“We believe that technology and renewable energy will not be enough to save us. And that for once, we should try to go low.”
The metaverse is more real than you think. And no, we’re not talking about the latest hyperrealistic VR experience or the customisable retro-looking virtual office you can build to socialise with remote colleagues. The internet and all the weird & wonderful things we do with it have a very real environmental impact.
We may like to think of it as an immaterial space whose limits are the ones our imagination imposes, but the internet exists on Planet Earth and just like many other human inventions, it’s using up its resources. Or as Nicolas Paries, designer and co-founder of low-carbon design studio Hey Low, likes to put it:
“We think that data is infinite, unlimited. But it is actually stored in huge data centres that need a lot of electricity. There’s nothing up there in the clouds.”
Together with social designer Saskia Rysenbry, he created Lowww, a directory of lightweight websites built to inspire actors of the digital industry to design and build lighter and more sustainable products.
Low carbon websites work by minimising the page weight (in kb). A lighter page weight entails removing or optimising old fonts, decluttering, removing filler images and videos that autoplay.
Although the internet does help reduce our emissions (think Zoom instead of flights for business conferences, e-books and emails instead of paper letters and printed books), every visit to a website has a carbon footprint and as our online habits demand more, so do our online spaces. Back in 2008, the median size of a web page was 530kb. Today, it’s 2150kb.
Data centres consume 200 terawatt-hours of electricity use each year (about 0.8% of global electricity demand) that add to the energy needed to produce and charge devices. Estimates tell us that our devices, the internet, and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions — similar to those of the airline industry — a number that’s increasing every year. And our love for new tools and toys doesn’t help: 53 million tons of electronic waste were dumped in 2019.
Nico compares the impact of heavy websites to that of plastic bags: “We all know now that it’s not just one plastic bag (or one website), but the impact of millions of plastic bags and millions of websites. However, restrictions are starting to appear for plastic, a tangible and visible material, while most of the internet remains hidden (without any restrictions.)”
If you search online, you’ll find plenty of directories showcasing the work of web designers. But the most popular ones usually focus on websites that although beautiful, are heavy and data-rich (think of video games, for example.) Lowww wants to show that there are alternatives — you can have a stunning lightweight website without any downsides to the brand experience.
Nico believes that we need a greener web and that although individual choices help, we shouldn’t shame individual consumers as that’s not where the responsibility for systems change lies. We should be looking elsewhere:
“Actors in the digital sector should be the ones responsible for ensuring that it is sustainable by adopting practices and policies to grow an internet culture that reduces its impact on the environment, and it is as important as combatting fast fashion, intensive farming and ocean waste. Why? Because the digital products we produce do not justify the energy and carbon expenditure. On top of this the deceptive content, attention economy, advertising networks, and mass data gathering for private companies must be challenged.”
Nico says that although tech companies are pushing the metaverse (which he considers “an ecological disaster”) and trends that require heavy websites, designers and developers can choose to go the opposite direction and focus on sustainability. Low-carbon design doesn’t only mean less clutter but also experimenting with fun elements like new, independent typography.
While working on Lowww, he realised that the most important lesson he was learning was that “we can do better with less. Low carbon websites are simply better websites,” because they are faster, a great asset for digital businesses, and allow us to more with less.
Going forward, Nico hopes that Lowww and Hey Low will build a network of digital experts (from developers to marketers and copywriters) who want to make lives more sustainable online and offline. The mission of their design studio “is not limited to improving website performance. Because we work exclusively with companies and organisations committed to social and environmental justice, we are all on the same team. They win, we win.”
AtlasAction: Nico and Saskia see Lowww as a collective tool for the web design community. Have/know a low-carbon website that should be included? Send them an email.
Don’t have a website? Lead a greener digital life by keeping your devices for as long as possible.
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