Sustainability is rightly becoming more widely discussed within the web development industry, just as it is an increasing concern in the wider public consciousness. Many countries around the world have committed to ambitious climate goals, although many have some way to go if they are to meet their targets.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that we, as individuals, can use our skills to have a positive environmental impact within a digital organization.
One of the first hurdles to implementing sustainable practices within an organization (or on a project) is convincing stakeholders that it is worth the investment. Any change of practice, however small, will probably require some time investment by employees. Being able to present a business case, and demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the costs, will help justify focusing resources in the area of sustainability.
It would be great to think that for every company, the idea of building a better world trumps financial concerns. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, that’s generally not the case. But there are plenty of actions we can take that reduce our environmental impact and reduce costs (or increase revenue) at the same time.
For example, changing our database architecture to be more efficient could save on server costs. Making performance improvements to a client’s site could result in happier clients who send more business our way. Identifying where sustainability and cost savings overlap is a good place to start.
Certainly, organizations positioning themselves as environmentally conscious increase their chances of attracting sustainability-minded candidates for recruitment as more and more people seek meaningful work.
When presenting the case for investing time in sustainability efforts in an organization, it can be helpful to explain the relevance of small actions on a bigger scale. For example, Smashing’s editor, Vitaly Friedman, makes a case for reducing the size and quality of images on a site by explaining the overall cost and CO2 savings when taking into account page views over an entire year.
Affecting change at an organizational level is nearly always easier when you build consensus.
Once you have a team, you’ll be in a good position to plan your actions. It can be hard to know where to focus your efforts first. One way we could do this is by drawing a diagram and sorting potential actions according to their impact and effort.
For example, switching to a green hosting provider could be a small-to-medium effort but result in a high impact. Re-writing your web app to use a more lightweight JS framework could be an extremely high effort for a relatively low impact.
The goal is to identify the areas where your efforts would be best focused. Low-effort/high-impact actions are easy wins and definitely worth prioritizing. Achieving a few aims early on is great for moral and helps keep the momentum going. High-effort/high-impact actions are worth considering as part of your long-term strategy, even if you can’t get to them right away. Low-effort/low-impact tasks might also be worth doing, as they won’t take up too much time and effort. High-effort/low-impact actions are generally to be avoided.
This isn’t the only way to prioritize, however. Other factors to consider include workload, resources (including financial), and the availability of team members. For example, if your development team are particularly stretched thin, it may be more prudent to focus on goals within the areas of design or project management or prioritize actions that can be easily integrated with the development workflow in a current project.
Where sustainability goals align with cost-saving (such as reducing server load), we may be able to measure the impact of the financial savings we’re making. But we should be careful not to conflate the two goals.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to making your digital organization more sustainable, here are a few areas to think about.
Clean up your dependencies and remove the ones you no longer need, especially if you’re working on a project or package that will be installed by a lot of developers. Consider whether a static site might serve your needs better than a bloated WordPress project in some instances. (Eric’s article also includes a bunch of other great tips for building more sustainably.)
It’s probably fairly obvious, but reducing our electricity consumption by switching off or powering devices when we don’t need them and switching to a green electricity supplier could make a big difference.
Does your team regularly drive or fly for work? It might be helpful to set some organization-level targets for reducing carbon-intensive travel and looking for sustainable alternatives where possible. Driving and flying are among the most polluting activities an individual can engage in.
If you work for a big corporation, the battle to get climate action on the agenda may be uphill — but, on the flip side, your efforts could have a far more wide-ranging impact. Small changes to improve the carbon footprint of a site can have a big impact when that site is used by millions of people. And in an organization of thousands, corporate policies on sustainable travel and electricity use can save a lot of carbon emissions.
By taking action at an organizational level, you’ve already extended your sphere of influence beyond just yourself. Encourage the people working at your company to be vocal about your climate commitments. We have the power to inspire action in others.
However we choose to take action on climate change and sustainability, it’s imperative to exclude no one. We should make sure our actions don’t overtly or covertly place undue burdens on already-marginalized people, including those with disabilities, people of color, those living in developing countries, people with below-average incomes, or LGBTQ+ people. Climate change is already exacerbating inequalities, with the people causing the least pollution the ones at the most risk from its effects. We must ensure that whatever climate action we take, we’re making fair and equitable decisions that include everyone.