How can one practice sustainable web development?

As the floods start to subside, we need to turn not just to repair, and not just to militating against future floods, but also the issue of: how can we prevent runaway climate change, and - over many years - reverse the trend towards more extreme and dangerous weather?

In that context, I can only hope that the web design industry might think again about how it can be more sustainable. A while ago an article did the rounds suggesting that you could somehow practice sustainable web design by reducing the amount of markup you produce, which just seemed to me like a weird thing to focus on: given the minimal impact it was likely to have compared to other factors; and given often how few of the decisions about the eventual content delivered to the user (including all sorts of media) are actually in the hands of the people making the markup.

With that in mind, here are my top five suggestions for the biggest improvements - also, the ones with the most encouraging cost-benefit ratio - you can make to your business model to be sustainable.

  1. Stop flying. Seriously, cut out all flying, unless it's for medical emergencies. Don't fly to any conferences (no conference is important enough to warrant the environmental damage, whatever excuses you might have just thought up) and don't fly to any meetings: this is 2014, for heaven's sake; we have Google Hangouts, Skype, Yuuguu, Screenleap - even ad-hoc technology like If someone tries to convince you that you need to fly, as part of web development, they need to be informed about the internet. Besides, if you were afraid of flying, your company would accept you refusing to fly unnecessarily. And if you're not afraid of flying, you don't understand climate change.
  2. Avoid private, motorized transport. Stop commuting by car: work from home and commute, when you have to, by public transport or bicycle. You're not a carpenter; you don't need to build things in a different location: so build them from home. Don't make any journeys under a few miles, by car. Use public transport for journeys you can't walk or cycle: public transport is a skill and a system to be hacked, so you should learn how to work it. Almost as a by-product, watch your quality of life blossom.
  3. Power your office renewably. Switch your offices' power supplies to renewable energy. It won't cost you a penny more if you go with Ecotricity and their customer service is amazing. Good Energy are OK too, but they're a bit more expensive and they don't invest in renewables like Ecotricity do. Also, insulate your workspace: after all, you'll be working from home, so it's win-win. There used to be lots of grants for home insulation; there'll still be a few kicking around, so ask e.g. your local sustainability group.
  4. Purchase responsibly. Only buy new technology when your old technology has actually broken. Consider sustainability when you do so, especially with reference to Greenpeace's Greener Electronics Guide. Don't just make excuses because you've fallen in love with something: that new gadget will demonstrably not make you any happier.
  5. Lobby for change. Get your employer, your own company, or yourself as a sole trader to lobby for: better public transport; integrated transport; no airport expansion; no new roads; promotion of cycling and walking in cities and countryside; and, most of all, a proper response to climate change. Write letters to local councils and join local sustainability groups. The only party with a decent policy response to the flooding right now is the Green Party. Vote for them and support them whenever you can.

If you're thinking that's a tough list to tick off, you'd be right. But if you're not yet thinking that we're in a climate emergency, and that tough times are ahead whatever happens, then you're wrong. And if you're thinking it's a bit preachy, or that I shouldn't somehow be bringing politics into business... you clearly haven't witnessed businesses lobbying politicians, and/or being preachy, on whatever news outlet will host them, whenever it suits their purely financial agendas.

But if it were to be placed alongside that list, would the original idea of minimizing webpage size not be reasonable? After all, every little helps, though, right? Well, not when it's the little that actively hurts. If you're busy trimming an angle bracket here or some whitespace there, then there are two major impacts that doing so will have on your other attempts at sustainable working:

  1. Opportunity cost. If you're spending your time focussing on very small changes when you could be making the big changes instead, then the cost of one must be offset against the cost of the other. And when the client uploads a 2MB PDF alongside your 50kB of HTML (trimmed from - golly - 70kB!) then it will all have been for naught anyway. Put your time to better use: level-up on how to use local or national public transport, for example.
  2. Willpower is a finite resource. Even after you've trimmed down your webpages, then if you've still got time free to do something else, then you're less likely to choose sustainability improvements. After all, we all need downtime. But that means that, if you feel like you've ticked the box marked "sustainability" for the day, you're unlikely to pick it again as the motiviation for your next task. Focus your understandably limited attention on what will make a difference: write to the council or make arrangements for installation of cavity wall insulation. 

It simply doesn't make any sense to be sweating the small stuff while the big stuff remains untackled, leaking tons of carbon into our ecosystem while we mop up a few grammes here or there.

Let's all of us web developers, designers, project managers and the rest: stop beating about the bush when it comes to greening - properly, genuinely greening - our sector. If you're serious about sustainability, about you and your friends and your family having a sustainable, long-term future on the planet, go forth and try to do the right thing. I don't claim that my list is the perfect, absolute list of right things: but it's a good start.


Two notes on comments, as you never know what might be catnip to awful people:

  1. If these publications aren't interested in arguing about the fact of climate change, or the fact that our current predicament is predominantly man-made, I'm certainly not. Expect such comments to be deleted.
  2. You're only allowed to drag me into subtle calculations if you're already measuring your personal carbon expenditure with e.g. The Carbon Account or iMeasure: otherwise, as with angle brackets, the benefit is outweighed by the time spent on such discussions. So I might have to instead advise you to take your discussion to someone who can argue it better: a climatologist, George Monbiot, Loco2, etc.

Do remember that I host your comments - usually gladly - on my personal web real estate, which I pay for. If you put some effort into being a pleasant guest, I'll try to be a pleasant host in return.