Even Digital Businesses Have a Climate Role to Play
I thought, well you know, the best way to find out whether it is possible to run a business in a sustainable way is to start a business and try and to do it.
Author, Sustainable Web Design
My Thoughts on the Conversation
Tom’s story is inspirational and is a great example of how curiosity can help make this world a better place, and couldn't come at a more appropriate time. As I write this, world leaders have gathered in Glasgow for COP26 to talk about the climate crisis. Tom's story provides insights into how even a series of small, incremental steps taken by all of us, can have a sum greater than their parts.
Tom's journey started with the realisation that, actually, even digital-only businesses have a climate impact, and despite the common-wisdom of the time, this impact is non-negligible. In fact, as Tom mentions in the interview, the combined carbon emissions of the Internet is currently equal to that of Germany - the 7th largest country level contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
This is astonishing. As mentioned previously on this site (article link below), each and every digital action we take has an environmental impact. In the simplest of terms, you can think about this from the point of view of the amount electricity it takes to run your computer. If you turn your computer off it uses almost no energy. When you turn it on, it takes energy to wake up, and then will settle down into a rest state (or sleep) if you leave it alone. In this state it still uses energy to keep it ready and alert, maybe waking temporarily to keep the clock in time, to check for emails or when a social network pings you. When you watch a movie, the computer is busy using energy to run the hard disks, to power the screen, to use the processors to decode the video and to exchange data over the wifi. In essences, the more you use your computer (or smartphone) the more energy it consumes.
All of that energy needs to come from some where.
Previous article on data & sustainability:
And it doesn’t stop there!
In order for you to send an email, post on social media or watch a Netflix episode, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of computers, storage and networking systems need to consume energy to deliver your request. In fact, I wonder how much energy is wasted by this infrastructure on serving advertising that is ultimately blocked by ad-blockers in browsers … if you have an answer, do let me know.
Tom shares that this realisation was a big part of his and his wife’s journey to starting a sustainable web design agency, that became BCorp certified.
I find Tom’s insights into the journey of becoming BCorp certified fascinating. In particular, he talks about the challenge of demonstrating the company’s energy consumption when all of his team were distributed and working from home. His solution to this is inspiring because it touches on how to manage and motivate the team, but also has a multiplying effect on the company’s positive impact.
This multiplier effect comes about from an incentive the company put in place to encourage staff to switch their home energy suppliers to green tariffs. By doing this, his company’s actions have multiplied through a broader domestic footprint and have helped staff demonstrate incremental climate leadership through their families and local communities.
This is another point we cover in our conversation - incremental steps forward. Making changes to our lives can be overwhelming at the best of times, but the climate crisis can seem so big, so unapproachable that many people think that the things they can do are too small and insignificant. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Every small change we can make as consumers, employees or business leaders adds up (positive or negative!), so we should be mindful and deliberate in the actions we take.
For example, using a by-product of Tom’s adventures websitecarbon.com, I discovered the climate impact of my website, and decided to do something about it. As you might know, for every new newsletter subscriber I sponsor a tree to be grown on their behalf. With my current traffic volumes, this website will emit about the same amount of carbon each year that 38 trees can absorb in a year. I realise that this number doesn’t include the end to end carbon emissions of all visitors to my site, so my ambition goes above this. I want to do more than simply offset my negative impacts, I want to have a net-positive impact so aim to sponsor at least 10 times the number of trees to be planted each year than the calculator predicts.
Act now: Scroll down to sign up for updates and help me grow trees for free.
It was actually really interesting to see how Tom’s experiments with building a sustainable business have led to a successful sustainable business. Beyond this, it is amazing to see how this has had a broader impact, inspiring and supporting many other businesses through the work of Wholegrain Digital, but websitecarbon.com, and also his book, Sustainable Web Design.
Talking of the UN SDGs, Tom shared that he thinks most people are generally not particularly aware of them, yet they hold great power to help drive awareness and change. He said that one problem with them could be that there are too many of them, and like the points above, that makes them unapproachable, In his opinion, SDG 13 - Climate Change is the most critical, because if we mess that up the rest are not really going to matter.
Further reading you might be interested in:
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