A sustainable website gives your business a home on the internet that minimises harm to people and planet. It is an effective sales tool, but the wellbeing of its users and the environment are considered at every stage of the design process.
If you have an eco- or impact-led business, it should be a given that your website matches these values. And I’d argue that all businesses should seek to make their website sustainable. Wouldn’t it be great if we all tried our best to ‘do no harm’? Or even ‘do some good?’
Is a sustainable website just eco-friendly?
Depends who you ask! But I would say no. I believe you need to think bigger, and more holistically, when we’re talking about sustainability and our impact on the world.
It’s a bit like trying to be ethical when you’re doing your food shopping. It’s great to buy that organic veg in cardboard packaging; not so great that it’s been picked by people who aren’t being paid a fair wage.
A sustainable website doesn’t just have a low carbon footprint*. It respects the privacy of the people that use it: no invasive cookies, tracking or analytics which gather lots of personal information. And it doesn’t give money, information or traffic to those big companies that are doing more harm than good in our world. I’m looking at you, Amazon affiliate link.
You also need to think about accessibility: who might be excluded from using your site, because of the way it has been built? And how are you treating your potential customers? Are you using sleazy sales techniques?
Which doesn’t mean that your website and business has to be practically perfect in every way to claim to be doing good. We just need to do better. Little by little, as your knowledge grows and time and money allows, make changes towards these ideals. If we all do it, and keep doing it, it adds up to a lot. Still not necessarily perfect, but making a difference.
*By the way, ‘carbon footprint’ is bit of a problematic term and it can be hard to calculate accurately. However, thinking about lowering the greenhouse gas emissions made by your website and taking some action is a good place to start.
Why does my website need to be low carbon?
So many people are under the impression that going paperless and using digital for everything is best for the environment. Don’t be embarrassed if that’s you!
Calling it ‘the cloud’ has really thrown people off, I think. It’s not a cloud, all transparent and fluffy. The internet isn’t a wafty idea floating round the world. All our websites, emails, photos, videos and documents are stored in physical machines. In big data centres, which take a lot of energy to run. And energy to keep them cool so they don’t break.
More energy is used to transmit this data from place to place, and to power the devices we use to view it all. Most of which isn’t coming from renewable sources.
Information Communications Technology, including the internet, is a massive polluter and is getting bigger all the time. A 2021 study by Freitag et al. concluded that ICT is responsible for between 1.8% and 3.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Doesn’t sound too bad, until you learn the whole of the UK contributes 0.89%.
Without intervention, this is likely to increase. More and more people are accessing the internet each year, more and more posts and emails are being sent and more websites created – as I write this, there are over 1 billion websites, of which 200 million are active.
The size of each page has got bigger over time, too. The average page size has risen 61% on desktop and 35.6% on mobile just in the last five years. That’s a lot more energy used.
We’re in a climate emergency, so we all need to do our part. Then maybe humans can survive a little bit longer on this planet.
Why does my website need to be be privacy friendly?
Have you ever spent a few minutes researching which compost bin to buy? Then for a few days everywhere you go on the internet there are adverts for compost bins? Even though you already bought one?
Companies big and small are tracking our activity and behaviour online. This might seem harmless enough: why not let them track me if I get a discount coupon for something I actually want to buy?
Tracking for ads was just the beginning. The data taken – often secretly – by tech companies is now used to influence and change our behaviour, too. The power these businesses have, including to lobby governments, means this is a threat to democracy and our autonomy.
Be part of the movement to fight against surveillance capitalism. Decide that your business won’t track its users. Avoid using the products made by these companies and inadvertently passing your customers’ data to them.
Why does my website need to be good for people?
Um, because you’re not a dick?
Currently, our society has generally been designed for one type of person, and anyone with a disability or particular access needs can find it difficult to navigate or be excluded completely. Don’t make your website part of that problem.
I would hope that you, and your business, would like to exist in a world where everyone is included and valued.
Plus, as a business, the bottom line is: the more people you welcome into your world, the more sales you can make.
But not by using underhand or dishonest marketing techniques.
If you are tricking people into buying from you, or pressuring people into spending money they can’t afford, you are doing them harm. This probably won’t be a financially sustainable way to run your business and definitely doesn’t sustain our wellbeing as a society.
What are the benefits of a sustainable website?
Doing your best to make your website sustainable means you are helping to make the world a better place. Or at least not too much worse.
A site built with sustainability in mind is also good for your users.
- Fast loading
- Clear, concise text
- No annoying cookie banners
- Getting rid of old, defunct content
- Colour schemes that are easy on the eyes
All these features and more make a better experience for the people landing on your pages, so they are more likely to stay, start to like you, and buy from you.
