From digital unsustainability to digital sustainability

The homepage for my website ( used to weigh 957 KB. Through a series of design decisions, we were able to bring the size down to 70 KB. With the exact same amount of content. With the exact same visual design. A 93% saving in the CO2 pollution that page created.

The rise of digital has greatly accelerated global warming because it has enabled cultures and economies of waste, of rapid production and massive consumption, of a sense that resources are cheap and limitless. That digital is green, has essentially no environmental costs, so, go on, use it as much as you want.

The dominant focus of digital is to maximize consumption and minimize durability. Someone designing a window will be very conscious of energy efficiency. But someone designing Windows, or any other app, will rarely think about energy efficiency.

At the altar of innovation nothing must be designed to last. Free and cheap are the Trojan horses, beguiling us with almost-nothing prices and costs. Free takes from the future to give to a spendthrift present. If it’s freeware it’s spyware and spyware is one of the most energy-wasteful models you could ever design for.

Digital design has become a parade of lazy excess, developer convenience, designer convenience, content marketing excess, useless often counter-productive innovations, obsession with surfaces, facile impressions, engagement stalkers, and an embrace of the latest technology at any and all costs.

Nobody wants to maintain anything. Nobody wants to nurture anything. And horror of horrors if you ask a digital professional to clean up after themselves! We cannot hope to leave for future generations a liveable planet with these sorts of attitude. We must change the way we live and the way we work.

I thought that my website was pretty decently designed. Yes, the homepage weighed 970 KB but by modern Web standards that was pretty light. Over a 15-year period, average webpage weight has gone from about 400 KB to around 4 MB in a festival of excess.

Why does weight matter? Because weight creates waste, weight creates pollution.

We absolutely need a sustainability design revolution. But how can designers with unsustainable habits and work practices help create a sustainable world with sustainable products and services? When so much about digital design culture is contemptuous of true sustainability, durability, maintainability, how can that work? When designers throw resources at everything, whether it’s computing or storage resources, how can they create sustainable designs?

It’s not that most digital designers and organizations willingly and consciously set out to waste the world. Most aren’t even aware, and up until two or three years ago, I was as unaware as anyone else. And a funny thing is that many of the organizations that I come across who say they are committed most to sustainability have the most unsustainable websites. It’s weird. Just yesterday I chatted with a design agency that promotes sustainability but readily admitted they had a terrible website and felt a “bit ashamed about it.” Not ashamed enough to fix it, though. But they did have plans. In nine months they hoped to get around to fixing the leaking pipes that were daily spewing toxins onto the Web.

Sustainability starts by getting the attitude and culture right.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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