’ve got a starter list for you below:

  • Review the online products and services you use, and evaluate if they adhere to the list above. If they don’t, consider finding new ones. Vote for a kind internet with your dollar and your attention.
  • Take stock of your “cloud”, your email, everything that uses storage and PURGE!!! Deleting emails and duplicate photos is a great start. They’re taking up space in a data centre somewhere, and the more you have stored, the more electricity the data centre needs to use to house it and make it available to you the moment you click.
  • Evaluate your device, app and software settings. Is there a way you can save energy? Or is there data being collected on you and your actions that you’re not aware of? Look closely at social media apps especially.
  • Opt for privacy focused options as often as you can. Use Fathom Analytics on your website, use DuckDuckGo as a web browser, use Fastmail for your email…vote for privacy on the internet and it will grow.
  • Adopt a minimal mindset. Do you really need ALL those apps? All those plugins on your website? Make sure everything you have and use is serving a purpose.
  • If you have a website, talk to your web designer or developer about your load times, storage and hosting. Can any of it be improved, both for user experience and your website’s carbon footprint? Are you hosted on a green server?
  • Lastly, SHARE THIS MESSAGE of a kind internet for all. Walk the walk and people will walk with you.

“If the internet was a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter. “

~ Sustainable Web Manifesto

If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to check out the references in this post or on this page.

To learn about how my business operates sustainably, check out my About page.

I’ve also spoken about all this on a podcast!

I hope this Digital Sustainability overview has been helpful and thank you for reading 🙂