Who’s Responsible for Your Digital Carbon Footprint?

Posted by in B Corporation, Business Strategy, Sustainability tagged with ,

Graphic illustration showing various elements of your digital carbon footprint, including emissions scopes

In this post, we explore the question of personal vs. organizational responsibility and how to take meaningful action on your digital carbon footprint. 

The Ethics of ‘Streamshaming’

A site called Green Streamers recently published a post about how just five Twitch streamers generate 121,000 kg of CO2e every day. (Update: This post is no longer online, apparently due to an expired Squarespace account.)

The post called out the platform’s top five streamers based on a tool called Twitch Tracker, which shares Twitch usage trends. The emissions estimates shared in their post were based on a June 2021 study by Carbon Trust on the carbon impact of video streaming and the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator

For context, 121,000 kg of CO2e is the equivalent of:

  • Driving 785 gasoline-powered vehicles for a year
  • Powering 459 homes for one year 
  • Burning 4,029,653 pounds of coal
  • Charging 443,034,682 smartphones
  • Flying from LA to NYC 24,280 times

This is a lot of emissions, to be sure, especially when you consider that Twitch has 140+ million users and these numbers supposedly represent the impact for only five of them. But that’s only part of the story.

Platform as Social Safety Net?

When COVID-19 hit, many people who worked in the entertainment industry—like nightclub DJs, performers, and so on—turned to Twitch to earn a living when gathering in person wasn’t possible. 

In this regard, one might suggest that the platform contributed to a social safety net for people during economically challenging times. Yet, now that Amazon owns Twitch, the streaming platform gets criticized for exploiting artists on its platform

A truly responsible digital future requires an internet that is both powered by renewable energy and provides a strong social foundation—grounded in climate justice—for people and communities around the world. Just one of these things is not enough. 

So, using the Twitch example as a baseline, how might purpose-driven organizations—and the people within them—take responsibility in ways that are both meaningful and within our means? We all use the internet every day to create value for our organizations. Where do we draw the line on our own culpability versus that of others when it comes to our digital carbon footprint? 

Image from Twitch Tracker showing top five users and statistics of their platform use
Using Twitch Tracker, it is possible to estimate the carbon footprint of platform users. However, is it their responsibility to mitigate this impact?

Individual vs. Organizational Responsibility

Regardless of whether the estimates shared by Green Streamers are accurate or not, the Twitch story brings up important questions about personal and organizational responsibility. This is especially relevant given the urgent climate emergency we’re in:

  • Should we really shame individuals for using platforms that are publicly available? 
  • Shouldn’t companies be responsible for what happens on their platforms?
  • What are the boundaries of organizational responsibility when it comes to digital emissions and climate justice? 

In the market research Mightybytes has conducted for our free web sustainability tool Ecograder, we have surveyed or interviewed people at hundreds of organizations. Our findings revealed that business leaders—even those at purpose-driven organizations like Certified B Corps—rarely consider their digital carbon footprint as part of an overall climate strategy.  

There are several common reasons for this:

  • People don’t understand the environmental impact of their digital products or services. 
  • Fewer still don’t know how, specifically, digital sustainability applies to them.
  • There aren’t many tools readily available to measurably lower your digital footprint (though this is changing). 
  • Smaller organizations and most nonprofits have few resources to prioritize digital sustainability alongside digital accessibility, data privacy, security, and other things they’re already working on.
  • Finally, many people also don’t understand what is within their means to change. 

Adding to this confusion:

  • Most digital providers consider energy data proprietary information and don’t make it freely available. They want to encourage more use of their platforms, not less.
  • Most importantly, legislation is lacking to incentivize improvement. 

With this confusing landscape, is it surprising that widespread traction on these issues is difficult to achieve?

So, Whose Digital Carbon Footprint is it?

Of the total estimated cumulative greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity (excluding carbon dioxide from land use, land use change and forestry, and agricultural methane) between 1988 and 2015, 71% of those emissions originated from 100 fossil fuel producers. This includes the emissions from producing fossil fuels (like oil, coal and gas), and the subsequent use of the fossil fuels they sell to other companies.

— Full Fact, Are 100 Companies Causing 71% of Carbon Emissions?

