Sustainable web engineering can stem the tide of digital waste

  • Insights
  • Digital product
  • Sustainability

When studies such as this one tell us online business is far more carbon efficient than physical trading - ecommerce, for example, is said to generate 17% less greenhouse gas emissions than retail - all might look rosy in the digital garden. 

But that really isn’t the full picture. According to a separate think tank report, digital waste is rapidly rising. The research suggests digital’s total carbon footprint is now responsible for 3.7% of all global emissions - overtaking the airline industry. 

What’s more, this footprint is increasing at around 9% annually; not least because we’re spending more time online, and indulging in seemingly innocuous yet carbon-heavy pastimes like video streaming and online meetings.

In fact, the bells and whistles built into websites seem to have made them far less carbon efficient - yet far more polluting - than previous versions, which were light on both file size and computing power. 

Against this backdrop, we also know that consumers are becoming savvier and more dismissive about companies that don’t do their bit to stem the carbon tide. In 2022, a Salesforce survey discovered a company’s environmental practices were a deciding purchasing factor for 78% of brand customers.

A solution is available to this quandary: not a quick-fix, rather a strategic approach that uses web engineering to cut digital waste yet boost website efficiency and user experience. It’s within the grasp of most online businesses, internally resourced or handled externally, and can make all the difference to those all-important sustainability targets.

Defining and understanding the impact of digital waste

If you do a quick search on “digital waste” you’ll likely be confronted with pages of results relating to obsolete consumer electronics clogging up landfill sites.

 But it isn’t just personal devices or even hardware such as servers that are under scrutiny. Digital activity is growing ceaselessly, and that means we must also consider the digital waste produced by websites, apps, APIs and digital tools.

There’s already a boom in resources, techniques and tools that help businesses measure how much energy a website uses, from its infrastructure to its front-end page delivery. These, for example, are a good starting point:

•        The Green Pages, created by the BIMA Sustainability Council and co-chaired by MSQ's  Chief Sustainability Officer, James Cannings

•        Website Carbon Calculator, which uses averages to measure your predicted front-end carbon emission output

•        Amazon Web Services (AWS) Carbon Footprint Tool, which measures emissions across your AWS estate

How to measure and reduce your footprint

Another approach to consider is signing up for an MMT Sustainability Assessment. Available in both full and lite formats, the assessment analyses your entire digital estate, exploring its design, architecture, engineering, hosting, content, media advertising and SEO to fully understand its impact on the environment.  

 The assessment also identifies practical next steps you can take to reduce digital waste, become more sustainable as a business, and unlock other cost and performance benefits.

As a result, you can plan to be a greener online business. But there are other benefits, too:

•        Save money - by optimising your site’s features and tools for size and speed, you’ll cut infrastructure and energy costs in the process

•        Boost UX - ramping up website speed and usability improves performance. Take consumers to the pages they’re after quicker and more intuitively, fuelling revenue growth

•        Be the best - as digital emissions become a greater part of purchase consideration, your digital carbon footprint can enhance your reputation and have a halo effect on your bottom line

 A web engineering view of digital waste

Developing a deeper understanding of your digital footprint leads to genuine benefits in terms of user experience, sustainability credentials and commercial success. 

But it takes time, effort and expertise - not least in terms of web engineering. 

MMT can work with you to replace your legacy tech with a leading, connected digital ecosystem that provides outstanding digital experiences for your customers on any device.

Partnering with our web engineering team can help you discover market-leading digital solutions, reduce digital waste and deploy value-driven digital products at speed. 

Here is just one vital top tip from the team : 

Owen Ayres portrait

Introduce global caching and reduce the size of front-end assets such as images; your site is going to load much faster and emit less C02 per page view.We discovered a customer-facing product offering from a market-leading global energy company was emitting more than 1.42g of C02 for every page load. Our work reduced this to 0.63g of C02 for the entire site.By converting it from a CMS-based server-rendering site to a front-end lightweight single page application, we prevented it re-fetching assets from a server each time someone navigated their way around the site. If we take the average of five pages navigated by each logged in customer, that is a 90%+ reduction in emissions and associated energy costs.This demonstrates the value of understanding not just what your digital carbon footprint is, but what exactly is causing it. You can then use this knowledge to implement solutions that make a real difference both to your emissions and the effectiveness of your digital services.

Owen Ayres

Principal Engineer at MMT

One  thing is clear: there’s no time to waste to tackle your organisation’s digital waste. Get in touch today.