Help us Establish Environmental Standards for the Internet

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Environmental standards for the Internet. W3C logo with W3C community group logos in blue, green, maroon, and orange.

It’s time to define clear environmental standards for the internet. Join a worldwide group of digital professionals committed to a more sustainable internet that works for all people and our shared planet. 

In 2013, we collaborated with a small number of web professionals to start a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) community group dedicated to sustainable web design. At that time, its purpose was to publicly share resources that could:

Since then, more digital professionals have become aware of the issues surrounding digital sustainability and the group has grown (albeit slowly). Now, there is growing global interest in this topic from individual digital professionals to large corporations. 

With that in mind, we began actively recruiting new members earlier this year. With an eye on setting some sort of internet environmental standards, we also created a charter and brainstormed what this group might become. 

Here’s how you can help…

Why do we Need Internet Environmental Standards?

If you’ve paid any attention to our blog—or tech and environmental media in general, especially since the pandemic—you might be aware that the internet’s environmental impact is significant. Estimates vary, but the most common comparisons are that it’s:

  • Larger than that of the commercial airline industry
  • Between 2-10% of the world’s overall emissions
  • The world’s 7th largest polluter, if it were a country

Plus, most of the digital products and services we use today are:

  • Not designed to consider environmental impact at all, let alone promote more sustainable behaviors
  • Designed to increase interactions (and energy use)
  • Are either not available or provide less than optimal experiences for people in low bandwidth areas, users with disabilities, or those with older/legacy devices
  • Powered (mostly) by fossil fuels

We can do better. The internet can be better. However, to accomplish this, we need widely accepted guidelines for people to follow when funding, designing, building, managing, or maintaining more sustainable digital products or services.

What Might These Environmental Standards Entail?

Over the past few years, the number of resources, guidebooks, and tutorials claiming to help digital professionals reduce the environmental impact of websites and other digital products has skyrocketed. It seems everyone from small businesses to large multinational corporations has something to say about reducing website carbon emissions

We’re no exception. We’ve been blogging about sustainable web design and have shared this message around the world through our blog, books, Ecograder, and conference presentations for over a decade now. We even created a free educational resource on the topic with our friends at London’s Wholegrain Digital, creators of the original Website Carbon calculator

However, this wealth of resources also increases the potential for misinformation, confusion, and, at times, conflicting practices. Even though some academics and practitioners have focused on it for years, digital sustainability is still an emerging topic. It’s time we pool our collective knowledge and resources to establish a set of internet environmental standards that anyone can use and all—or most—can agree upon.

Inspiration: W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative

This group exists under the banner of the W3C for a few key reasons:

  1. W3C is home to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They have deep experience with this sort of thing. 
  2. These recommendations help digital professionals incorporate accessibility practices into their day-to-day operations, including the websites and digital products/services they design, build, and maintain. 
  3. WCAG is arguably the most common set of digital accessibility recommendations used around the world. 

As a model for how published guidelines can become globally adopted, WAI is inspiring. If we achieve even a small sliver of these milestones, we’ll consider it progress. 

Standards vs. Guidelines

While the W3C doesn’t officially create digital standards, their work influences web professionals, product makers, hardware manufacturers, legislators, and other important internet stakeholders worldwide. 

We aspire for this work to eventually become de facto environmental standards for the internet. However, you have to walk before you can run. A set of widely recognized guidelines—that pulls from existing resources—for designing more sustainable websites and digital products would be a good start. The W3C and its members can help us accomplish this. 

Screen grab from a Zoom meeting of the W3C community group on sustainable web design
Help us bring more diversity to this W3C community group. Consider joining today!

Centering JEDI, ESG, and Climate Justice in Digital Environmental Standards

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this work must center Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) issues as it evolves. We aim to showcase diverse voices and ensure equitable stakeholder representation as the group makes recommendations. 

Also, this work cannot focus only on emissions. While climate change is a huge driver, it cannot be used to justify inequitable solutions or fuel injustice in any way. Any effective climate strategy must be grounded in climate justice.

Since the term ‘sustainability’ was coined in the 1980s, it has evolved to incorporate a variety of intersectional social, economic, and governance issues alongside its core environmental focus. A more responsible and sustainable internet should reflect this.

Get Involved: Join the W3C Community Group

We believe that the W3C community group is an important stepping stone toward defining and establishing internet environmental standards that can be used by anyone. 

Who Should Join?

While the community group is open to the public, we especially encourage people from the following communities to consider joining us:

  • People from diverse backgrounds, including women, veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and members of BIPOC or LGBTQ+ communities. 
  • Anyone involved with funding, designing, building, managing, marketing, or maintaining digital products or services, including websites, mobile applications, emerging technologies, web hosts, browser makers, hardware manufacturers, and so on. 

With broad stakeholder perspectives rolled into this process, there’s a higher chance that the solutions we recommend will be more inclusive and equitable. 

What’s the Time Commitment?

Finally, we’re looking to build a global community with this group. Even though we have longer-term goals to define environmental standards for the internet, our first step is to identify and connect with like-minded people and organizations around the world.

Our aim is to keep time commitments low and manageable for busy working professionals. If this sounds compelling to you, please consider joining today. 

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Tim Frick founded Mightybytes in 1998 to help mission-driven organizations solve problems, amplify their impact, and meet business and marketing goals. He is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O'Reilly Media. Connect with Tim on LinkedIn.