What is digital sustainability?

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The concept of sustainability is very broad and can cover many different topics. One of those topics is digital sustainability.

In the context in which I work, by this I mean the sustainability of websites.

Sustainable websites

You may not realise it, but every time you visit a website or use a search engine like Google, energy is needed. In the space of a few milliseconds, a lot of data traffic takes place from your computer or smartphone to one or more servers and back again.

Every website visit and every search query therefore consumes energy. How much energy that is depends largely on the website and search engine itself. So here lies a big responsibility for website owners. As an internet user, you too have a number of opportunities to contribute to a more sustainable internet.

What you as a website owner can do for sustainability

A large website where a lot of heavy content is loaded requires a lot of data storage and traffic. It is therefore important that this is as minimal as possible and that your website loads as efficiently as possible. This is also better for loading time and for search engine optimisation (SEO).

One way to achieve a more efficient website is to compress images and PDF files, use caching and deploy a Content Delivery Network (CDN).

Even if you have made your website as efficient as possible, some energy will always be consumed. Therefore, it is important that the energy consumed is generated in a sustainable way. To achieve that, choose a hosting party that uses green energy. You will find an overview of this at The Green Web Directory.

Want to know how much energy and CO2 your website uses? You can have this calculated via Website Carbon, for example.

A draft version of the Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSG) has been published since late 2023. This will be a standard that sustainable websites can meet. This will make it easier to test how sustainable a website is and what you can do to improve the sustainability of your website.

What you as internet user can do for sustainability

It helps a lot if you type the address of your favourite website directly into the search bar of your internet browser and not via a search engine like Google and then go to the website from there. That way, you get one link out of it and less data traffic is required.

If, while browsing or searching, you want to know which websites are energy-efficient and green, you can download a browser extension for this purpose that provides insight into this. One example is the Green Web Browser Extension (currently still a prototype), but there are other extensions as well.

Storing information in the cloud is incredibly convenient, but this also requires energy. Therefore, make sure you do not treat a cloud service as an online archive, but only store the data you actually need.

Certain websites or apps are notorious for high energy consumption, such as those that use artificial intelligence (AI). Think, for example, of ChatGPT or Bard. This is because a lot of computing power is needed for the commands you let them execute. From a sustainability point of view, it is therefore better if you use these websites and apps as little as possible.

You can investigage websites you often visit and apps or cloud services you often use for their energy consumption. What does the owner do to reduce its carbon footprint? Does the site or app use green energy? If not, or if the owner does not provide information about it, you can actively ask about this or ask them to switch to renewable energy.

Conclusion

Everyone has a responsibility when it comes to digital sustainability. Website owners should ensure that websites are as efficient as possible and that the energy needed is generated green. Internet users should surf consciously and not request unnecessary data.

This is a journey we need to take together. I too currently have some improvement to make in this and will share my findings on this in an upcoming post.