We’re in a climate emergency. Many of us – including the team here at Supercool – feel the need to do more to reduce our negative impact on the planet. And the fact you’re reading this suggests that you want to do something about it too. Great!
But it can be difficult to know where to start. Or even to know what it is you can actually do to make a positive difference.
We’ve learned a lot on our journey towards becoming a more sustainable company, and this resource includes some of what we’ve discovered along the way.
A selection of practical actions, tips, and suggestions – the aim is to make it easier for you to make your digital engagement activities better for the environment.
And I’d love for you to come away from this thinking of being more sustainable not as ‘hard to do’ or ‘a bit of a slog’ – but as something positive, uplifting, and meaningful. Because even the smallest changes can make a big difference.
Research suggests that powering the internet globally will use a fifth of all the world’s electricity by 2025. This is a shocking, quite mind-bending prediction – but I’d like you to remember two things:
1. Digital communication is a relatively energy-efficient and cheap way of communicating. So it’s not going away anytime soon. We’re only likely to increase our internet use, so have to accept that we’ll need a lot of energy to power it.
2. We can do something to help – by preparing for that upward trend in internet usage. How? By choosing renewable energy sources, and reducing the amount of energy we use for digital communications – both en masse and as individuals.
Before working out what changes you’d like to make, you may find it helpful to first ask yourself:
Your answers to these questions will help you to create a realistic plan of action – setting out what changes can be made, when, and by whom.
Where can you make positive changes?
There are some obvious answers to this question – alongside some other, more hidden opportunities to improve sustainability. We’ll start with the most obvious your website.
It’s likely that your website is the place where you have the most control. A mix of quick wins and longer-term changes means this is where you should be able to make the most significant, meaningful changes to your digital activity.
Your website: Procurement
If sustainability is important to you as an organisation, you probably want to work with partners and suppliers who share these values.
If you’re at the start of procuring a new website, make sure sustainability is included in your brief. You needn’t say much – even just that it’s important to your organisation, and/or should be a consideration for the new website.
It can then be useful to review the responses:
- Was your reference to sustainability acknowledged?
- Did the respondent give details about their approach to sustainability?
- Did they provide any examples of their approach in action?
- Do their values around sustainability align with your own?
Many design decisions that are good for sustainability are also good for accessibility, website performance, and user conversions. Wins all round. Whether you’re starting a design from scratch, or working with your digital agency to improve the design of an existing website, here are some basic tips for keeping design ‘green’:
Images and video
Video (especially auto-play) and photographic imagery are some of the most energy-hungry content. So, keep these to a minimum within the design. Both in terms of how much they’re used, and the size at which they’re used. Less is more – and smaller is better!
Giving your content plenty of space isn’t just a general rule of thumb for good design. (Thoughtful use of space makes it easier and quicker for people to take-in content.) Allowing space – around images and video in particular – makes those elements smaller. And even a small reduction in the width/height of an image can mean a comparatively big reduction in file size.
It may seem counter-intuitive but darker colours use less energy. A bright, white background looks crisp and clean – but that illumination uses lots of energy. Black is the most energy-efficient colour and, interestingly, green and red pixels consume about 25% less energy than blue. But even an off-white background on your website can save a little energy.
A ‘custom font’ is one that’s not already installed on a device as standard. Those already installed are ‘system fonts’ e.g. Ariel, Calibri and Verdana. Every custom font on your website is an extra bit of code. And every bit of code increases the energy it takes for the site to work.
Unless your brand identity uses system fonts, you’ll probably have custom fonts on your website. One of the easiest ways to minimise the energy fonts use is to include as few – in as few weights – as possible in the design.
Short, simple user journeys
When planning – or refining – key user journeys it’s worth remembering that shorter journeys are appreciated by users, and reduces the amount of time they spend on your website. In the context of sustainability, that’s a good thing. (Though there’s a balance to be found between a quick website visit, and meeting your business objectives.)
Getting rid of barriers – such as pop-up banners, lengthy check-out processes, and hard-to-comprehend text – leads to a more efficient user journey. Therefore a more energy-efficient website.
It’s particularly important to steer clear of ‘dark patterns’ which intentionally trick people into actions they may not have intended. (Such as auto-adding donations into baskets, or having confusingly-worded checkboxes within a sign-up process.)
