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The unsung hero: Work behind the curtains

The world right now is in a climate crisis. We see massive amounts of plastics in the ocean and massive forest fires in Canada, sending big clouds of smoke over cities like New York. It is at times like these you realize how fragile our system is. One day everything is fine and the next day our lives have been turned 180 degrees. A crisis doesn't just hit poor people or third-world countries. It hits everyone no matter if you have an expensive apartment or not. In times like these, everyone is equal. We all know that we are in a crisis, but many still either choose to not believe it or just don't know how they can help. The climate crisis is not new to the world. In fact, already in the 1970s politicians were talking about it, and even though it is more than 50 years ago, we are still trying to wake people.

In this article, I will be talking about what we as professional web designers and web developers can do behind the curtains to make the internet more sustainable. This is a topic I was touching lightly the last time I was on an episode of the Green IO podcast (If you want to listen to the episode you can find it here: Green IO: Worst unsustainable designs). The fact is that the internet is a massive polluter, and it is responsible for nearly 4% of all the greenhouse gasses emitted every year. As the days go by more and more people get access to the internet which means even more data will be created and transferred around the world. More data, more devices, and more data transfer also mean more pollution, which is the opposite direction of where we should be heading. We should be working on making the internet more sustainable and aligning the way we use it with the green visions we have for the future.

We need effective ways of improving the internet without needing every single person on the planet to pitch in. A mission to teach and inspire every single person would be nearly impossible when taking into consideration that 5.18 billion people (64% of the world's population) have access to the Internet as of 2023.

The professionals and the amateurs

According to Forbes, there are 1.13 billion websites on the internet. 810 million of these use CMS systems such as WordPress, and there are many more if counting the numerous other content management systems available. These CMS systems have a big advantage which is to make it easier to administrate websites. Adding, deleting, and editing content becomes much faster, and it doesn't even require any coding experience. This advantage has opened the internet so that everyone can own a website and create data that will be seen by people all around the world. But what are the downsides to it?

Administrating a website no longer requires you to have coding experience or be a technological genius. In fact, anyone can set up a WordPress website in only a few steps, and be on their way adding data to the internet. This is not a bad thing in itself. That everyone can participate on the internet is a great thing, but it also opens up some downsides. These downsides have nothing to do with whether people are professionals or amateurs because it all depends on whether they are aware that data pollute and are willing to make an effort following sustainable practices. By opening up the internet to everyone you allow even more people without the necessary knowledge to make the problem bigger. This is meant without offending anyone. Imagine for a moment what the world would look like if everyone was driving around without a driver's license. We would be seeing many more car crashes, people driving drunk, without seatbelts, or maybe even sitting on the roof. But instead of allowing such behavior we realized that some order was needed, and decided to create the driver's license which is educating the driver to know and follow the rules for everyone's safety.

I am not saying that we necessarily should create a driver's license for administrating websites, but there are other things we can do. Professionals working in the web design and development industry have an advantage, and that is that we can create the tools that will change the course for the whole internet. Once upon a day, the internet was just for technologically skilled people, but today it is for everyone, and that means the tools we build should be with that in mind. Professionals can build tools that automatically follow sustainable practices and that way make an impact for thousands if not millions of people without them even knowing it.

The problem of teaching everyone

Since the 1970s people have been trying to teach everyone about the climate crisis and see where it got them. Now 53 years later they are still teaching. The world is not saved, and the problem has only gotten worse. I am not saying that it has been a waste of time because day by day there are more and more people becoming aware of climate change. But could it have been done better? Would it have been more effective if all businesses were required to follow sustainable practices so that consumers didn't have to actively make the decisions themselves based on the price or cause? I don't have the answer to whether that would have been a better approach, but I know that changing a section of code is much faster than teaching 1 million people how to do things the right way.

Let me explain. Let's say that WordPress decided that all images from now on should be in the WEBP format and that they would automatically be compressed when uploaded to the website. WEBP already gives you a lossless reduction in file size between 25%-34% compared to JPG, and if allowed to compress even further you would see a much greater reduction. Those 2 changes would require some thinking because you would need a function to convert the original images to WEBP and then another function to analyze and compress them for the user. But the development of those functions would require much less effort than teaching 810 million users to convert their images and compress them. It would also require much more effort to make them follow these steps and know why they are important. Instead a little development made an automatic change that will have an impact on all the users, and the result is much bigger than it would have been teaching them all. I know the saying about teaching a bird how to fly and it will fly by itself, but do we need all website owners in the world to have that much technical knowledge? Does the carpenter or painter really care if the images they add weigh 5 megabytes or 150 kilobytes, and can we require that they know?

The differences that impact everyone

As professionals, we have the opportunity to make an impact. The internet is now responsible for approximately 4% of the world's greenhouse gases, and it is expected to rise as the years go by. Every day more people are joining the internet experience, and people are constantly finding new ways of using it. We must realize that the internet has come to stay, so finding a sustainable way to use it is crucial.

Daily I work with developing features for a CMS system called Dynamix. I create elements for customers such as image uploads, card lists, dashboard systems, etc. But every time I build something I always make sure to think about how I can help the users create more sustainable products. An example could be a news card list that would display all of the website's news. I could create the list to simply display all the news on one page and with its original image sizes, but instead, I thought about how to improve it:

  • I added pagination to only load a few news at a time.
  • I created thumbnail pictures of the big original news image sized to the card, converted them to WEBP, and compressed them.
  • I added lazy loading to the thumbnail images to prevent them from loading before they were needed.
  • I removed fancy animations.
  • I ensured to comply with the WCAG standards.
  • I made the list accessible to screen readers and other tools.

The changes that I made to the card list made sure to reduce data as much as possible and also that it was accessible to everyone no matter their ability to use an internet device. No matter how the user is using this card list it will always return the content using sustainable practices, and all because I made it that way. Could we expect the regular person to have done that by creating those thumbnails, adding those attributes, and writing the markup that way? 

The responsibility is with us

The internet is the single biggest and most polluting machine in the world, and unless we change the course it is only going to get worse. But we have the opportunity to change it, in fact, we can make it better by adjusting a few things. The trend nowadays is to build and ship websites as fast as possible, which means cutting corners and making bad decisions. Companies focus so much on the bottom line, that they forget to build quality products, and it is not only in the web designing industry. If you take an old washing machine it would be almost impossible for you to break it, but the new ones break as soon as you look at them. I am not exactly sure why, but I expect that bad decisions, corner-cutting and bad parts are to blame for that too.

When we as designers and developers cut corners or make bad decisions we create poorly constructed websites. We might have decided to use a library or a framework that will add tremendous amounts of unused code to the code base, or maybe we added a news card list to a website with a hundred thousand viewers per month but didn't have time to do the implementations I was talking about earlier. Every decision we make is adding to or reduces the scale.

So, I would like to encourage every designer and developer out there. Say no to cutting corners, and make the best decisions for your clients and our climate. Know that it is our responsibility as professionals to help the users of the internet make it more sustainable. The changes we make behind the curtains today affect thousands if not millions of people tomorrow. 

Thank you for reading this article, and I hope it has inspired you to join the fight to make the internet more sustainable. If you would like to learn more about sustainable web design and learn practical tips and tricks you can use, then consider reading my book Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons. It contains 20 lessons spread over more than 300 pages, and it contains practical information you can take to action right away. Lastly, I will ask you to share this article with your community. We need to make as many people as possible aware of our current crisis and get everyone on board.


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