Fires, floods, social injustices everywhere, the latest IPCC report that’s rather alarming, Covid-19, the list goes on and on… In the current context, it’s pretty difficult to not feel scared, standing still without knowing where to start to make a difference.
But I’m a firm believer that everyone can act and have an impact, no matter what the scale they’re working on is. And there is so much good in this world that there are still reasons to take part in making things better! And we know that ‘behavioural contagion’ often works: if you see someone doing something good, you’re more likely to do it too!
With this in mind, people are often surprised to learn that working in the technology industry means that we actually do contribute quite heavily to the overall carbon emissions. Perhaps it’s a new concept for you; perhaps you’re already aware of this. The internet is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. Our use of digital technologies now actually causes more CO2 emissions and has a bigger impact on global warming than the entire aviation industry. But don’t feel hopeless, we have the power to do something about it.
What can we do? The challenge is massive and it’s far from being easy to know where to start or which angle to tackle this big problem from. So we’ve started our sustainability journey here at FX Digital to find out more about where we currently stand and how we can minimise our own environmental impact.
Simple facts: did you know that by rethinking the way we design digital products, and by:
- Streamlining user journeys: the fewer steps people have to take to get to what they need > the less data has to be transmitted > the lower the carbon impact
- Setting smart defaults, using images that are better optimized & minimising the use of custom fonts
… We could actually have an impact on the bottom line and amount of energy used?!
A great article on the subject here.
But let’s dig a little deeper. What do we mean by ‘environmental impact’ exactly? We’re talking about our carbon footprint (the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, project, organisation or community). Specifically here, we are interested in our digital carbon footprint, which is the result of all carbon emissions from creating, sustaining, and using our electronic devices (mobile phones, computers, and Connected TVs).
In order to reduce our impact, the first thing we need to do is to get an understanding of where things are currently (you can’t reduce what you don’t measure!) so that we can then have the full picture to see where things can be improved and changed for the better.
The current challenges we’re facing
Lack of awareness on the subject and the big knowledge gap
- The carbon footprint of technology on the environment (of the Internet, overall) is indeed something that people don’t always realise, as it’s all happening in the background, hidden from our eyes. It’s therefore difficult to make something intangible, tangible, and it’s also rarely talked about! This global lack of awareness of the overall impact of digital technology in terms of CO2 emissions (and overall greenhouse gas emissions) means that there is an awareness challenge as well as a ‘let’s do something about it’ challenge. We need a mindset shift and this ‘sustainable’ technology movement needs to become mainstream.
- There is often an important gap between people who know/are interested in this topic and those who don’t. It all depends on your level of awareness and interest in the topic, but also your own ‘window of the world’, which is often based on your age, education, socio-economic background, cultural influences, values, media sources you consume news on, family & friends, etc etc.
Consumers have not been educated on the environmental impacts of their digital activity and many brands don’t really care about this just yet. However, the shift is starting to happen and if we can see more organisations trying to share more information and do their bit to bring about positive change, a difference can be made. Consciousness around climate and social issues is starting to get attention, but we’ve got a long way to go and we’ve all got work to do.
Complexity and scale
Gary Cook once commented that “the Internet is the single biggest thing we’re going to build as a species. This is something if we build it the right way, with the right sources of energy, that could really help power our transition to renewables. If we build it the wrong way, it could actually exacerbate the problem.”
And we are just at the beginning of understanding the problem… This brings me to my second challenge, which is about complexity and scale.
When thinking about the impact of technology on the environment, and especially about apps in general – there are a number of factors that should be considered:
- Electronic material sourcing
- Manufacturing devices
- Design and development of these said applications
- Data processing/transmission/transfer
- Cloud services, data storage and the way data centres are run
- Server maintenance
- Streaming video bandwidth & speed
- Water consumption
- Disposal of electronic material
- GHG emissions (CO2eq)
- Energy type used to power of all the aboves (e.g % of renewable energy used)
Additionally, it’s not only important to understand how much energy all of the above represent (as for the most part, the energy comes from non-renewable sources), but also what the true impact of the whole value chain is, end-to-end from upstream to downstream. This impact is an even greater challenge to comprehend and this is where the PCF (Product Carbon Footprint) comes into play. By definition, the PCF includes “the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product at the various stages of its life cycle” (product, as in physical product rather than digital, though it’s applicable to the creation of digital products too). For example, a cradle-to-gate PCF takes into account all processes from the extraction of resources, through the manufacture of precursors and the production of the final product itself, to the point at which it leaves the company. A cradle-to-grave PCF covers the entire life cycle of the product, including emissions from the use phase and the end of the product’s life.”
