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Environmentally conscious businesses have been able to offset their travel emissions for years. It’s been great to see carbon offsetting for travel become mainstream, but now the question arises: what next? Which other business practices harm the environment, and what should we do about it?

Our digital carbon footprint is an obvious consideration, but it is difficult to quantify the impact of intangible digital products. It’s not like your phone is spitting out carbon monoxide whenever you load up Instagram.

However, that doesn’t mean online activities generate no carbon emissions. When you do anything online, from searching or visiting a website to streaming video content, energy is used by data centres, network infrastructure and your device.

Even sending emails uses energy! Maybe it’s time to replace the notice to “think twice before printing this email” with “think twice before replying to this email”?

Earlier this year I was (as always) inspired by the New Adventures conference organisers. In particular, I loved their new climate policy, which served as a reminder that when we create anything – a conference, a website – our first thought shouldn’t be how we can reduce its impact on the environment, but in fact whether the thing we’re creating is needed at all.

It has prompted me to write this blog post to look at different ways in which we can reduce the impact of our online business activities on the environment, starting with an eco-friendly website design.

How much energy does my website use?

Earlier this year I came across the Website Carbon Calculator made by WholeGrain Digital.

The Website Carbon Calculator by Wholegrain Digital.

It’s a nifty tool that lets you estimate the carbon footprint of your web page. I put my own homepage to the test. Based on my homepage loading an average 300 times a month, it found that over the course of one year, it is responsible for:

  • Creating 1kg of CO2 equivalent (the same as boiling 120 cups of tea!)
  • Emitting the same amount of carbon that a tree absorbs over a decade
  • Using 2kWh of energy, which is enough electricity to drive an electric car 7.5 miles

Apparently this means my site is cleaner than 81% of sites tested on the tool. It might sound impressive, but honestly I put a lot of effort into optimising my site, so I was disappointed not to score higher! Clearly there’s lots more work to be done!

September 2020 edit: I’m in the top 13% now, hurrah!

Will you put your site through the test? Note that the calculator works off an average of 10,000 views per month, so you will need to do your own sums based on the actual traffic your site gets.

Choose green hosting

Check if your website host uses green energy at The Green Web Foundation.

When thinking about website hosting, the primary considerations tend to be around security and reliability.

However, by switching to a green hosting company, you can significantly cut the carbon footprint of your site. Providers such as these tend to use renewable energy to power their servers, commit to carbon offsetting schemes and take care to dispose of old hardware responsibly.

The Green Web Foundation is a great tool to check if your web host operates sustainably.

You can also check out some more of my tips for choosing website hosting.

Make your website more eco-friendly

As regular readers know, I am passionate about making websites super speedy. Fast-loading sites are better for users, better for search engines, and also good for the environment as they require less energy to load.

Here’s how you can speed up your website.

Reduce the number of files that need to be loaded onto each page, such as images, videos, and scripts that run under the hood. Only include files that are useful and add value to your visitor (Do you really need that live chat plugin? Probably not). Free tools such as GTmetrix can help identify how fast your website loads.

It’s a balancing act trying to limit the number of images on a page whilst still fulfilling the endless demand for content including Bo the web design hound.

Clean code, intelligent font choices, using the latest PHP version and blocking bots are all small tweaks that you can make to improve your site’s eco credentials.

Some improvements to the user experience can also make your site more energy efficient. Don’t let people waste time on your site. Make website navigation clear, so your visitors can find and do what they need to quickly and easily.

Make sure your search listings are clear, so people know what they will get when they click on them. There’s no point attracting visitors to your website who are just going to bounce off again.

Plant some trees

After you have made efforts to reduce your carbon footprint, you can aim for complete neutrality via a carbon offsetting scheme.

Once you know how much CO2 is generated via your website or other digital activities, you can look at different projects which reduce carbon emissions by the same amount through green initiatives such as planting trees.

To mark six years in business earlier this month, I was very happy to make a donation to City of Trees.

Though not an official carbon offsetting scheme, City of Trees is a project that aims to plant three million trees during this generation across the Manchester city region.

It hopes that by transforming underused woodland, it will help Greater Manchester become carbon neutral by 2038.

Remember that before you consider offsetting your emissions, the first step is reducing what you create in the first place. If you’d like to look at improving your digital carbon footprint, I can review your website and make improvements, or help with website optimisation.

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