Introducing the Web Sustainability Guidelines

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Graphic that reads 'Introducing the Web Sustainability Guidelines' with several icons and the words W3C Sustainable Web Design (SustyWeb) Community Group below it.

Here’s how new Web Sustainability Guidelines can help digital product teams align their sustainability efforts with broader corporate ESG reporting standards and measurable climate action. 

For the past 10+ years, we’ve been on a mission at Mightybytes to help our clients and the industry overall realize the potential of applying sustainability principles to digital products and services like websites or mobile applications. While progress has been slow and sometimes frustrating—especially given the urgency of the climate crisis—recent events offer opportunities to create real, meaningful change. 

For example, a community group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) just released a first draft report on Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSGs). The purpose of these guidelines is to:

  1. Increase public awareness of sustainability issues related to digital technologies. 
  2. Promote and enable change within our industry for more sustainable digital solutions. 
  3. Support adoption and responsible legislation needed for meaningful climate action in the digital sector.

The WSGs represent nearly two years worth of research, collaboration, and effort by nearly 50 volunteers from around the world. They included academics, business leaders, web and UX designers, developers, sustainability consultants, and more. The guidelines are a great resource that anyone can use to improve the digital products and services they create and manage. 

Why Do We Need Web Sustainability Guidelines?

Consider the following statistics: 

  • The IPCC Report endorsed by world governments at COP 21 in Paris (2015) puts a target to reduce global emissions below 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • The digital industry is now responsible for between 3-5% of global emissions.
  • In fact, if the Internet were a country it would be one of the top five polluters.
  • Between 2015 and 2021, internet visitors increased 60%, whilst web traffic increased by 440%.
  • Similarly, since the Paris Agreement, average web page sizes have increased by over 70% on desktop and 140% on mobile.

If you’ve read this blog in the past, you’ve probably seen these (or related) stats before. They make a clear case for why the digital industry needs to rethink established practices and redefine what success in the tech sector looks like. 

Plus, as an emerging discipline, digital sustainability is currently quite fragmented, with citable sources, and industry guidance scattered and evolving every day. Widespread adoption of clear web sustainability principles can measurably reduce the internet’s environmental impact while also making the web better for everyone.

As something over five billion people around the world use regularly, do we really need a more compelling case than that?

Image of W3C logo with several graphics of people holding hands

W3C and the Web Sustainability Guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium is a global leader in offering user-centered recommendations such as inclusiveness (WAI) and privacy specifications (PING). Also, W3C already actively works on standards for security, accessibility, and ethics principles—all requirements for a more sustainable future. 

For example, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a baseline “source of truth” for digital accessibility adoption. The organization can play a crucial role in research and resolution by establishing new standards for digital sustainability as well.

Also, it is worth mentioning that these guidelines are currently an unofficial specification produced by the community group and not official W3C recommendations. However, the community group intends to pursue official status when it makes sense.

About the Guidelines

Inspired by WCAG, the Web Sustainability Guidelines include 93 guidelines with 232 success criteria over 250+ pages. To accomplish this, the 50 volunteers mentioned above split into five different committees to address sustainability issues as they relate to web design and the internet ecosystem overall. Those committees were: 

  • UX design
  • Web development
  • Hosting & infrastructure
  • Business & product strategy
  • Metrics & measurement

Each guideline is weighted by linked evidence to provide the most accurate advice possible. Guidelines also include examples, clear benefits, and additional resources for added clarity. With these resources, digital professionals can more easily implement the WSGs into existing practices within their organizations. 

How to Use the WSGs in Your Own Practice

Anyone involved in creating, managing, or maintaining digital products—including purchased third party services, which can be a significant source of Scope 3 emissions—can use these guidelines to inform their own work. This includes UX designers, content creators, marketers, digital strategists, web developers, product teams, and so on.

With that being said, organizational leaders have one of the most important roles to play. They set the direction and priorities for the businesses they lead. By prioritizing digital sustainability, they send an important message to their teams and other stakeholders.  

Want to incorporate the WSGs into your team’s existing processes or practices? Consider the following:

  • Join the group: Join the W3C community group to get alerts about upcoming webinars and other educational opportunities to learn more about the WSGs.
  • Workshop the guidelines: Review the guidelines with your team in a workshop setting to generate ideas on how you might implement them.
  • Create a task force: Recruit a cross-department, cross-disciplinary team to explore how digital products and services might be improved within the organization. Resource this team appropriately so they can effectively meet their goals.
  • Start a conversation: Often, the first step toward creating change is to have a discussion. Who in your organization might be most influential and most interested in talking about digital sustainability? Start there.
  • Low-hanging fruit: Most importantly, set a baseline to understand where your organization stands currently and how you might get started today to make change happen. More than anything, it requires willingness to take the first step. 

Long-Term Digital Climate Solutions

Industry and regulatory change on these and related issues is inevitable. All organizations across sectors will be significantly impacted by climate change. Supply chains, operations, and business continuity are already being disrupted, including in the digital/ICT sector. We desperately need resilient digital solutions.

To address this, the Web Sustainability Guidelines are intended to work with existing international laws while also inspiring new legislative opportunities. The WSGs also tie into existing sustainability reporting standards. Here’s how.

Improving Industry Reporting

The community group made every effort to align its guidelines with relevant standards from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). This will make it easier to integrate digital sustainability reporting with broader organizational sustainability reporting initiatives. 

Supporting Legislation

Additionally, digital sustainability laws have already been adopted in France and Germany. Other countries are considering similar regulations. Eventually, climate-related laws will impact the very core of how our industry conducts business. 

To achieve this, we must demand meaningful change from legislative leaders. Specifications like the WSGs can help us make progress. 

Fast-Tracking the Web Sustainability Guidelines

The Web Sustainability Guidelines constitute a meaningful first step toward broader digital sustainability adoption across industries. Plus, they are supported by an organization with extensive experience in such things. 

W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were first introduced in May 1999. To create the necessary change, we must chart a similar course for sustainability, but faster. The climate crisis can’t wait. Why not join us on this journey? 

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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.