And lots of these things are also helpful for search engine optimisation (SEO). Which means more people arriving at your site in the first place.
If being sustainable is one of your brand values, then showing off how your website has been designed for this is great marketing. Not in a cynical, greenwashing way. But if your customers care about sustainability and you’ve put the work in to strive for that with your website, then you can tell them!
So how do you make a sustainable website?
Easy answer: get me to make it!
Longer answer: here are the elements I consider when creating a sustainable website.
I don’t mean making it pretty. This means looking at everything with your sustainability goggles on, right from the beginning of the design process.
Obviously, the primary aim is for your site to do the job you need it to do, like create more awareness, more signups or more sales. But when there are priorities to weigh up, sustainability is a heavy contender.
Every plan and choice you make. Every tool, platform or software you choose. Every problem you solve. How does this help or hinder your progress towards a sustainable website?
Remember those power-hungry data centres? Some are better than others.
Choose one that runs on renewable energy. Not just one that uses carbon offsetting: sometimes it can be unclear exactly what this means or what you’re getting for your offset buck. And I think we should avoid using fossil fuels in the first place, if we can, rather than placating our guilt by planting some random trees.
Having said that, if the hosting company also plants random trees, that’s a nice bonus.
You can also check the power usage effectiveness (PUE) of the host’s data centres. You want it to be near to 1 as possible. This shows the proportion of energy used for computing vs things like cooling and lighting.
Plan out that user journey. How can people get to the information and result they want, from wherever they might land on your website? How can that route be as clear and quick as possible? The fewer pages they need to load up before completing their mission on your site, the less energy will be used. Simple as that.
The text and placement of your main menu, buttons and links will be informed by this journey and therefore be straightforward to identify and use.
As with most of this stuff, a sustainability benefit is also a benefit for users. Your business suffers if people get confused or frustrated and leave your site disappointed.
Your copy is your website. Don’t tell anyone, but a website isn’t really a thing in its own right. It’s just a nice display case to present words in. So getting your copy right is crucial for your business, as well as for a sustainable website.
If it’s clear, engaging and speaks to your ideal client, then visitors to your website can decide quickly if your service or product is right for them, get further info, and buy it in as few steps as possible. Concise, efficient copy means fewer bytes on your page, means less energy.
AKA the fun bit, or what a lot of people think of when they think of ‘design’. We’re talking colours, logos, fonts and icons. Decisions about these happen at the branding stage, generally before you make a website. So those sustainability goggles need to get on your face even earlier than I said before!
Until recently, most devices you used to browse the internet probably had an LCD screen. This is where the screen is backlit, so the whole thing is lit up, whatever colour is being displayed. Newer smartphones are now being made with OLED screens. On these, each pixel is lit individually. This means it takes more energy to display white than black. The other colours take differing amounts of energy to produce, too, with blue being more energy-intensive and red being less, for example.
As more and more people start to view your site on an OLED screen, you might want to future-proof your brand by choosing energy-efficient colours. Thinking about your use of icons and images in your branding is part of this, as is considering ink use when you print marketing materials. The Design Council has shared some interesting insights on the choices they made for their brand refresh in 2023.
As a general rule, 2-3 fonts are enough. This keeps your brand looking cohesive. Each weight (thickness) of each font is another file on each page that takes energy to load. The fewest font files, optimised to keep them small, is what you want for a sustainable, good-looking website.
Accessibility is something else that should be front of mind right from the beginning. When choosing colours and fonts, you need to know how they might be experienced by people with vision differences. For example, you can use a colour contrast checker tool to make sure your text will be readable if you use one brand colour on top of another. Please, for the love of everything, don’t put white text on a yellow background.
This is an area where I still have a lot to learn, and obviously outlining all accessibility issues and fixes would be a whole post (or website site) on its own. But here are a few things to check:
- Is the site navigable by keyboard?
- Are your headings, links and other elements correctly labelled in your code?
- Do your buttons and links use descriptive words or do they just say ‘click here’?
- Is your text a clear, legible size on all device sizes?
- Do your images have alternative text describing what is in the picture?
- Have videos got good captions and descriptions?
- Are popups easy to close or avoided altogether?
This is a biggie. Most of the time, when I’m checking a site for one of my Green Website Audits, images are the main culprits adding weight to the pages. The first step to reducing this is consider what images you really need. Definitely don’t litter your site with stock images just for the sake of it or to break up text. Treat it like the later stages of the X Factor: each image needs to prove it belongs at the judge’s house and that it has enough talent and passion to deserve a place in the final.
Once you have your winning images, make sure they are the right size. It’s a waste to load a 3500px wide image when it will only ever be needed to fill a 300px square box.