Getting an estimation of all of the points listed above, for each of the applications we design and build is a very tricky task to achieve, and there are many ways to go about it.
In a nutshell, digital stuff needs energy to be created/to function, and therefore creates the need to burn fossil fuels – this is why we need to look into our processes to understand our current impact and how to optimise it.
To make matters more complex, there’s no standard methodology nor base reference, no regulating body, or anything at a global level, so it’s up to us to find the best way forward.
Reframing the narrative
Finally, one of the most important challenges is to reframe the narrative about being sustainable, firstly to avoid greenwashing and secondly because simply reducing our emissions is not going to be enough. We need a new type of language that is 1) simple and clear to understand (rather than confusion e.g with Net Zero, Climate Negative, Carbon Positive, etc.) 2) that can help bring regenerative principles into the heart of our businesses (rather than focusing solely on emission mitigation/offsetting).
Terminology is a subject for another day and yet a very important one when it comes to creating new narratives around this topic and ensuring media coverage and readers’ attention and understanding. If you are interested in exploring the topic to change the narrative around climate further, start here.
A question we’ve started to work with is the following one: “What is the least impactful way to do x or y?”. From strategy, to user experience, design, to UI, front and back end development, to marketing and delivery, as well as people, recruitment, training and who we partner with.
We want to start thinking about the potential impact of what we develop:, both from a social/ethical point of view, but also from an environmental point of view. As a good friend likes to remind me, we often need to go back to that simple question, “are we being good ancestors for our future generations?”
Minimising our impact as a business and through the work we do will help us answer this question.
What’s on the table for us
There are a few avenues we are currently exploring here at FX Digital. We are by no means perfect, but we – as a business – understand the pressing need to act and are dedicated to do something about it. To kick start this work internally, a few of us have come together to create a sustainability working group as a team, that we’ve called the ‘Lord of the Greens’.
We have two big streams we are focusing our energies on to begin.
1. What are we doing internally?
- Writing and publishing sustainability principles and key objectives that we are working towards so that everyone can get behind the vision.
- Taking part in conversations with organisations like BIMA and The Drum around this topic, as well as following the insightful course created by James Cannings from MSQ on ‘How to Measure, Reduce, and Offset your Company’s Carbon Footprint‘.
- Working on our B-Corp journey; selecting partners/providers/clients in line with our values and the social/environmental standards we’d like to hold ourselves accountable for + improving the way we are in terms of social and ecological responsibility.
- Digging into what Sustainable Design and Sustainable Development means for us and how we can change processes for the better.
- Continuously and collaboratively sharing knowledge and resources, launching initiatives and tactics for everyone in FX Digital to educate themselves and be more aware, so that we all can create lasting, embodied change in our own work. This includes spending more time in nature!
- Undertaking a full audit of our infrastructure to identify and calculate our current carbon footprint so that we can make informed decisions and inform the sustainability strategy going forward.
- Continuing to learn and explore. Brainstorming ways for us to develop and integrate climate resilient processes, principles and frameworks into our own work. For example, we are developing a framework for integrating the social and environmental boundaries as part of our core processes, clients strategies and overall reflections.
2. What are we doing externally?
- Taking part in cross-agency collaboration around the topic to get inspiration and success/failure stories from wider groups of like-minded people.
- Continuing to share our progress and raise awareness around this topic on various levels at conferences, during panels and when engaging with new clients. Bridging the gap of knowledge is something we are actively working on.
What are our learnings so far?
A few months into our journey towards becoming a more sustainable digital business and we have a long way to go, but here are a few of our key learnings so far:
- Having a vision and a plan is important for your team to get behind it – narrative and framing is one of the most important things.
