Key climate and environmental considerations for planning, designing, managing and procuring digital services.

This resource if for people who plan, manage or commission digital services. It will give you:

  • Key principles and considerations for building sustainable digital services
  • Questions and prompts for discussing the environmental impact of your website and digital services

We're good at focussing on creating social impact through digital services. But we also need to consider their environmental footprint and how they contribute to carbon emissions. Global internet usage makes up 3.7% of global CO2 emissions. This is equal to the CO2 emission of all air traffic. While non-profit digital services and websites only make up a tiny fraction of these emissions it is a matter of principle that we as a sector consider them in our technology decisions.

Key questions and considerations

Any digital service you offer will have an environmental footprint. This mainly consists of the carbon emitted by:

  • Energy used and waste generated to create, operate, and use the digital service (software). This is through storing data in data centres and moving it across the world through digital and internet infrastructure and devices.
  • Energy and material resources used to manufacture the digital device and infrastructure (hardware).

This helps us understand why its a good idea to optimise the energy usage, processing power and hardware use necessary for a service.

Here are key considerations and questions to ask your software developers and designers, and useful resources to help you.

1. Work in an agile and user-centred way

As a foundation, digital teams should follow principles of:

  • User-centred design
  • Accessibility
  • Agile/lean ways of working.

Working in this way ensures that your content, processes, user experiences and technology are optimised to meet user needs. This reduces the effort required to use them, and therefore the amount of energy consumed.

Working in this way also reduces the amount of effort and energy used for your staff who operate or support it.

It’s always a good idea to apply the GDS service standard which encompasses these principles.

2. Ensure that the experience works for various technology contexts

Digital services have to work well across an ever-increasing array of devices, browsers, screen sizes, technologies and bandwidth speeds.

When the content and user experience aren’t optimised for the device used, users struggle to accomplish their tasks and become frustrated. Make sure that your service is responsive and adapts across devices.

Fast internet connections and powerful digital devices might be the norm for people working in digital. But plenty of users have slower internet and less powerful devices. So shift your perspective and design for these contexts. This will create more accessible and equitable digital experiences. These in turn use less data, processing power, and therefore energy.

3. Design for accessibility and energy efficiency

Here are four ways to reduce the energy used by your services. They also make the user experience more efficient and accessible:

  1. Record and store only the data necessary. Less data = less energy to transmit = less CO2 emitted. This also aligns with good data protection practice.
  2. Simplify the user journey by minimising the number of steps and effort required from users to reach their goal or complete their task. Ensure that your website or service is easy to find in search engines, and that content on it is simple and easy to understand.
  3. Minimise the weight of pages and size of files (in megabytes or kilobytes). This means paying attention to the size of page assets, such as images, animations, embedded videos, and so on. Use imagery efficiently, and only use videos or animations when they add value to users. Some teams even consider setting a page weight budget to guide their decisions.
  4. Consider energy usage and accessibility when choosing colours and backgrounds: colour choices significantly impact an interface’s accessibility. When considering your colour palette, try to strike a balance between accessibility and energy efficiency.

4. Minimise the environmental impact of your service's technical architecture

This consideration gets quite technical. They are good questions to ask a developer or digital agency.

Is the hosting provider running on renewable energy? 

Hosting a website or service's data in data centres requires energy. When it comes to choosing a hosting provider for your web project, specify that they should run on renewable energy. Also consider their servers' location. The closer the hosting is to your core user base, the less distance data has to travel and therefore less energy is used.

How energy efficient and optimised for the long term are the servers used?

It’s important that servers which run the different applications of your digital service run on the latest technology. Server tech stacks are constantly improving to require less processing for performing the work, while using less energy. Using open source tools ensure that servers can adapt and be accessible to a wide range of developers.

5. Include environmental considerations in operational decision-making

Try to understand:

  • If and how a team balances the needs of different stakeholders (including the Earth's)
  • How transparent they are about their journey and commitments to sustainability.

Look out for:

  • Public commitments and sustainability reporting: Has the organisation made any public commitment towards sustainability? How do they work towards them? How do they report on it and how transparent is it?
  • Do they have any certifications (for example, B-Corp certification) This can show how an organisation prioritises social and environmental impact. To get certified, they have to go through a third party assessment process, which considers key aspects such as: how they make money, how they make decisions and involve stakeholders, how they measure their environmental impact, how they care for their employees etc.
  • Understand who's involved in key decisions, and how the organisation or project teams define success. Are shareholders driving decisions? Is financial performance the only driver? Are key stakeholders involved in decision making? Are any positive social or environmental impact goals driving actions?

Finally, don’t forget that working in the open and sharing tips and learnings on how you’re applying sustainability in digital services will benefit many others, so don’t forget to share your examples.

Useful resources:


Image credit: Verdant Fresh and Green Grass by Jay Hsu on Flickr (CC2.0)

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