Sustainability isn’t a buzzword. As the global economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability looks set to be a key plan of recovery. Many advanced economies are looking to the potential of green industries to offer growth.

This effort will touch every sector, not just the obvious ones of renewable energy and so on. Web design is no different, although at first blush it may seem difficult to imagine what ‘sustainable web design’ might look like.

In fact, though, a lot of thought within the industry has already been put towards sustainability in website design – and how to achieve it. There’s even a website-cum-manifesto for it. It has six core principles which it says are characteristics all sustainable web design should be: clean, efficient, open, honest, regenerative, and resilient.

What does this mean? Essentially, websites burn power. Accessing data requires electricity; hosting data requires electricity. 3.8% of all global carbon emissions can be traced back to these actions. Sustainable web design is thus about reducing the demands made on infrastructure by websites.

Just because websites are paperless, and designers can work remotely, it doesn’t mean that the web is not drawing on infrastructure. Not only that but the more it draws on that infrastructure, the less stable it looks for the future. Sustainable web design creates websites which in turn create the potential for us still to be able to access websites a century from now. estimates even a basic web page creates about 20 milligrams of carbon dioxide for every second it is viewed on a desktop computer. Sustainable web design aims to reduce those emissions. In an age when more and more of the economy takes place virtually, we are only going to be using the web more; that means building it sustainably now is critical.

So what do we do? Steve Souders has estimated that around 85% of potential efficiency gains in web design will come from reworking the user interface of a site. That means changing how we code websites in order to make them more environmentally friendly.

Some of this is already in place. Many designers – ours included – already follow a mobile-first policy, and mobile devices consume less power than desktop ones. Using leaner coding techniques – like HTML5 and CSS – will also place less burden on servers. Better user experience design ensures tasks are completed more quickly. Better Search Engine Optimisation means Google will use less energy to list your site.

Many of these are “easy” wins – but they need to adopted strategically and systematically by every designer and across the piste if they are to have a big enough impact to ensure that an increasingly huge web does not consume unsustainable amounts of energy.

Perhaps next to Netflix’s bandwidth usage or the energy consumption of Bitcoin, a few kilobytes here or there seem immaterial. But we all recycle our plastic bottles these days, even if we use only three or four a week. When it comes to sustainability, every little helps. And sustainable web design is no different. 

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