Getting rid of barriers – such as pop-up banners, lengthy check-out processes, and hard-to-comprehend text – leads to a more efficient user journey.
Your website: Content
We know that images and video content are big users of energy so:
- Be sparing with video or image content
- The smaller you display images and video, the better
- Consider using graphics instead of photographic imagery – .svg and .png files are generally smaller than .jpg images
- Make sure image files uploaded to your website are prepared for screen – don’t upload print-resolution images
- GIFS are great fun, but heavy on the processing. So check file sizes before uploading, and use sparingly.
Use of language
Short, simple sentences and plain language can make your website better for the environment. This is because it helps people to consume your content quickly and efficiently. Which means they’re not on your website for long, which uses less energy.
- Write in short, simple sentences
- Use the words your visitors use, and may be searching for
- Review the ‘reading age’ of your content using a tool like HemingwayApp
Don’t overload pages with content
It can be tempting to cram lots of information onto every page. But this is often a false economy. The more content on a page, the more energy it will take to display it to your visitors. And the more likely they are to miss something important due to information overload.
- Only add content you need to – be ruthless!
- Keep pages succinct
- Always include a clear call to action
Calls to action
All content should serve a purpose, and guide visitors towards taking a specific action:
- Make the most popular end-goals really easy for users to find – for example, buying tickets for an exhibition might involve clicking a large button that says ‘Buy tickets’.
- Keep calls to action audience-focused – is what you’re saying useful and relevant to them?
I’ve written in more detail about calls to action here: How to create engaging, effective calls to action
Talk about sustainability!
Include what you’re doing to become more sustainable on your website. This may be in a specific ‘Sustainability’ section, but it can also feature in news articles, and elsewhere. For example, on your ‘Visit Us’ page, share greener modes of transport – walking, cycling, train, bus – before driving directions or car park details.
- Share what you’re doing in terms of sustainability
- Look for opportunities to bring sustainability into all areas of your website
Content strategy and planning
Having a well-considered content strategy and plan for the future, will help you to stay efficient. And help you to keep the amount of content on your website in check.
- Keep your content creation process efficient
- Consider the format of your content – can it be made in a way that means it to be used across different platforms (for example: your website, email, and social)?
- Follow good housekeeping principles in your website’s content management system (CMS) – remove unused assets e.g. images, logos etc.
- If your website is built using a modern CMS, you probably have lots of flexibility over the main menu and navigation. This is useful – and a little dangerous! Take care that any changes to navigation are minimal, and don’t slow down your users. (And avoid the trap of segmenting content in a way that makes sense to you or your organisation, rather than to your visitors.)
- Can any of your content move from print to online-only? We created a nifty online Annual Review template for New Adventures. The New Adventures team creates each new Annual Review in-house. (Although the use of video is energy-intensive, the resources saved by not designing and printing physical copies every year means that, over time, this online version becomes more energy-efficient, more efficient in terms of the time taken to produce it, and more cost-effective.)
Plan-in time for content reviews to:
- Update information that’s become out-of-date
- Remove pages if they’re rarely/never visited – as long as they’re not required for legal purposes, for example, Terms & Conditions
- Identify existing content that could be reused or repurposed – rather than creating something new
- Find out what content your visitors are most – and least – interested in. Create more of the former, and less (or none) of the latter
Embed sustainability opportunities for visitors
Consider incorporating carbon offsetting into your purchase path for tickets. This may be something your ticketing CRM (Customer Relationship Management) provider can help you with?
For example, for their 2021 season, Chichester Festival Theatre piloted a partnership with UK social enterprise, Ecologi – offering audience members the opportunity to offset the carbon impact of their journey to the Theatre and plant trees.
Not every aspect of your website is within your control. But even when you’re unable to make changes yourself, you may be in a position to influence others.
If you have the capacity and resources, here are some things you may want to talk about with your digital agency:
- Design – Are there any changes you could make to your website’s design, based on suggestions in the Your website: Design section?
- Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – Helping people to find things quickly makes user journeys more efficient, which uses less energy. Which is what we’re aiming for. Good SEO is key. This may be something you have some control over within your website’s content management system (CMS).
- Tracking – Every piece of tracking code added to your website increases the power it takes to run it, so make sure you’re only tracking what you need to.