Since as early as the 1950s, industries have promoted the idea of personal responsibility to reduce government regulations and divert our attention away from their own accountability in some of society’s biggest problems. 

To be clear, the majority of emissions can be traced back to a handful of large corporations. 

In fact, fossil fuel company British Petroleum (BP)—with the help of PR agency Ogilvy & Mather—invented the carbon footprint in the early 2000s. Personal carbon footprinting sends a message that the problems which arise from using fossil fuel-based products or services are yours to deal with, not BP’s. And that’s a big problem.

Also, the internet is no exception to this. The subterfuge is even more murky when it comes to our digital products and services. 

You Are the Product, Not the Problem  

While Big Tech is ahead of many other industries regarding renewable energy adoption, the tech industry has effectively shirked responsibility for other problems that happen at its behest: 

Plus, social media algorithms are programmed to prioritize ‘engagement’, which often favors extreme positions that fuel discontent. While we fight, these platforms rake in huge profits every year. 

More importantly, large portions of these profits are earmarked to lobby politicians for legislation that works in their favor, perpetuating the exploitative and extractive ways in which they conduct business. Our discontent fuels their profits. Our distraction allows them to continue unabated. 

Cigarette sales dropped once the general public clearly understood health implications. We can do the same with carbon pollution. Image from Climate Conscious Marketing for B Corps (YouTube video) by Clean Creatives.

Agency Culpability

While a ban on advertising might seem like a radical and perhaps dangerous idea, I think it raises some important questions about the impact of the advertising sector on the health of our planet, our personal wellbeing and the hold that it has on the economy.

— Tom Greenwood, What if There Was No Advertising?

As an agency, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out the role advertising and marketing play in addressing the climate crisis. Our industry is powerfully persuasive. It also has blood on its hands. 

For example, fossil fuel companies would have you believe that they are part of the solution rather than the problem:

  • Fossil fuel giant Shell has publicly expressed intent to become a zero emissions energy business by 2050. However, a Dutch lawsuit found that “Shell’s operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell’s Net-Zero Emissions target.”
  • Similarly, 80% of Chevron’s ads over a year contained terms like sustainable, renewable, environment, and clean while only 1.8% of their capital expenditures went to non-oil and gas projects during the same time period. 

Overall, the fossil fuel industry invests 99% of their capital into expanding oil and gas production with just 1% going to clean energy projects. Yet, these public messages, powered by agencies, tell a different story. Meanwhile, their collective sleight of hand puts billions of lives at risk

If you’re interested in learning more about how corporations use agencies to deflect blame from themselves to individuals, check out:

Given that many industries excel at this type of subterfuge, where does passing the buck stop and true responsibility begin? The reality is that individual actions, though important, will never create the change we need to successfully address social and environmental challenges ahead. Individuals and organizations across sectors need to work together to change systemic social and economic systems that enable climate injustice and runaway emissions.

With this being said, understanding emissions scopes can help us better understand how to make measurable, collective progress. 

Graphic illustration showing different emissions scopes: scope 1, scope 2, and two different categories of scope 3.

Emissions Scopes and Your Digital Carbon Footprint

Emissions from supply chains, known as Scope 3, can represent up to 90 percent of a company’s overall footprint, and these emissions are notoriously tricky to tackle because they often fall outside of a company’s direct control. Having real data rather than estimates can help facilitate reducing those emissions, as they become easier to pinpoint.

— Kate Zerrenner, ‘Best of Breed’ Sustainability Software May Be The Worst Solution, Triple Pundit

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol is the world’s most widely used greenhouse gas accounting standard. It breaks emissions into three types or ‘scopes’:

  1. Scope 1: Direct emissions associated with emissions sources that are owned or otherwise controlled by an organization
  2. Scope 2: Indirect emissions associated with electricity used by an organization
  3. Scope 3: Upstream and downstream emissions associated with an organization’s value chain

Under the GHG protocol, organizations must identify the boundaries of their emissions impact and come up with a reduction and mitigation plan. 

For digital emissions, if you own data centers or server farms, these will fall under Scope 1. The energy purchased to power them will fall under Scope 2. If you lease space via web hosts, cloud providers, or other data housing services, this is attributed to Scope 3.