- Positive and encouraging stories should be put at the forefront. Making this process fun and engaging is key. Even though the situation is pretty alarming, it’s important to remember that it’s not too late and we can all make a difference, individually and collectively.
- Don’t assume people have the same level of understanding/knowledge as you have – it’s a long journey, and sustainable development should be part of all functions of a business.
- Learn, explore, collaborate, and distribute your knowledge!
- Clients are thirsty for knowledge too, but may need help being educated and understanding this new process. Sustainability still needs to be demonstrated as something that is as financially viable as the ‘old/traditional’ ways.
- Along the way, it’s important to slow down a bit and take a step back to take time and process all of this as it can be energy draining! Spend some time in nature away from the computer to reconnect with yourself, your motivations and how best you can approach this challenge.
Who can we learn from?
There are many angles to tackle this challenge from and the more knowledge we gain and share with each other, the more impactful our strategies will be, and the more we can accelerate change. Below are a few examples of people and companies we have recently taken inspiration from.
The community around certified B-Corp organisations is a very inspiring one. At FX Digital, we are currently working towards getting the certification which is a long but very exciting process. We are always looking for other organisations using business as a force for good, so that we can draw similarities with our own business and see how we could build on their great ideas/solutions.
A community where tech workers meet to discuss, learn and take climate action together. This is a very active community on Slack, with many insightful posts being shared by members from all over the world.
Communities of creatives tackling sustainability, driving change and exploring how to embed this further in everyday work.
Wholegrain Digital & Tom Greenwood
Pioneers in the field, they’ve developed a Sustainable Web Design Manifesto, a Website Carbon Calculator, a dedicated website and a book, Sustainable Web Design full of actionable tips on low carbon web design and website optimisation.
Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology
An organisation that has a mission to drive a comprehensive shift toward humane technology that supports our well-being, democracy, and shared information environment, as opposed to extractive technology – as it currently stands for the most part.
A pioneer in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainable capitalism. Notable author of Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (3Ps: People, Planet & Profit).
Jon Alexander and The New Citizenship Project
Rethinking ‘consumers’ as participants in causes rather than just consumers of products.
A work-in-progress collaborative tool that sets out to map and understand the carbon impacts associated with digital value chains.
An inspirational hub of stories and articles around that topic.
A non-profit with the mission to create a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling and best practices for building green software.
A toolkit for responsible product development which acknowledges the great power digital products have over people’s lives, the hidden social and environmental costs of digital products, and actively seeks better solutions for people and the planet.
A webpage that gathers resources for understanding, measuring and reducing the environmental impact of the digital industry.
An ecosystem intersecting Arts, Science & Technology. I’ve recently discovered them and they’re writing about important subjects that we should all consider a little more in our daily lives, such as interspecies design.
Three useful tools to understand more about your website carbon emissions.
Manifesto & Neil Clark
My friends at the Bio-Leadership Project (Andres, Jamie, Ella) who are taking inspiration from nature to define new forms of leadership and ways of working/being. Their fellowship is definitely worth checking out if you are a leader wanting to change the rules and Andres’ TEDx talk on how nature could change leadership is a must watch.
His ongoing work with grassroots and larger organisations as well as his SpaceshipEarth podcast.
A climate action group for UK tech companies (Allplants, Babylon Health, Revolut, Habito etc) committed to fighting the climate crisis. Check out their useful toolkit here.
These above are only a few resources I listed out of the great ones that are being developed on an ongoing basis. Do your research, start spreading awareness on the topic and you never know who you might meet along the way!
Because… If not you, then who? If not now, then when?
If you’ve made it that far down the article, thank you so much! Understanding that the journey is a gradual process but a necessary one is a start and taking responsibility to do better is also needed if we want to change how things are done. A change of model is now inevitable.
We have the power to shape this transition, so let’s get to work! We all can make a difference, and the more of us doing it, the greater our decisions, our choices, and our impact will be.
If you have any thoughts, opinions, resources to share and would like to chat, please do get in touch. We will continue to provide updates on our sustainability journey via the FX Digital blog, so stay tuned for more.