5 ways businesses can reduce their digital carbon footprints

Megan Stillwell

As the world seeks bold solutions to combat climate change, we need businesses of all sizes to put the environment at the heart of their operations, making tangible climate commitments that help chart our path to net zero emissions by 2050.  

From using sustainable suppliers and planting trees to donating to environmental charities and encouraging employees to cycle to work, there are many ways businesses can reduce their carbon footprint. But there is one invisible impact that businesses often forget or de-prioritise: their digital carbon footprint. 

There are over 1.8 billion websites on the world wide web and counting (Internet Live Stats, 2021), and in the UK alone, 46.6 million users access the internet daily (Cyber Crew, 2021). Our internet surfing requires data, and this is collected, processed, exchanged, and stored in data centres around the world. These require constant power, and most of this comes from fossil fuels (Wholegrain Digital), although there are some data centres transitioning to renewable energy. The demand for data centres is growing and so too are the carbon emissions associated with them. In 2020, data centres accounted for approximately 1% of global electricity demand (IEA).  

What is a digital carbon footprint?  

A digital carbon footprint is the emissions created from your digital activity. Therefore, with every email you send, website you visit, and social media post you publish you emit more CO2. In an increasingly digital world, this is a pervasive problem. 

So, what can you do about it? Here are 5 ways a business can reduce its digital carbon footprint: 

  1. Send less emails (and delete old ones)  
  2. Optimise your website  
  3. Reduce the number of video calls and online streaming 
  4. Practice ‘less is more’ on social media  
  5. Clean out cloud space  
1. Send less emails (and delete the old ones)

According to OVO energy, if every Brit sent one less email a day, we would save 16,433 tonnes of CO2 a year – the equivalent of 81,152 flights to Madrid or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road. So, ‘Think Before You Thank’ anyone via email as it may be doing more harm than good. 

You can also reconsider the emails you subscribe to – are you really reading all those newsletters? – and delete old emails when they’re no longer needed. By cutting down on unnecessary emails we can reduce our carbon footprints and clean up cluttered inboxes at the same time; a double win.  

It is also worth considering the number of attachments you send and the size of your email signature. Reduce these too and you will cut your digital carbon footprint. 

2. Optimise your website

Website optimisation involves using tools and strategies to improve the performance of your website, increasing traffic, driving conversions, improving page speed and views. But it can also have the added benefit of reducing your digital carbon footprint. 

Here’s a few tips to optimise your website: 

  • Compress your images – make sure that your images are as small as possible (we recommend that they’re no larger than 200KB). This will reduce the time it takes for your website to load, and it reduces the energy used to load and store your images. Free tools such as IMGonline or Squoosh can help with this.  
  • Switch to a green website hosting provider – choose a web hosting service that only uses electricity from renewable sources to minimise your digital carbon footprint. Green web hosting is growing in popularity and is a great way to build your company’s reputation as it shows your commitment to sustainability. Some green web hosting services offer a ‘badge’ for your website to show your commitment. Some options include Kualo, GreenGeeks and DreamHost. 
  • Delete content with low visits and high bounce-rate – it’s unnecessary to keep obsolete content on your website, such as out of date content or content with a lot of broken links because energy is consumed to store it. 
  • Delay loading images – set up your pages so that the content, such as images and videos, only loads when the user has scrolled to that part of the page. Loading all content at once increases the page load time and can use more energy than necessary if it loads content that the user doesn’t even see. 
  • Work on digital accessibility – reducing your digital carbon footprint is important, but a sustainable world is about more than emissions. Sustainability also means making a more accessible and inclusive world for all. That’s why it’s important to assess the accessibility of your website. Improving website accessibility can include adding alt text to images, choosing easy to read colours with a contrast checker, having a clear hierarchy of headings and making links or buttons as clear as possible so that the user understands where the link will take them.  
  • Calculate your website’s carbon emissions – Wholegrain Digital developed the first methodology for calculating the carbon emissions associated with your website. Their website carbon calculator is a fantastic way to assess how efficient your website is and compare it to other websites that have been tested. It also provides tips to reduce your website’s emissions and has the option to add a badge to your website to shout about your website’s carbon emissions to the world. 
3. Reduce the number of video calls and online streaming

Since 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, global internet traffic has grown by more than 40% due to increased video conferencing, video streaming, online gaming, and social networking (IEA). According to Wholegrain Digital, the carbon footprint of our video calls increases with the number of participants on the call as well as by having your camera turned on. If you needed another excuse to go camera off and take a work call in your pyjamas, this one has multiple benefits. 

4. ‘Less is more’ on social media

A study conducted by Channel 4’s “Dispatches” found that a single Instagram post from footballer Cristiano Ronaldo to his 240 million followers consumes as much energy as ten UK households in one year! But it’s not just posting that has an impact; the amount of time you spend on these platforms quickly adds up. 

Of course, social media is still a powerful tool for communication, and we don’t recommend giving it up, but we do suggest reviewing which social media platforms are important for your goals and taking a quality over quantity approach. Pay attention to how much time you spend on social media and remember to use that time wisely to talk about environmental and social issues.  

If you want to learn about your social media carbon footprint, you can calculate it here

5. Clean out cloud space 

One-hundred zettabytes of data – one of which is equal to a trillion gigabytes – will be stored in the cloud by 2025 (World Economic Forum). It’s important to reduce the amount of information we store if we want to cut down our digital carbon footprint. To do this, you can instruct your team to periodically delete files that are no longer needed and store the data locally on their devices or on an external hard drive if they access it infrequently.  

Additionally, when choosing a cloud service, consider the options available and try to pick one that has a strong commitment to reducing its environmental impact. 

This is the first blog in a short series about digital carbon footprints, keep your eyes peeled for more and in the meantime, visit Wholegrain Digital for more tips.  

Are you a green business looking to amplify your impact, contact us for support with impact-driven communications and advice on reducing your digital carbon footprint. 

You may also like to watch our interview with Vineeta Greenwood (co-founder of Wholegrain Digital, experts in digital sustainability) or read our blog about Mauro Cozzi (co-founder of Emitwise, a carbon management platform for businesses).