Scopes 1 and 2 are relatively straightforward. To learn more about how Scopes 1 and 2 impact digital businesses, check out our post What is ‘Net Zero’ for a Digital Business?

Scope 3 is more complicated. It is also most relevant to addressing your digital carbon footprint. 

Examples of Scope 3 Digital Emissions in Your Value Chain

For organizations looking to reduce their digital carbon footprint, Scope 3 emissions typically fall into two of the scope’s 15 categories:

  1. Purchased Goods and Services (Category 1): Extraction, production, and transportation of goods and services purchased or otherwise acquired by an organization 
  2. Use of Products Sold (Category 11): The end use of an organization’s sold goods or services

Understanding your digital carbon footprint in relation to these categories can quickly get tricky. For example, software subscriptions like the Twitch example above apply here. Other sources for these digital emissions include:

  • Embedded assets: fonts, widgets, forms, media, and other third-party assets
  • Ad campaigns: media assets and software associated with running advertisements
  • Analytics: third-party performance measurement programs such as Google Analytics, Optimizely, or others
  • Communications: platforms used to communicate with internal and external stakeholders
  • Website plugins: software used to enhance website functionality
  • Marketing automation: services used to automate common marketing tasks such as email, social media posts, and so on
  • Email marketing: platforms used to manage email campaigns
  • CMS: hosted content management systems
  • AI: machine learning-enabled software
  • Blockchain: open ledger-based software used to mine cryptocurrency, manage contracts, and other functionality
  • IoT: devices and platforms used to manage sensor- and location-based technologies associated with the Internet of Things
  • And many others… 

For digital organizations making Net Zero commitments, emissions from all three emissions scopes should be identified, estimated, and tracked over time with a reduction plan in place. This includes the list above. However, for all the reasons mentioned above, getting this data isn’t easy.

Five Ways to Address your Digital Carbon Footprint

We have outlined five steps below that you can take to make a difference in your organization’s climate impact and take responsibility for your digital carbon footprint. 

1. Create and Implement an Emissions Reduction Strategy

The use of offsets is not counted as reductions toward the progress of companies’ science-based targets. The SBTi requires that companies set targets based on emission reductions through direct action within their own boundaries or their value chains. Offsets are only considered to be an option for companies wanting to contribute to finance additional emission reductions beyond their science-based target/net-zero.

Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTI)

Purpose-driven organizations may already have a clear climate strategy in place. Improve your efforts by including digital products and services in this strategy. Be sure to focus on emissions reductions rather than solely relying on offsets.

2. Quality vs. Quantity

A content marketer wants lots of visits, and we want those visitors to stay as long as possible. We want low bounce rates and long visits. Those are considered success metrics. But in the long run, we need to think about the desired outcome for us and for our visitors, and look for ways to meet those goals as efficiently as possible.

— Andy Crestodina, Designing for Sustainability

In the digital world—and especially in digital marketing—it is easy to fall into the trap of excess. We want more likes, more shares, more comments, etc.—even if these things don’t directly support a thriving organization. Just because we can collect performance data, it doesn’t always mean we should.

To align responsible digital strategies with climate strategies, focus on quality over quantity for every task and interaction.

Consider the following:

  • People first: Value relationships over interactions or transactions. Include diverse stakeholders as part of co-creation to ensure their perspectives are represented. Clearly understand the journey they take when communicating or interacting with your organization.
  • Build community: Nurture and co-create customer or stakeholder communities around shared values and common ideas. Include marginalized voices in all conversations.
  • Consider socio-economic impact: Share economic benefits of your digital work. This will improve the quality of your projects, products, and relationships (see above).
  • Reduce risk: When considering digital campaigns, projects, or related work, conduct a risk analysis as part of the process. This will help alleviate potential pitfalls.

3. Prioritize Scope 3 Emissions

Supply chain emissions are, on average, 11.4 times higher than operational emissions, which equates to approximately 92% of an organization’s total GHG emissions.

Transparency to Transformation: A Chain Reaction, CDP Global Supply Chain Report

Digital organizations can make the biggest potential difference with Scope 3 emissions. Since these are indirect emissions associated with your value chain and not direct operational emissions, Scope 3 is also the most challenging for an organization to implement. 

