What is Sustainable Web Design, and How Can You Implement It?
The Importance of Sustainable Web Design
Web technology can potentially benefit society and the environment, but only if we use it wisely…
With sustainability becoming increasingly important, many businesses are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. After making changes in their operations, it seems logical for their technological impact to be the next step.
The environmental impact of the web has been widely publicized and accounts for 3.7% of global emissions. So, more designers are looking to make their sites sustainable to ensure they do their part to preserve our environment.
If the Internet was a country, it would be the 4th largest polluter.Sustainable Web Manifesto
Thanks to technological advancements like the Internet of Things, developers can integrate sustainable design into your home or business in previously impossible ways! One of the newest and most rapidly growing areas of web design is sustainable web design, which focuses on reducing your website’s carbon footprint and increasing its energy efficiency.
Yet, despite being a popular topic of conversation in 2023, there is still some confusion about sustainable website design.
In this post, I will explain sustainable web design and how you can make your website more environmentally conscious.
Let me begin by answering a few common questions.
What is a Sustainable Website?
Sustainable websites are designed with the future of people, our planet, and profit in mind. They run on renewable energy and consume the least amount of it. In addition, they are ethical, value-adding, and non-exploitative.
Why Should Websites Be Sustainable?
While it has become common practice that the media, as well as users on social media, rip on big oil for being a key contributor to the climate crisis and blaming politicians for not setting realistic climate goals, there is not a lot of attention given to the environmental impact of the internet – despite its rapid growth.
Technology sits at the heart of our professional and personal lives. The number of connected devices is rising, expected to reach 55.7 billion by 2025.
Digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and their energy consumption is increasing by 9% annually.
The internet emits 1.6 billion annual tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Removing all this carbon would require covering 1/3 of the world’s land surface with mature forests!
This trend is why we need eco-friendly websites.
What Is Sustainable Web Design?
Sustainable web design is building websites to minimize environmental impact, conserve energy, and use resources efficiently. In other words, sustainable web design is about creating good sites for the planet.
So, how does website design influence global emissions?
A recent study has shown that daily screen time has increased by nearly 50 minutes per day since 2013, and the average American spends 7 hours and 4 minutes looking at a screen each day.
As we surf the internet, there is an issue that many don’t consider — how our online actions may affect the environment around us. Website designs cause global emissions in two ways- by using electricity or other resources and emitting harmful gasses into the atmosphere from their operations. That’s where sustainable web design comes in.
The answer may seem vague in the first go, but it involves everything from the size of your fonts to the images you choose to publish on your site. Everything has an effect, and these little things add up in time, which makes them a significant contributor to global carbon emissions.
The easiest way to lower the footprint is by minimizing waste when designing a new site or maintaining an existing one. I will outline some ways you can do this below.
Benefits of Sustainable Web Design
Sustainable web design is beneficial for the environment and enhances conversion rates effectively. Green websites convert better than those not environmentally friendly. The notable advantages of sustainable web designs include the following:
Simple & Intuitive User Interface
A green website typically has an intuitive user interface that is easy to navigate. Users never feel lost or confused about where they need to go next. With a clean, simple layout and thoughtful placement of information throughout the site, visitors have no problem finding what they’re looking for quickly. A business must keep its users’ needs at the forefront when designing its site.
Faster Speed Performance
As more internet consumers continue to access content online, it’s become increasingly crucial for businesses to ensure that their sites are mobile-responsive. Mobile responsiveness ensures that sites load faster on smartphones when done correctly, increasing customer satisfaction.
In addition, since most mobile devices run on battery power, companies must ensure their site doesn’t unnecessarily drain energy from these devices.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Sustainable web designs are SEO friendly as they do not require additional code changes to rank on search engine result pages. Thus, having a green site gives you an edge over your competition.
Performs Well on Diverse Screen Sizes
One thing that sets a green website apart is its ability to perform well on diverse screen sizes. Viewing content won’t be an issue no matter what device a visitor may be browsing on.
Features of Sustainable Web Design
The following examples showcase a variety of sustainable web design techniques & features that you can use to create beautiful, effective websites.
- Uses Minimalism: One of the most critical aspects of sustainable web design is minimalism. You can create websites that load faster and use fewer resources using less code, fewer images, and smaller files.
- Optimize Images: Images are often the heaviest elements on a webpage, so optimizing them for the web is essential. Compressing them ensures that they take up less space and load efficiently without slowing down the rest of the page.
