Growing at a rate of 6% per year, the digital industry currently produces 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and this figure could double by 2025. While digital technology may increase our environmental footprint, it can also create opportunities to reduce it and speed up transition. We should see the digital transition as one of the major transformative forces of our times.
On November 15, 2021, the French Senate enacted a new law aimed at bringing together environmental and digital transition, known as ‘Loi REEN’ (Réduction de l’Empreinte Environnementale du Numérique – reduction of the digital sector’s environmental footprint). Its purpose is to make all stakeholders in the digital industry accountable, including consumers, digital professionals and the public sector. Everybody has a role to play, beginning with the eco-design of digital services.
The three main points of the REEN law
The REEN law includes an awareness-raising dimension, providing for education on “digital sobriety” in schools and colleges, as well as a module dedicated to eco-design in IT engineering courses, as of 2022. It also promotes a responsible strategy at local government level.
How about digital services? The law is designed to encourage environmentally virtuous digital uses, including a digital services eco-design standard (RGESN), which will define sustainable website design criteria as of 2024. An amendment requiring video-on-demand websites to inform users of greenhouse gas emissions related to videos viewed, as of 2022, was voted for by the French Senate. In the end, this measure was replaced by the publication of a recommendation by the CSA (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel – French audiovisual regulator).
While this law appears to be fairly limited in terms of concrete actions, it seems likely to be just a first step in a long series of increasingly strict measures. So, it may be a good idea to start taking action now, before it becomes a legal requirement.
Imagine : an "eco-index" displayed on every website
In order to become aware of our digital footprint and learn how to control it, we must first be able to measure it and translate it into examples that speak to everyone.
A number of companies in the private sector are starting to take a lead in this area, by choosing to display the environmental footprint of their digital services to users. In order to raise awareness, the French telecommunications company SFR has decided to display customers’ carbon footprints according to their use of its digital service.
Elsewhere, companies in the energy industry, which are directly concerned, are often keenly aware of environmental challenges and are blazing a trail in the design of customer-facing digital platforms. Dalkia (a subsidiary of EDF), for example, has created an EcoIndex score that calculates and displays the environmental footprint of each page on its showcase website.
In a similar way to France’s Nutri-Score, a nutritional rating system for food products, and DPE labels, which show energy consumption of household appliances, consumers will be able to choose more virtuous, less energy-hungry websites. Perhaps one day algorithms used by search engines, such as Google, will put “low-carbon websites” at the top of their search results!
Where to begin with an eco-design approach
Unlike traditional approaches that are based on effectiveness, eco-design is an approach centered on efficiency. While effectiveness is about using whatever means are necessary to achieve a given objective, efficiency is about using as few resources as possible to achieve an equivalent level of quality. The idea is to stop using large quantities of resources to pursue high performance levels. For example, instead of increasing the number of servers or amount of RAM used to run an application, we can optimize the performance of a service from the design stage, in order to reduce its hardware footprint. Similarly to accessibility, security and even SEO, eco-design should be considered from the very inception of a project.
To achieve this, the approach must be implemented in a cross-cutting manner and integrated into each stage of the PLC (Product Life Cycle), from the expression of need to functional design, modelling, graphic design, technical design, development, hosting and maintenance. This methodology requires collaboration across all business teams.
At SQLI, I had an opportunity to put forward this approach as part of a call for tenders, for the creation of an environmentally responsible digital platform. Based on the book Eco-conception Web / 115 bonnes pratiques (Web eco-design / 115 good practices) by Frédéric Bordage, I collaborated with a UX Designer and an Architect to identify actions to be taken throughout our tender, in order to optimize the footprint of the platform designed as far as possible.
Here are some of the good practices:
Design: eliminate non-essential functionality. During the design stage, it is essential to reduce the functional scope of the application by focusing it on the user’s essential need. Several studies have shown that 70% of functionalities requested by users are non-essential and that 45% are never used (Cat Software & Standish Group). In this way, you can reduce the initial production cost, the technical debt, the infrastructure needed for execution and, as a result, the related environmental footprint. Compare the interfaces of Google and Yahoo!, for example, and you should have no trouble guessing which one is more streamlined and user-friendly…
UX: prefer standard fonts. It is crucial to reduce the number of fonts on the website and avoid licensed fonts (such as Adobe Fonts), as these can add requests. For this tender, we chose the font ‘Inter’, which was used throughout the website. This enabled us to save bandwidth and speed up page loading.
Content: optimize images. Use the right image format: WEBP, for example, is 30% lighter than the .jpg format, and AVIF is 50% lighter than WEBP. The number of colors also affects image weight, while black reduces the amount of energy consumed by an LED screen (opting for dark mode not only improves user comfort, it also reduces energy consumption). Blue consumes more than red and green. For our tender, we choose to work with two-color images.
Server code: resize images outside of the CMS. Doing this saves a lot of bandwidth, while taking a load off processors and RAM. Servers are not optimized to process images.
Hosting: choose a “green” hosting provider. Some hosting providers offer energy-efficient servers that run on renewables, or compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions, such as Aiso and Infomaniak.
The two messages I would like you to take away from this article are: don’t wait for future regulations to arrive before beginning to adopt eco-design; start applying these good practices in your digital projects now. The earlier on action is taken in the project design cycle, from the expression of need to functional and technical design, and modeling, the greater and easier to implement the environmental footprint reduction will be.
I would add that doing less doesn’t mean doing worse. To make the digital transition a success, we need to debunk preconceived ideas: adopting an eco-design approach doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice performance, visual appeal or the user experience. Eco-design should not be seen as a limitation, an obstacle or an added layer of complexity. On the contrary, digital sobriety will offer solutions in more ways than one.