And once they’re the right size and added to your site, you can compress their size even more, serve them in lighter formats and ‘lazy load’ so they don’t use energy unless and until someone scrolls down to them.
Videos are even bigger than images. To be honest, most of the time I just avoid using them. Ask yourself: how does this video really benefit your user? If it’s hosted using a video platform, does it need to be embedded, or could you link out to it? If you decide it’s essential, definitely don’t enable autoplay. And there are ways of serving it more efficiently.
The reason you can see and use a website is because there is a big old recipe of code behind the scenes. Slimming down and optimising this code makes sure it uses the minimum amount of energy to load everything. This also makes it load faster, which is nice for your impatient users.
SEO is short for search engine optimisation, which means taking action to ensure your site is seen properly by the little robots who organise search results. Sorting this out reduces carbon emissions because it means the people finding and loading your site are the ones who actually need and want it. No energy is wasted by someone clicking through to your site who then immediately leaves as it isn’t relevant to them.
SEO can be an unwieldly, intimidating beast but every little helps. As a starting point, get the elements of your site (like headers and links) tagged correctly in the code and write accurate page descriptions that talk to your ideal user.
Knowing how many people are looking at your site, where they arrived from and which pages they viewed can be really useful information for your business. Most people install Google Analytics for this, because it is commonly used and free. But it also harvests a lot of personal data from your users, can be overwhelming to navigate and uses a good chunk of energy to load.
I use privacy-friendly analytics in the sites I build as they do the opposite. No personal data is mined. The interface is simple, just giving me the info I need. It’s a tiny file, hardly adding to the carbon produced by the site.
Plus, if you’re not littering cookies all over the shop, you don’t need an annoying cookie banner.
Quick! Buy this thing now! It will make you constantly happy and beautiful for the rest of your life! Only £999.99. Hurry, offer ends in 45 minutes!
Yep, none of that please.
Let your website be a place where you try and connect with people you can genuinely help. Don’t pressure people to buy. Forget deceptive pricing and false scarcity. You’re not DFS.
You can’t just plonk your website down and move on. There’s no point doing all this work to make it amazing and then letting it rot. WordPress sites need to be checked regularly and themes and plugins need to be updated. This keeps your site protected from the latest bugs and baddies, working properly and looking right.
Routinely adapting and adding to your content means you are tweaking and improving your messaging as you improve your business. And SEO robots see an updated page as an active page, which helps it stay top of the rankings.
Isn’t this all just best practice?
Yes, mostly. Of course all websites should be well-structured, clearly written and fast. But it is possible to create a site that is fast enough for users and SEO but is still a bigger file size than absolutely necessary. Building a sustainable website means making all choices through that lens.
If you want to lower the carbon footprint, you consider if that video gives the user vital information in a format that suits them AND whether that’s worth the heavier page weight.
Google Analytics is seen as ‘best practice’ by many but with your privacy goggles on, it doesn’t look so good.
You might end up making changes and compromises with your design that you wouldn’t if sustainability wasn’t on your radar.
What’s the point of a few grams of carbon reduction per page when big businesses are pumping out tonnes of the stuff? This is a common question used to discourage and depress people who are trying to do the right thing.
I’m with Tesco: every little helps. And this isn’t just about your website, it’s about spreading the word so more people are aware of it. About making this standard practice. About putting sustainability front and centre of every part of every industry.
Wouldn’t you rather do something than nothing?
Should it exist at all?
The most sustainable way to shop is not to shop at all. Never mind ethically-sourced cotton, just don’t buy new clothes. So do we actually need any more new websites in the first place?
I guess not really. And I know lots of businesses who are doing just fine without one.
But the reality is that lots of businesses will struggle to connect with potential customers and make sales without an online presence. So if you do need one, make it as sustainable as you can.
What’s the wider picture?
In addition to the building of your website, there’s the environmental and social impact of the devices you use, how they are charged and then disposed of. Elsewhere in your business, there’s the power you use in your office, packaging, transport, investments, employment policies and so much more.
Your website is just a part of the sustainability puzzle. And it’s the one I can help with, which is why I just focus on that! But there’s definitely a lot more for you to think about.
Work in progress
As awareness of digital sustainability grows, so does the work to be done across the sector. I’ve learned so much since I started, but I know I still have far to go. I’m a work in progress, as is this blog post. I will definitely be returning to update it.
There is so much to building a sustainable website: you could write books about it. And people have! I just wanted to give an overview, in my own words, as so many people tell me they didn’t realise websites have a carbon footprint or privacy issues, let alone what to do about it.
I hope you found this useful. If you have any questions, please do contact me and ask. And if you want my eyes on your business, book a green website audit or learn more about my sustainable websites.