Sustainable Web Development: Is Your Website Hurting the Environment?

Sustainable Web Development: Is Your Website Hurting the Environment?

Tom Gabrysiak
Director of Technology

The most transformative technology in the last quarter-century is undoubtedly the internet.

The internet has changed nearly every part of our day-to-day lives and many of us can scarcely remember living in a time without it. The internet is so pervasive, yet we hardly consider what impact it has on the environment. From laptops and cellphones to the servers and wireless connections that criss-cross the world, the infrastructure of the internet creates an incredible amount of CO2. 

In 2019, there were 4.4 billion internet users. This number is growing at about 1 million new users each day. There are 1.5 million websites and a massive 44 billion GB of data is created per day. There are 300 hours of video uploaded every minute and 5 billion videos watched every day on YouTube alone. It’s estimated that the internet has the same yearly CO2 footprint of the entire aviation industry. 

Despite these staggering statistics, there are things you can do as a web developer to reduce the impact your work has on the environment and while still creating a better website product for your clients. You can lessen the carbon footprint of any website by following sustainable web development principles.



Switch to Renewable Energy Data Centers

The biggest impact you can make is to host your website at a data center that buys its power from renewable energy sources. 

Just in the U.S., data centers use 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually. That’s the equivalent of 50 power plants or nearly 150 million metric tons of carbon emissions. 

Renewable energy data centers are already being used by companies that run massive hyperscale data operations such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Facebook currently buys 1.54 Gigawatts of wind and solar energy. Amazon Web Services has committed to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement and reach net carbon zero operations by 2040. Microsoft has committed to spending $1 billion in carbon remediation technologies over the next four years. 

Unfortunately, there are no data centers that are completely carbon neutral, so you’ll have to find one that gets a higher percentage of its power from renewable sources. Your company can also directly purchase carbon offsets or plant trees to minimize the remainder of your carbon footprint. At York and Chapel, we have made a donation to Groundwork Bridgeport to offset the carbon footprint of our corporate website.




Adopt Sustainable Development Practices

When it comes to website design, you can control about 60% of your carbon footprint by using sustainable development practices. A lightweight website uses fewer computational resources, less energy, less bandwidth, and has the added user benefit of loading faster and running smoother. 

  • Designers can reduce extraneous content such as unneeded images in image carousels that do little to advance the narrative or provide more information.
  • Switching to the use of WebP reduces image size by 30%.
  • Using links instead of embedding YouTube videos saves nearly a megabyte of bandwidth even before hitting the play button.
  • Uploading videos in 720p instead of full HD creates file sizes significantly smaller while creating a nearly imperceivable difference in image quality on all but the largest monitors and TVs. 


Reduce Bandwidth with More Efficient Code

On the website programming side, the use of smarter and more efficient code can dramatically reduce bandwidth and improve the load time of a website. 

  • The term ‘tree shaking’ is a process whereby unused code is excised from JavaScript. CSS files can be massively complicated, so using a simple tool like Purge CSS can remove unnecessary code. Don’t include an entire framework, just include only the JavaScript and CSS you need.
  • Minify and Concatenate your JS and CSS which dramatically reduces file size. At York and Chapel, we use Webpack and Gulp to do the heavy lifting of code optimization.
  • Server-side optimization is a critical part of sustainable programming, with Gzip being the most powerful tool for on the fly data compression.
  • Using advanced proxy caching accelerators for faster delivery such as WP Super Cache, Varnish, and FastCGI Cache reduces a server’s workload and therefore its energy requirements.
  • Websites can use a CDN to store static assets and deliver them from the closest datacenter. 

There are also entire platforms that emphasize speed and size restrictions that are environmentally beneficial. An Accelerated Mobile Page (AMP) is a framework created by Google and other companies. Its sole purpose is to make super-fast mobile pages. At its core, AMP is a stripped-down version of HTML designed for mobile users with a separate desktop markup. AMP is great for building lightweight and efficient mobile websites but are not easy to implement.

These practices can dramatically decrease energy usage while also delivering a faster, more efficient website experience.



The Sustainable Future of Development

Web developers can lessen the carbon footprint of any website by following these sustainability principles. But to be viable, you must work hand in hand with your client and third-party vendors to deliver an environmentally sound solution that meets the business requirements. The reality is that it’s not much of a trade-off, because fundamentally well-designed sites that are user-friendly, optimized, and fast are also the ones that deliver the smallest carbon footprint. 

As more of our economic activity moves online, the internet’s share of world climate pollution will only grow. It’s the responsibility of those who build the internet’s infrastructure to help stem the tide of environmental damage. And as more and more companies today have sustainability mandates, the companies that can deliver sustainable web development will find an eager and ever-growing clientele.



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