How to Keep the Internet from Killing the Planet

Here at Spilled Milkshake Designs, we understand that part of our job is making your job easier. At the same time, modern websites have an amazing number of moving parts: even people who understand how complicated creating a web site is are surprised by how complicated creating a web site is. So particularly with first-time clients, we typically have to ask a lot of questions in order to nail down exactly what is wanted and what is expected.

We’ve recently found another question we need to add to our list: “How concerned are you with your site being eco-friendly?”.

If that question makes you say “Huh?” you’re not alone. It’s easy to think about the web as being inherently green: after all, you can shop, do research, read books, listen to music, and more–all in the comfort of your own home. That means no burning fossil fuels for driving, as well as a raft of other benefits that arguably reduce one’s carbon footprint. All you’re doing is sitting in front of the monitor: how bad can that be for the environment?

Actually, it can be very bad, collectively. A recent report by Mozilla claims that the web is the 4th-largest CO2 emitter on the planet, behind the United States, China, and India. That’s right: the world-wide web dumps more carbon dioxide into the air than most countries.

Some of the waste created by our electronic age is obvious: beyond the massive amounts of energy that are needed to create more-or-less disposable (currently, less than 1% of smartphones are being recycled) electronics, things like monitors and smart phones release CO2 in operation. And as time goes by, the problem is getting worse: one study, for example, concluded that the iPhone 6 created 57% more CO2 than the iPhone 4.

Having established that, the largest CO2 producers aren’t on the receiving end of the information chain. That same study showed how servers and data centers are on-track to represent 45% of ICT emissions by 2020: every Google search, every Facebook upload, and every dog-filter photo we post requires a running computer somewhere to calculate.

It all happens in the cloud, so we figure it’s harmless, but the system feeds on itself: bigger, fancier phones need more energy-gobbling features to justify increasingly ridiculous prices. More phones require more servers. Newer mobile apps drive the need for 24/7 servers, which leads to more advanced phones to run more apps on … it’s an endless cycle.

Amazon, according to one expert, has revolutionized how people think of online shopping. And we haven’t even touched on the massive amounts of e-waste created by things like cryptocurrency mining, or the impact the Internet of Things will have: using Alexa to turn off your lights typically uses more energy and creates more CO2 than if you had just let it burn.

So what does this have to do with web design? Believe it or not, sustainable thinking can extend to the way websites and apps are interfaced and designed. This might include sizing and optimizing all graphics–particularly videos–so as to limit the amount of energy required to process each page, or simply going with fewer cool-but-hardly-necessary features.

But from our perspective, it’s also about the user experience: we’ve always preached that simple, clear, and code-light design makes interacting with a site faster and smoother. That’s better for you, and better for your customers; what we didn’t know is that’s also better for the planet. Because every time users have to struggle through a poorly designed site trying to find specific information, they’re using more energy and indirectly creating higher CO2 emissions.

As designers and web-innovators, we believe we have a responsibility to attempt to reduce the footprint of our digital practices. We’ve decreased our dependence on energy-hungry subscription services from companies like Adobe and Microsoft, while working hard to keep cloud storage organized and up-to-date to reduce digital clutter. Our programmers are constantly on the lookout for digital bloat, redundant coding, and questionable javascript. Making pages lighter and less cluttered makes them easier to access and read, but also makes for a more sustainable system overall.

The bottom line is, nothing is unconnected: we can’t focus heavily on any one area with the belief that it won’t affect anything else. At Spilled Milkshake, we try our best to not only give you the most functional, user-friendly, and efficient sites … we also keep the “big picture” in mind, working for a web that works today … and well into the future.