You read your news via alerts, your shopping receipts come as an email, and you flip photos on your screen, not through your fingers. Digital products are saving trees, energy and emissions – right?

Sadly, not necessarily.If the internet were a country, it would be the 6th largest user of electricity behind China, the US, Japan, India and Russia.”  😱

As Curious Earth reported earlier this year, mining for cryptocurrency has huge environmental impacts, but it’s not just this small corner of the world (wide web) where we need to focus our eco-attention. Sustainable Web Design claims that “the internet currently produces approximately 3.8 per cent of global carbon emissions.” That puts it way ahead of aviation, which accounts for around two per cent.

Source: Organic Basics

The crux of it, is that the foundations upon which the internet sits, the hosting servers, are in warehouses all over the world, mainly powered by coal-based electricity. 

Greenpeace launched their Clicking Clean campaign in 2017, urging large tech firms to ensure their energy requirements were being served by clean and renewable sources, hopefully lessening the acid rain from your (i)Clouds. But much like the automotive industry, it’s not just about the fuel, but the design of the product being used which can separate the coal from the turbine.

I’m sure we can all think of product design tweaks which have resulted in positive changes for our planet. From simplistic metal straws, to highly innovative clean building materials (watch Catherine Mohr’s fascinating Ted Talk on this, here)

But those aren’t the type of products we’re talking about.

I’m a traditional bookish dork who evolved into a tech dork a few years ago, and it’s this realm of digital products that we are considering here. (and yes, Amazon did steal my idea to combine these two worlds in one – aka :the kindle.)

The web interface you’re browsing, the app you’re scrolling and the server you’re surfing are all products in the digital production space.

Some companies are using features on these digital products to help influence customer behaviour into making greener consumer choices:

–   On some fashion sites, ‘sustainability’ is now being used as a filter to help consumers make more responsible decisions (Okay, yes, my greenwashing alarm is whirring here, but at least it’s a start)

source: Adidas

–   Deliveroo has built in a toggle switch to enable us to opt out of unnecessary single use packaging and cutlery

Source: here

But, even though you can’t smell it, digital pollution is stack-ing up thick and fast. (get it? digital stack? 🤓) 

So what if the digital product’s design wasn’t achieving sustainable merit just by driving greener consumer behaviour – but if the design was green in and of itself? (Stay with me!)

A movement is occurring throughout the User Experience design (UX) world to achieve just this. UX designers are the creative folk in the digital space, they combine consumer psychology, graphic design and digital optimisation to design apps and websites that are intuitive, easy to use, and visually appealing in the process. Except now, sustainability is now being added to that list of requirements.

In a study the first of its kind, researchers at Bristol University conducted analysis into applying Sustainable Interaction Design (SID) to one of the most energy, and therefore emissions, intensive digital products out there: YouTube.

They found that if their developers were to use webpage analytics to determine which users were playing videos, but only in the background of their browsers i.e. only listening to and not viewing videos – they could turn off the visuals and save 1-5% of Google’s total emissions. Yes you read that right. 1-5% of total emissions.

That’s “comparable in scale to the existing carbon reductions made by Google’s purchase of renewable energy to power YouTube’s servers.”  😱😱😱

Read: The. Scope. Is. Huge !!!

So what are some other digital product design features which could reduce digital waste?

  • Accessibility: think clean aesthetics, rich content formatting and short user journeys. An inclusive design creates better performance for the end user, and fewer data transfers to the server = less energy use. 
  • Fonts: sticking to  a maximum of two font types on a page, and further non-custom ones, makes a page a lot more lightweight and therefore energy efficient. Google font systems are ubiquitous and so aid this further. 
  • Colour: a particular balance (contrast ratio) within the palette of colours used can be optimal for greener energy use. (a score of is AAA is optimum)

“Shaving off a single kilobyte in a file that is loaded two million times reduces CO2 emissions by an estimated 2950kg per month.”

This is the same amount of CO2 saved each month as five flights from Amsterdam to New York.

Yup, I’m cracking out the emojis again…😱😱😱

  • ‘Weightless content’: are the special features, whizzy graphics, interactive bots, automatic audio – actually adding value to the site? And if so, can they just be loaded when the user requests (i.e. clicks or hovers) them, or could alternatives be used instead? (vector graphics, Tiny PNGs)

Okay, so what if you’re not a digital product designer?

You can reduce your own personal levels of digital waste by:

  • Streaming videos in lower resolution
  • Removing unnecessary attachments, and deleting emails you no longer need
  • Closing tabs you’re no longer using (they keep whirring away even when you’re not on them!)
  • Clicking straight through to frequent websites via a favourites link, rather than through a search engine (or use Ecosia, who plant trees when you search!)
  • Only keeping files you need on the go in your cloud – download everything else on to a hard drive (and save £££ in virtual storage in the process!)
  • Using wifi rather than mobile data – 3G/4G intensities are significantly larger than fixed line networks.
  • Have your own blog or side hustle website? Check out its webpage carbon footprint on websitecarbon.com  and find a green server to power it at The Green Hosting Directory.

Be curious

  • Sign up to Curiously Green newsletter to learn more!
  • Follow author and sustainable digital innovator Tom Greenwood for tips and tricks on keeping the web green – @eatwholegrain

Checkout Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean campaign in detail!

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