5 mins read
Ultimately, every developer works to build a functional and well-designed website that will have a long, happy, and bug-free life. Yet, if we keep producing energy-hungry websites that live long and prosperous lives online, it begs the question: what’s the potential environmental impact?
This week we met with Andrea Facheris, a web developer who pairs development with sustainability in his practice. During our conversation, we dived into several technicalities, client relations, and best practices to consider in this area.
Hello Andrea, nice to meet you. Let’s start with an introduction about yourself and what you do.
My name is Andrea. I am a web developer from Bergamo, Italy. I'm part of a collective of freelance developers called Beards. We’ve built websites for a range of different clients of various sizes, from big to small companies. When we started there was not so much focus on sustainability, specifically, the understanding that the internet emitted CO2 levels comparable to emissions of entire countries. The more we become aware, the more we realised that we did a lot of work without being mindful of the environment. Even today it is not always easy to adopt the best practices, especially when you have to deal with clients who are unaware of climate change.
How often do you encounter clients who aren’t aware of climate change?
I can say that here in Italy this type of culture is not very common. As result, we come across such clients often in Italy. It is less often with clients coming from abroad, every context has different considerations.
In your opinion, what are the main issues facing sustainability in web development?
One of the main problems is the choice of hosting, as the majority of green hosting services are more expensive than the mainstream shared solutions. We try to justify to clients that green hosting contributes to reducing carbon emissions, but, what we’ve found is that the main problem is related to awareness of sustainability as a whole.
This is interconnected with the broad cultural understanding of climate change issues. I don’t think these topics are well absorbed by the public. This could be because the population in Italy is older and middle-income compared to other countries in Europe.
Also, we are living in a time of very shiny websites with great animations, and visual complexity, which are all very CPU intensive. When you propose a website to a client, which is very minimal, without even images, and very content (text) driven, this is something that scares the client.
When was the shifting point in your career when you decided to focus on sustainability in your work?
I think it was a build-up of different thoughts, I started reading a lot about climate change and I kept reflecting on the information and my job as a developer. Although in our line of work we don’t produce tangible products, our work is energy heavy and it creates a direct negative impact on the environment. From there, I have continued to read, gain knowledge, and adopt some positive practices. One of the things I believe in the most is that any small positive change you can adapt to your workflow can have a positive effect.
The most effective shift is switching to greener hosting services, this is one small step towards a greener way of building a website.
I also understand that developers don't have full control of the process of clients' projects. Sometimes, we would need to put the website live on a shared hosting solution or use heavy images based on clients’ requests. Thus, it is something we have to agree on in the kickoff of the project. Ahead of design, you would need to talk with your clients and explain the environmental concerns, and show potential solutions.
When you propose more sustainable ways of development to clients, what’s the usual response? I’m curious to know what you do if clients push back your proposition.
As you can imagine, it is a very delicate matter. But, there are cases where I have rejected the project because this comes in conjunction with disrespect and carelessness for environment-related matters. Also, it turns out that clients who are not aligned with my social-political point of view are not a good match for me.
That said, I acknowledge that sometimes the client is simply trying to cut costs. In those cases, the client would be very nice and polite, perhaps they are contributing to conscious environmental practices differently, so at least they care.
What do you think is the most unsustainable aspect of web development and how do you work around it?
The biggest problem is the heaviness of the website, which leads to more data being transferred. Video-intensive websites are not the most sustainable kind of websites. The user needs to download hundreds of megabytes of data. This is a waste for everybody, both for the environment due to the energy consumption to load videos every time the website gets a connection, and for users, especially in places where data plans are expensive.
A lot of the things we do on the internet, we took for granted. We are not realising how much it impacts the environment.
What are environmentally positive practices you hope fellow developers would adopt in building websites?
The first step is reducing the amount of data as mentioned earlier. Then, very serious image optimisation. Having images in web format is one of the best ways to optimise. I think using this and mixing it with a few high quality images achieves a balance. Another one is limiting connections such as Google Analytics and advertising because they also add expensive weight to the site.
Where do you get your information about sustainability and development?
There are a few resources here in Italy which are very well-written. This article - Every Page on the Internet Emits CO2 - is a good starting point.
As part of our Sustainable Digital Design process, we have created a three-part series on building sustainable websites. Each article focuses on a different element and offers important starting steps for building a more sustainable website.
If you are with us on our mission to advance sustainability in the world of digital design, whether deep in the discipline or just a little curious, reach out to us at SDD. We’d love to hear your views, answer your questions - and ask some of our own - and learn from what you’ve learned over the years at firstname.lastname@example.org.