- Hosting – There’s a lot going on behind the scenes to store and deliver a website, and lots of different considerations when it comes to reducing energy use. It’s not as simple as choosing a ‘green’ hosting provider – we’ve written more about this in The mysteries of ‘green hosting’. If you have one, ask your digital agency how they’re making your website run as sustainably as possible.
A quick and convenient way to communicate, social media channels are a great way to keep people engaged with you and your work. But they do have an environmental impact, which it’s useful to consider before posting.
Here are some tips to keep things efficient:
- Create a social media plan:
- What channels do your visitors use? Use them too.
- Realistically, how often can you post to each channel?
- What content do people engage with the most?
- Make every post purposeful – you don’t have to tweet for the sake of tweeting ‘once a day’, for example
- Be succinct – Twitter has a 280 character limit already, but this has also proved the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of Facebook engagement
- Consider the environmental impact of images – and don’t upload huge files.
- As with your website, go easy on the GIFs. They’re great fun but energy-hungry
- Share old content – for example #ThrowbackThursday. Reusing existing content is great – it’s quick and easy, and you won’t be adding to the content already online
- Talk about your environmental / sustainability initiatives on social media – it’s positive news, and worth sharing with the people who love you and your work.
There are some very simple things you can do as a first step towards making your emails greener:
- Review and cleanse your database regularly – perhaps as much as every month or two, depending on how quickly it’s growing
- Only use images if you have to – and limit yourself to two to three images per email
- Keep your copy short and sweet – your readers may well also thank you for this.
- Review the frequency of your mailings – consider reducing the number of mailings you send.
Often an overlooked part of your digital environmental impact is the hardware you use every day.
A significant amount of energy goes into the mining of raw materials and production processes that make computers, phones, tablets, etc. This is known as ’embodied carbon’.
- Keep your equipment in good working order – including making updates and upgrades – so that it all lasts as long as possible
- Only buy new when you really need to – and when you do, invest in good quality, energy-efficient tech
- Don’t keep laptops plugged in when charged, and switch your machine off at the end of each working day
- Consider the environmental impact of your ‘retired’ kit:
- Could it be refurbished, or parts of it recycled?
- You may want to partner with a company that can help you with this
- On a similar note, perhaps consider buying second-hand machines. Cultivating a ‘pass it on’ culture rather than scrapping unwanted goods can be a helpful way to look at this.
Make your plan of action. This is where you’ll need your answers to those questions posed in ‘Where are you now?’. Combine these answers with what’s realistic for you from the ideas above. And put your plan in writing. Alongside the actions, setting target deadlines and assigning responsibility can make it easier to get things done. Your plan should be cyclical; include time to review progress at regular intervals.
You may even want to publish some of your actions as a ‘Sustainability Pledge’. If you’re anything like me, telling other people what you’re going to do is a great motivator for actually doing it. Here’s my quick guide: How to make a Sustainability Pledge.
Be an advocate!
I know from personal experience how nerve-wracking it can be talking about sustainability actions. That fear of not doing enough, or not knowing everything. But none of us are perfect.
What’s important is that we each take steps – no matter how small – towards being more sustainable. And we can always build-up to do more.
It’s great to talk about sustainability – share energy-reduction tips with colleagues, explain to your Trustees how increasing sustainability supports your business goals, and make sure your visitors know what actions you’re taking to help the environment.
Please – be an advocate. The more we can normalise environmental sustainability as part of our everyday lives, the easier it is for everyone to take action. And that’s when we create meaningful, long-term change.
- Hemingwayapp – free tool to check the reading age of your copy.
- New Adventure’s Digital Annual Review
- Chichester Festival Theatre’s carbon offsetting pilot
- Website Carbon – gives you a basic overview of how ‘green’ a web page is
- Ecosia – the search engine that plants trees.
- Sustainable Web Design – a great book for you, and perhaps your digital agency. It inspired us at Supercool, and was one of the main outside sources for this article.
- Julie’s Bicycle – a pioneering non-profit, mobilising the cultural sector to take action on the climate crisis. Friendly, passionate people, I highly recommend talking to them if you’re looking for support with your sustainability-related ideas and initiatives.
- The home of all Supercool’s ‘green’ resources and articles
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Please attribute as: "How to make your digital engagement activities better for the environment (2022) by Katie Parry supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0