- Uses CSS Sprites: CSS sprites are a sustainable web design technique that combines multiple images into one file. So, while they require more work upfront, they save bandwidth in the long run because all the image data is stored in one place rather than spread across several pages.
- Leverages Code Reusability: It’s important not to look at web design as a one-time process. At PixoLabo, we keep track of any scripts or templates we have created and reuse them when possible.
- Eliminates Redundant Files: Websites often have redundant files. For example, having an index.html and index.php file wastes unnecessary disk space and slows load times. The developers eliminate these files effectively, which ensures reduced disk space and quicker web loading.
- Responsibly uses Rich Media: When designing your website, you want to focus on content, not features. If you add too many features, you slow down your site because it has to process more code each time it loads.
- Integrates Readymade Solutions: Many readymade solutions exist for the most common website problems. You should always try to find a solution before creating something yourself if it saves you time and energy. For example, WordPress already has modules for integrating social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel!
Understanding Your Digital Footprint
An organization’s digital footprint grows as it produces content, launches websites, shares marketing updates, hosts virtual workshops, upgrades cloud accounts, and designs more apps to meet evolving business needs. Here is one example:
- A single email with a photo attachment can emit as much as 50 grams of CO2e. (e = “equivalent” to include greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide.)
- While that may seem like a small amount, think about how many emails your organization sends daily.
- Now, multiply that by every digitally-enabled organization in the world.
And that’s just email. It’s easy to see how we reach 1.6 billion tons in annual GHG emissions.
Many organizations don’t regularly audit their online presence, which causes millions of websites to contain unread blog posts, broken links, bloated images, and out-of-date content. These issues frustrate users, waste energy, and cost time and money, impacting an organization’s long-term sustainability and bottom line.
While many organizations assess the environmental impact of their office space, supply chain, or business practices, they rarely audit the carbon footprint of their online properties. Given the rate at which the internet is growing, this needs to change.
Sustainable Web Design Practices
Sustainable web design is a hybrid blend of environmental conservation principles and performance-based web and usability standards. Businesses and organizations can apply to the life cycle of any website, app, or online media to maximize efficiency, increase usability, and improve performance.
Sustainable web design can also reduce the environmental impact of your digital products and services through green hosting, carbon measurement and reduction, minimizing electricity use, and so on.
The practice of sustainable web design falls into these categories:
- Web Performance Optimization: How quickly do assets download to a user’s device?
- Content Findability: How quickly can users find the content they need? And how applicable is that content once users discover it?
- Usability: How quickly can all users accomplish tasks across devices and platforms at various bandwidth speeds?
- Green Web Hosting: Are the servers hosting your digital products and services powered by renewable energy?
More recently, two significant additions were added to the sustainable web design lexicon:
- Client and Project Ethos: What are your digital projects promoting or selling? How do you execute them transparently and effectively?
- Business Practices: How does your organization embody these same principles?
How to Make Your Website Sustainable
1 – Start by Planning Your User Journey
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, user journey refers to the sequence of actions a user will take when visiting your site to achieve a particular goal – a signup, a purchase, etc.
For obvious reasons, users prefer shorter journeys, as they don’t waste time. Aside from customer experience, though, they will also visit fewer pages to find what they need and thus reducing the carbon emissions from their visit.
It’s better to familiarize yourself with user journeys and then adapt your web design to them once you can freely design your journey maps.
A good user experience (UX) that avoids friction points will inevitably result in lower energy consumption and happier customers.
2 – Choose a Green-Powered Hosting Provider
I know this sounds a bit self-serving since we are, in the end, a hosting provider, but the reality is that whoever powers your website daily will matter if you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Data centers consume, unfortunately, a significant portion of the energy that goes to power the internet. We must transition rapidly to 100% renewable sources.
Choosing a provider with sustainable hosting powered by renewable energy is a must-do. It’s also a good idea to look at their overall environmental policy and check if your hosting provider has taken additional steps to make up for their CO2 emissions and is involved in other sustainability practices.
3 – Opt for Responsive Design
Choosing a responsive design may not appear like a sustainable web design practice, but it is one. Responsive design is a web design that adapts to different screen sizes devices – vital in today’s world of multiple devices and screens accessing the internet.
Opting for this kind of design means your website will adapt to the different formats, and you can lessen your resource consumption in the process.
It would help if you were mindful of ensuring your site is super quick for mobile users with intermittent or unreliable connection speeds. With most sites on the mobile-first index, Google will also look at site speed from their mobile crawler – so it pays to prioritize mobile users.