  • Scope 3 categories: Learn about the different categories that fall under Scope 3 emissions. Understand how each applies (or doesn’t) to your organization. 
  • Create strategic partnerships: Since supply chain emissions fall under Scope 3, find ethical partners for third-party vendors, suppliers, and services you use. This includes third-party digital products and services, like those mentioned above. Engage these partners in your impact efforts and collaborate with them on possible joint solutions. 
  • Go beyond requirements: The GHG Protocol lists Scope 3 requirements as well as optional tasks to consider. To more meaningfully address digital Scope 3 emissions, prioritize optional tasks alongside those listed in the requirements.
Graphical cover of B Lab's Climate Justice Playbook for Business
Address climate justice issues alongside emissions associated with your digital carbon footprint. Image: B Lab’s Climate Justice Playbook for Business.

4. Climate Justice Over Carbon Tunnel Vision

The people making the decisions are far too often not the same people that are on the front lines of our most pressing challenges. It is critical for businesses to understand the difference between extractive and transactional versus equitable and reciprocative relationships with frontline communities when working to advance climate justice.

— Jacqui Patterson, Founder and CEO, The Chisholm Legacy Project

Next, meaningful climate justice can’t happen without centering the voices of marginalized communities who are most impacted by the climate emergency. When we focus only on emissions, we miss a big part of the equation: justice for those who are the least responsible for this crisis in the first place.

Yes, reducing emissions is critical to addressing climate change. However, climate justice requires a strong social foundation alongside emissions reductions. 

To do this:

  • Center marginalized voices: Inclusive climate communications feature those who are directly affected by climate change. Highlight their voices in your marketing and communications. 
  • Embrace intersectionality: For digital organizations or departments, sustainability and accessibility go hand in hand alongside data privacy and security. To reduce risk, be sure to prioritize related intersectional issues in your digital work.
  • Responsible recycling: E-waste is a huge global problem. Implement responsible policies to reduce waste associated with your organization’s equipment and electronics.
  • Supply chain: Incorporate Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) principles into your supply chain and vendor vetting policies. For digital businesses, this could mean not supporting suppliers that fuel injustice or engaging in political advocacy (see below). 

5. Advocate for Impactful Climate Legislation

The earth shouldn’t be taken for granted, nor should its people, and the drivers of this exploitation—greed, racism, capitalism, and other systems of oppression—should be rejected and dismantled. If we combine social justice efforts with environmental awareness efforts, we will harness enough power, representation, and momentum to have a shot at protecting our planet and creating equity at the same time.

— Leah Thomas, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet

Most importantly, we can’t build the strong social foundation mentioned above without changing legislation. This is where individual actions can make the biggest difference.

In order to redesign how we work, we must change laws that keep the current broken systems in place. We need new legislation, grounded in climate justice, that incentivizes organizations across sectors to make the right decisions. 

To accomplish this:

  • Meet legislators: Work with local representatives to enact laws that support climate justice and make it easier for everyone to improve their digital carbon footprint. 
  • Community co-creation: Next, engage your community, co-create solutions, and participate in advocacy efforts that center Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, low-income, LGBTQ+, disabled, and other marginalized voices. 
  • Find strategic partners: Join forces with a local nonprofit that has specific expertise in political advocacy to make your efforts more successful.
  • Energy disclosure: Finally, support legislation that requires full disclosure from companies on their pollution and energy use, including those in the tech sector.

Your Digital Carbon Footprint: Final Word

Individual action and personal responsibility are good and necessary. However, it is the producer’s responsibility and obligation to provide products in ways that protect the health of people and the environment.

— Joel Brammeier, CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Understanding responsibility is the first step toward taking meaningful climate action. We all use digital products and services every day in our personal and professional lives. Leaders can harness these tools to advance sustainability within our organizations. However, knowing how to take the first step is often unclear.

To recap what we have covered in this post:

  • Individual actions related to your digital carbon footprint are important. However, focus those efforts on things that are within your grasp to change.
  • With good policies and practices, organizations can make a bigger difference, especially when it comes to Scope 3 emissions.
  • Most importantly, we need legislation that’s grounded in climate justice for true accountability. This is something we can all work toward.

Try the new Ecograder

Reduce digital emissions, improve performance, reach your website goals faster.

Try Ecograder
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. Follow Tim on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.