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Ready To Launch Your Low-Emissions Website?

Interactive websites loaded with spectacular animations and videos might look amazing, but they contribute much more to global carbon emissions than simple pages. Where does that leave eco-conscious brands that want both a relevant online presence and to help save the planet? BaseGVA digital director Edouard Henry unpacks this dilemma.

As each of us casually browses the internet—researching for work, looking up recipes, scrolling on social media—we’re indirectly harming the environment. Each time a page loads, a small amount of energy is used to transfer the data to your screen. Sadly, energy these days still largely equates to carbon emissions, and collectively, these add up to alarming amounts. The internet is responsible for 3.7% of carbon emissions globally (the same as worldwide air traffic) and uses more electricity annually than the UK—this amount is predicted to double by 2025¹.

Streaming services are the heaviest consumers of data (think Youtube, Netflix, Fortnite, Spotify, TikTok...), and individuals have a responsibility to consider the environmental impact of their time spent on these platforms. But even “traditional” websites are becoming more and more data demanding, due to the increased integration of visual acrobatics and interactive features.

So what can brands do to help reduce these emissions? Frankly, the best thing is to have no website at all. We’re only half-joking here. Our increasingly digital-focused society has made this option almost impossible for brands and businesses, so we have to settle for the next best thing. If the amount of data loaded on a page is comparable to the amount of energy consumed, the easiest way to make a page less harmful is to reduce the amount of data. Limit the data and the page will load faster, using less electricity, and creating what’s known as a low-impact website.

What exactly is a low-impact website?

Visit the Musk Foundation site, and you’ll see seven short lines of black type on a white background. That’s it. Whether intentionally or not, it’s one of the most extreme examples of a low-impact website, delivering only the bare essentials. But since not all can afford to be so radical, it’s helpful to understand what exactly contributes to higher energy consumption online.

There are several simple digital tools that allow anyone to check the carbon impact and sustainability of a website, including the Website Carbon Calculator and Ecograder. The former also offers a handful of examples of the most efficient sites. The majority of these use lightweight standard fonts, compressed images, and very few videos and animations.

According to the Website Carbon Calculator, the Base website is particularly bad—producing 7.61g of CO2 every time someone loads our homepage, and as much CO2 annually as boiling water for 123,721 cups of tea¹. Admittedly, we have also created many websites for brands that are not efficient by any stretch of the imagination.

But sometimes an efficient website just doesn’t fulfill the required purpose. Ours, for example, exists to showcase our capabilities and flair in creating visually driven work, with a variety of interactive features intended to seduce a visitor. And this can be true of many other companies too. But as much as we like them conceptually and visually, we have to accept the idea that high-consuming websites are probably items from the past.

So even if it sounds like we’re pushing a “do as we suggest, not as we do” position when advocating for low-impact websites, we’re very aware that what makes for a successful website is different for everyone. However, in many cases, a good website can also be an efficient one, and we have some tips to help make that happen.

Best practices for building a low-impact website

From the outset of website development, it’s important in each instance to assess for whom a particular website is being designed, and to what purpose it will serve. What is its primary function, and what does it essentially need to do? Deciding what is useful and removing what’s not is a good starting point when building any website. These choices should then drive the design, always keeping in mind that less is usually going to be better.

About 45% of web functionalities are never used, and 70% are not essentials². So the creation of Functional Units, each fulfilling a singular objective for the user, will help to streamline a site—limiting the page load time, and reducing the time spent on the site.

Bear in mind, how can a visitor get to the information or content they’re looking for as quickly and efficiently as possible? A helpful way to think about this is to consider the mobile experience first. When viewing a site on a device, a user is more likely to want to get straight to their goal. Therefore, avoiding intermediate pages, additional clicks and unnecessary information to scroll past will get them there faster.

Images are a huge data guzzler, so limiting the amount on a page (do you really need 10 of the same product?) is a good start. If they are necessary, reduce their size and weight, use optimized formats like .jpeg or .webp. Even better, vector images and compression plug-in tools will help further reduce load speeds.

Similarly, videos should only be included if essential. If so, remove any autoplay functions, and sound unless it’s necessary. The same goes for animations: users should be able to stop them. No gifs. No automatic sliders.

In terms of fonts, standard options that are already installed are much quicker to load than custom ones, and WOFF2 compression format. Links to social media accounts, Google Maps and other communications tools use a fraction of the energy as plug-ins, widgets and any third-party integrations.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s also the option to choose a hosting platform that uses renewable energy to power its data centers. Server farms consume vast amounts of energy, but luckily, The Green Web Foundation offers a directory of green hosting companies. An extreme example of sustainable hosting is Low-Tech Magazine’s solar-powered, self-hosted website, which sometimes goes offline depending on climatic conditions. This proves that it’s basically impossible to create a website that is fully self-sufficient and always online, but also that following best practices can help make a site as power-efficient as possible.

Above all, website builders should test, test, and test again throughout the development process to accessibility with low-speed connections and to ensure the carbon impact of the overall site remains low.

A dilemma or a choice?

We seem to be on the cusp of a new paradigm for website conception, tied to wider ideas of sustainability and awareness of climate impact. The car market is in a similar position. Until recently, a high-performance car was one that was fast and achieved impressive acceleration, while consuming copious amounts of fuel. Meanwhile, electric cars were better for the environment, but were expensive and difficult to charge.

Recently this has shifted. Now performance and low impact are both key factors for many consumers in determining which vehicle to buy. Maybe the best solution for some is no car at all, and opting for a bicycle or public transport instead.

Websites seem to be following a similar trend, and this is something that companies and digital developers should explore further. Perhaps, in a few cases, there is no need for a website. But if there is, experimentation and ingenuity can result in sites that are low-impact, functional and still beautiful.

If the decision to go low-impact is made at the beginning of the development process, there are many technologies and solutions available that enable the design and creation of platforms that don't require too much data to load an amazing online experience. This directory collates some of the best examples.

Just as gas cars will soon no longer be available to purchase in parts of the world, low-emissions websites could become the norm and even mandatory in the future. Until then, brands and businesses have a choice to make when developing their online presence. If sustainability is a key concern for the company overall, then the carbon footprint of its website should be thoughtfully considered as part of this.

Base is already working with clients who have put low carbon emissions at the top of their priority list for building their websites (which we’ll be announcing very soon). As for our own website, we’re hosted on Digital Ocean’s AMS3 location, the Equinix data center, which has a strong focus on renewable energy. We’re also currently investigating where best to store our images and videos, as this dictates how much of the energy used to do so is renewable. Above all, we’re excited to hear from others who are interested in creating low-impact, relevant online experiences. Essentially, there’s no dilemma here, just a choice to be responsible and build sustainable solutions.

¹Figures and data regarding internet energy consumption should be used as indications, since calculations rely on a variety of debatable factors

²Source: Ecoconception web: les 115 bonnes pratiques, 2019

Text by BaseGVA digital director Edouard Henry. Edited by Dan Howarth.