Why businesses can’t overlook the importance of sustainable websites

By Iris de Jong
The importance of sustainable websites

Sustainability is inching its way to the top of the agenda as organisations adopt more environmentally friendly ways of working. But emissions generated through website activity don’t appear to have a seat at the table. With the internet’s contributions to worldwide carbon emissions, the importance of sustainable websites is becoming more and more apparent. 

We recently researched the sustainability metrics of 50 UK retailers’ websites which provided a snapshot into the issues we’re facing, though it's important to note it's not an issue limited to just retailer websites. 

Here’s what we learnt.

Why websites must become more sustainable

Every time a webpage loads, it emits carbon. According to Ecoping, the average website carbon emission is 0.71 grams of C02 equivalent (CO2e) per page view. 

Which may not seem like a lot in and of itself, but it quickly adds up. The 50 UK retailers we studied combined receive about 89 billion page views per year. This equated to approximately 136 million kilograms of CO2e emissions annually, which would require 1.3 million trees to offset.

This is just a small snapshot of the UK online retail market, let alone the global impact of online activity. In fact, if the internet were a country, it would be the fourth largest polluter in the world

Even slightly reducing the carbon emissions of every web page, therefore, could have a sizable impact on overall carbon emissions.

Many organisations are making efforts to be more sustainable. But there’s a ‘but’.

It’s not that businesses are wilfully ignoring the carbon impacts of their operations. In our research, we found that 92% of the retailers included in the study detail some form of sustainability initiatives on their websites, with many focusing on reducing the impact of their products, packaging, retail operations and delivery mechanisms. On top of that, 48% of the retailers are part of the British Climate Action Roadmap commitment to Net Zero by 2040.

But it does appear they’ve overlooked the environmental impact of their websites

While there’s currently no legislation asking organisations to report on the carbon emissions from their online activity, creating a more sustainable website as part of your sustainability strategy can bolster overall sustainability efforts, help organisations retain credibility in the market and put them ahead of the game if legislation does ever come into play.

Is this an example of greenwashing, then?

We would argue not. However, as awareness of online carbon emissions grows, it could undermine the credibility of an organisation’s sustainability efforts.

A compelling example of how it can go wrong was the COP28 website. Other climate controversies aside, the website’s carbon emissions per page view were well over double the internet average. Not only that, a ‘low carbon toggle’ - a token effort towards sustainability in this case - provided a crappy experience that also didn’t do much to reduce its carbon load. 

While most organisations are unlikely to attract the same level of sustainable scrutiny as the world’s leading conference on climate change, it’s still wise to make sure any effort you’re making towards sustainability isn’t going to be undermined by a poorly performing website.

What contributes to a website’s carbon emissions?

Several factors contribute to the carbon emissions of a website – the platforms it’s built on, the server that hosts it, and how ‘heavy’ the website is to run – think image size, videos, data transfer, and how it’s coded – amongst others.

While you might think that a retail website would inherently be a ‘high polluter’, due to numerous product pages and high use of product imagery, this isn’t necessarily the case – though it certainly has that potential.

The retailers’ websites we included in the study ranged from emitting only an average of 0.15g CO2e per page view (for Screwfix) to an average of 4.36g CO2e per page view (for Amazon UK).

On the face of it, there’s not a lot that sets these two websites apart. Both feature heavy use of images, numerous product categories, and detailed product pages which include customer reviews. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot that’s going on that’s causing one website to emit a lot more carbon than the other when viewed.

Can a website be Fetching, Functional AND environmentally Friendly?

What the Screwfix vs Amazon example also shows is that there isn’t a need to compromise on design or functionality when creating a more environmentally friendly website. It’s entirely possible to have a beautiful website that has all the functionality your customers desire and have it be low on carbon emissions. It all comes down to the decisions you make when building it: from the platforms you use to how it’s designed. There are plenty of great examples of stunning websites that are also digitally sustainable, including ecommerce and retailer brands.

UK beauty brand LUSH’s website for example, only emits 0.26g of CO2 per web page visited while being an incredibly media-rich website. And American behemoth Pottery Barn’s website (unfortunately not able to be visited from the UK or EU without a VPN) only emits 0.01g CO2 for every page load! 

Snapshots of the Lush and Pottery Barn website home pages
The Lush and Pottery Barn website homepages show that a sustainable, low-carbon emitting website can be beautiful with plenty of images.

So, what are some of the ways these brands might have approached reducing the carbon impact of their website? They likely

  • Optimised the site’s performance and content (i.e. imagery) to make it faster load 
  • Made content (and/or products) easy to find through search functionality and improved navigation
  • Improved the usability across all devices to make tasks easier to accomplish – regardless of how they’re browsing the web and where, and
  • Choose a green web hosting provider that runs on renewable energy, or use of a CDN to bring the website’s content closer to the end user.

Digital sustainability can give you a competitive advantage and support SEO efforts

If the environmental angle alone isn’t compelling enough, know that websites with better sustainability metrics also tend to have a better user experience and higher Google Lighthouse Scores. 

Carbon-heavy elements tend to be slow to load while clunky user journeys mean visitors spend more time on the site to find what they’re looking for. This equals not only more carbon emissions but potentially frustrated customers who head elsewhere.

Solving these issues from a sustainability standpoint can solve them from a user experience standpoint too – and help boost SEO. 

Plus, if part of your customer acquisition efforts focuses on environmental friendliness, having a sustainable website could give you an advantage over any competitors who haven’t put in similar effort.

What steps should I take from here?

The first step to take is to ‘understand the problem’ - assess your website to see what its carbon impact is. 

There are a lot of free online tools that can help you with this and can be a great starting point. However, it may be wise to conduct a deeper analysis to get a clearer picture of what actions you need to take to improve – which is something we can help with.

Once you know what’s negatively impacting your website’s sustainability metrics: prioritise. Identify the key areas where you can make changes that will have the most impact and put a roadmap in place to work through them. This could be something simple like optimising images or could require a more in-depth redesign and/or replatform of your website.

In either case, we can help. We can provide a more robust assessment of your website, and highlight the most urgent action points. If a redesign or replatform is the best option forward, we can then work with you to identify what this programme of work could look like, recommend the best platform and technology to employ, and help you at each step of the process.

To find out more about how we can help, get in touch today.