Digital Sustainability
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Surfing the web isn’t just bad for your brain – it’s terrible for the environment


How can consumers, designers, and companies can create a better Internet?

Katie-May Boyd and Caroline Jacob

Online activity has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Accelerated by the pandemic, nearly 60% of the world’s population is online, compared with only 8% in 2001. Although digital usage and accessibility will continue to rise exponentially, there remains little awareness of the hidden carbon emissions that are produced by our daily scrolling and its damaging impact on our planet.

From the device you use to the cabling infrastructure to cellular towers and data centres, all of these contribute to the energy and electricity that’s required to run the Internet. According to the BBC, carbon emissions generated by the Internet, devices, and systems that support it account for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all aviation emissions (2.5%).

As designers working with startups and tech giants, we’ve started thinking about the future of the metaverse, the invisible impact of digital carbon, and ways in which we can encourage leaner practices when surfing the web. Because not all online activity is created equal, Internet users and e-commerce companies can actually play a role in minimising digital emission.

How can individuals cut digital carbon?

Corporations are making promises. Google pledges to run on exclusively renewable energy, while Microsoft is running on “manufactured DNA.” As individuals, we can also examine our own daily digital behaviours to move toward creating less carbon.

  • Wi-Fi vs. data: “Using a phone over a mobile network is at least twice as energy-intensive as using it over Wi-Fi,” says Lancaster University’s Mike Hazas. There is arguably no perceivable difference between browsing on Wi-Fi compared to data. We may, however, unknowingly be consuming twice the carbon by scrolling or watching our content over 4G instead of Wi-Fi.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: The embodied energy consumption of a digital device is huge. Eighty-four percent of the lifecycle carbon emission of the iPhone 13 Max occurs before you open the box. Upgrading devices less often or buying refurbished tech makes a real difference.

  • Image vs. video: Video streaming accounts for more than half of Internet traffic and is much more carbon-intensive than image or text-based content. To put this into context, scrolling on TikTok for one minute uses twice the CO2 of scrolling for one minute on Instagram.

In an even more radical move, individuals could cut out unnecessary digital interaction altogether, following a concept put forward by The Shift Project, a French think tank specialising in digital carbon impact. The Shift Project proposes “Lean ICT,” a transition that combines buying the least powerful equipment possible, changing it as infrequently as possible, and, crucially, reducing unnecessary energy-intensive activities.

By understanding the impact and consequently unpicking the way we use all digital devices, systems, and infrastructure, we can curb our over-consumption of digital content and move toward more conscious digital behaviour.

How can designers create a more sustainable internet?

Although individuals can make a difference, UX designers, software developers, and marketing teams have a key responsibility to play in minimising Internet energy use. Sustainable coding and self-sufficient Internet (websites that are locally stored and/or solar powered) are slowly making their way in, through more efficient and simplified online content.

Designers and decision makers must encourage digital sobriety and cut down energy-draining features, while ensuring digital interfaces don’t become less attractive.

Video and imagery take up most data bandwidth. By eliminating images or making them much smaller, we can reduce the size of a page and lower the energy spend. Visuals, however, are a key feature in the digital world. In an online space that’s flooded with content, we gravitate toward compelling videos and images–think about your use of on-demand entertainment services, online retail, and social media platforms. Equally, we like to consume content quickly–given the choice, wouldn’t you prefer to watch something rather than read it? Videos and images provide an immediacy that text simply can’t compete with.

The Low-Tech Magazine‘s solar-powered site takes an interesting approach: By dithering all of their images (an image-compression technique popular in the 1990), they are transformed into pixelated black and white with a full-color bleed over the top, making them 10 times less resource-intensive.

Color can also make a difference; Dutch clothing brand Organic Basics‘ low impact website has minimized the power consumption across all aspects of the website, including carefully selecting muted colors such as grey, green, and cream. These tones emit less light on the LEDs of our device screens, thus using less energy.

What’s the role for brands?

Organisations and tech giants will also have to work to make online products and services more environmentally friendly. Beyond energy wastage, this can be an opportunity to make the Internet more purposeful. Ads, for instance, take up a large proportion of a web page and, in addition to the carbon implications, contribute to visual pollution, impairing the overall customer experience. Would a world without ads be possible and, if so, what would that look like?

The European site for USA Today removed all of its tracking scripts and ads to be compliant with GDPR legislation in the European Union. This immediately shrank the site from 5 megabytes to 500 kilobytes. It still looks the same - there are just no ads. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine this becoming more widespread, given that ads pay for most of the Internet. There would need to be a colossal shift of business models to start discussing wide-spread adoption of ad-free sites.

Tech companies could also help their users better understand the problem. At the moment, our digital carbon usage is invisible and notoriously hard to work out. Can brands and designers make it easier for people to measure their carbon footprint? Instead of the “daily time limit” on social media sites, perhaps there could be a “daily carbon limit” that notifies you once you clock up a certain level of emissions. There are currently a small number of carbon-tracker browser extensions, such as Carbonalyser, which track and visualise your real-time usage. The next step would be optimising this for mobile usage and setting daily targets.

Governments also have a huge role to play, and there are noticeable failings in current legislation.

For instance, during the recent COP26 climate summit, there was a real focus on how digital technologies could enable routes to tackle climate change. Conversely, we couldn’t find any acknowledgment of the carbon impact around digital usage.

Moving forward

As we wake up to the carbon impact of digital tech and services, how will our behavior change? Near term, we’ll hopefully see an increasing number of businesses reduce their digital emissions through optimization and lean practices. Further on, as we move toward digital sobriety, we could see behaviors that once felt commonplace–like double-screening Netflix or scrolling through TikTok–as wasteful. Could video that’s deemed unnecessary one day feel like a waste of resources? In 2030, will a three-minute video of a cat “playing” the piano on YouTube be the equivalent of the demonized single-use plastic bag?

Katie-May Boyd and Caroline Jacob are CMF Strategists at Seymourpowell.