4 – Make Information Easy to Find
This one aligns very much with the Sustainable Web Manifesto’s guidelines. For environmentally sound web design, you should try to make information easy to find. Accessibility is critical not only for a greener website but also for a better user experience.
It all comes down to how simple it is to navigate your website. Simple navigation reduces the time people click on your website, scouring for the necessary information. Doing this will also help in giving your customers total transparency.
5 – Cache Everything!
Caching is necessary for sustainability if you use a PHP-driven application, as many websites do (WordPress, Magento, Drupal, etc.).
If a site has no caching, you make the server work harder. Each time someone accesses a page on your website, the page content has to be loaded on the fly by processing the PHP code, making queries to the database, and turning this into the HTML content that displays your website.
This process uses more of the server’s CPU, memory, and disk, consuming energy. The server would need to do this for every visitor and every page, so the more visitors and pages you have, the more energy you consume.
With caching in place, most of this intensive workload is only done the first time a visitor requests a page. The resulting HTML is then stored in a cache so that each subsequent page load doesn’t need to do all that heavy lifting.
What’s more, your pages load faster. Faster page speed is not only a win for you and your visitors but also means that your visitors spend less time idling, waiting for the page to load – consuming less energy in the process.
There are many ways to cache websites; at PixoLabo, we prefer WP Rocket for page caching. Super-fast websites and better sustainability – what’s not to love?
6 – Write and Use Clean Code
Most users will use a CMS, yet if you write some code, ensure it’s easy to understand and change and avoids unnecessary duplications and operations.
7 – Avoid Needless Plugins and Addons
This step is relevant to the rule above but for people who use a CMS like WordPress. Sometimes we may get too excited with all the possibilities the plugin market offers and drown our website in unnecessary plugins.
That’s often the case with marketing–oriented plugins or duplicated ones we’ve forgotten about. Assess what you have, then what you need, and give the boot to anything else.
8 – Avoid or Limit Custom Fonts
This fact may come as a surprise, but custom fonts can increase the file size of your website].
Your custom font file may easily exceed 200kb while including a single weight. If you use various weights and typefaces, this will inevitably add up, thus impacting both speed and energy consumption.
Therefore, you should use custom fonts only if you feel they are essential to your brand and practical purposes.
9 – Use Media Files Wisely (and Optimize Them!)
It should go without saying that you must optimize all imagery on your website should. We know that from the best practices related to website speed (and SEO). We sometimes see customers asking why their site is slow, only to find that the home page includes 4MB of images because they’ve uploaded super large originals! Those same images can be served without reducing quality by optimizing them.
Imagify for WordPress includes automatic image optimization, so you don’t need to worry about doing this yourself. Moreover, it can convert images to modern file formats such as WebP, which are around 25% smaller than PNG or JPG images.
Beyond optimization, we must also consider whether their use is justifiable and purposeful.
For example, some product photos could be useless (e.g., very similar angles). In other cases, images used on the page, like random stock imagery, can be easily replaced with alternatives like SVG graphics, or the same effect be achieved through CSS styles.
10 – Lazy Load Below the Fold Content
Each of your web pages may contain a lot of content ‘below the fold’ – that is, content that isn’t visible unless the visitor scrolls down your page.
If this includes lots of images or video, which may be significant in size, all of that data has to travel across the internet even though it might never be viewed.
Lazy loading means that you request this content only as the user scrolls down your page. Those sections will appear just before that content comes into view, so from the visitor’s perspective, it’s as if it was always there – there is no perceivable difference.
Not only are you avoiding transmitting unnecessary data, but you’ll also improve your PageSpeed score by making your website less weighty.
Some applications have built-in lazy loading, or you can use a plugin. For WordPress, LiteSpeed Cache includes a lazy loading feature capable of loading anything from images, videos, embedded content, or even entire HTML blocks if your page is super long.
11 – Limit the Use of Videos and Animations
You don’t need to make your website look like a Word page and avoid videos and animations like the plague, but like with imagery, use them frugally instead.
Animations typically have no tactical purpose, so use them as minimally as possible. With videos, it strongly goes to what purpose they will serve, so if you think they are helpful to your users, use them; make sure they are as optimized as possible.
Again, you might already be doing this for speed purposes, but if you aren’t, let’s quickly go over why.
Minifying your code strips all of this unnecessary weight, reducing the size of the files that need to be transferred across the internet and making your site load faster.
WP Rocket handles this aspect for you for WordPress, but most other applications will also have a similar feature available via a plugin.
Whereas minification strips out unnecessary data, it isn’t analyzing whether your site uses any of that code.
You may have used a theme or page builder that includes many different layouts, styles, or functionality that you never use anywhere on your site.
All of the code will remain in your CSS and JS files, increasing the amount of data that has to be transferred across the internet and making your site slower to load for no good reason.
It can be hard to work out exactly what code to strip out manually, but for WordPress, WP Rocket allows you to remove unused CSS automatically. This process strips out unused CSS and generates a unique CSS file for each page. Removing unused CSS may be worthwhile if you have only a few pages, but using a single CSS file may be more efficient if your site has many pages.
Ultimately the best advice is to avoid using page builders or bloated plugins wherever possible and use clean code you know is required.
14 – Optimize your Website for Different Devices
Testing your site on numerous screen sizes, browsers, devices, and bandwidth speeds can be time-consuming, but mobile-friendly web design is essential. The incorrect display of content and design will lead to poor UX and confusion among users.
They will spend much more time finding whatever they seek, consuming more energy.
To avoid this, ensure your design adapts well to as many of these variables as possible to provide an optimal experience for users.
15 – Use a CDN to Serve Your Content
So what is a CDN? A content delivery network (CDN) is a network of servers in different geographic locations. They will help your content load faster by serving from a location near your users. In other words, this is linked both to speed and user experience.
More importantly, though, from a sustainability point of view, this helps reduce CO2 as transferring data to different parts of the world requires a lot of energy. And the further the data travels, the more energy it needs.
It’s also good to mention that images served via CDN are typically smaller if you somehow skipped this step. Many CDNs will provide you with tools for image optimization, including reducing the image’s size, pixel density, format, and compression.
Choosing a CDN that uses renewable power, such as Cloudflare, is essential.
16 – Audit your Content to Ensure it Delivers on Strategy
If you have a large website, periodically auditing its content is critical. Some pages will inevitably become obsolete or will no longer serve their purpose. This is especially true for knowledgebases, product pages, blog posts, etc.
You can either inspect them manually or use Google Analytics to assess what pages can be out-of-date or underperforming. You can then decide whether to update them with helpful, fresh content or delete them.
17 – Reduce Your CO2 Emissions by Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint
Participating in projects that plant trees and offset carbon is a fantastic way to improve the sustainability of your web design and your business overall. Trees are absolute winners in reducing CO2 emissions, as they absorb and transform them into oxygen.
Our friends at Treebuddy Earth can help.
Making Your Website Climate-Friendly
Adopting sustainable web design is a perfect way to use your business as a force for good. There is a lot of confusion about what an eco-conscious website is. Sustainable web design is designing web services that prioritize the planet and people.
Sustainable websites must be profitable, mind the planet, and generate value for people long-term. Tools such as the Website Carbon Calculator provide a rough estimate of website GHG emissions.
To achieve website carbon neutrality, you can host it on green energy. We recommend providers who indicate that they buy from a trustworthy green energy supplier and who can resort to REC-based green energy.
You can also reduce its power consumption through file size, speed, and usability improvements. The most promising is focusing on search intent, video, image, and plugin/script optimization.
Lastly, you can compensate for your GHG emissions through carbon offset projects. Creating a sustainable website is neither a precision landing nor a PR campaign. Be bold in overcompensating your carbon footprint but humble and self-aware in your communication.
Sustainable web design positively affects the environment, society, and the economy. You can incorporate an array of practices that embody the principles of sustainable web design. However, the most important one must be reducing your resource use.
Do You Need to Build a Sustainable Website?
Then, if you believe we are a good fit for your sustainable web design needs, let’s talk! We offer a full range of consulting and design solutions for businesses and product brands.
And if you are still unsure how to build a sustainable website, let’s talk. We will listen to you, answer your questions, and determine how to build a green website for your business or product brand!
What Would You Add?
What are your thoughts on sustainable websites and the future of web design? Will we finally see sustainability issues at the heart of new web frameworks and included among best practices? What more can be done to make a website greener and more efficient?
We know there are other things out there that should be on this list, so please share your thoughts. What else do you need to build a sustainable website? Are there items on this list that you do not think are important?
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For more content relevant to your business or product brand – check out the range of articles on our web design blog. (This one, exploring the impact of artificial intelligence on web design, is an excellent place to start!)
Thank you! We appreciate your help ending bad business websites, one pixel at a time!