In the mid-2000’s Vineeta and Tom Greenwood launched Wholegrain Digital, a design agency that aims to be a truly sustainable business. As part of their digital technology practice, they contributed to the Sustainable Web Manifesto. This is what they learned from running a business by the manifesto’s principles.
Thirteen years later, we have come a long way in our little experiment and feel that we have achieved a lot. But we have also learned just how hard real sustainability is. We learned that our decision to create digital products was not as environmentally friendly as we had assumed.
In response, we collaborated with like-minded peers in the digital sector to write the Sustainable Web Manifesto as a set of guiding principles for embedding sustainability into digital projects. The manifesto states that digital projects will be clean, efficient, open, honest, resilient and regenerative.
Here I discuss how we tried to apply these principles not just to our digital products but to our whole business.
Powering our business with clean energy
The first principle of the Sustainable Web Manifesto is that the services we provide and services we use will be powered by renewable energy.
Looking at this purely from a digital perspective, it seemed like a relatively simple action to take. We just needed to select web hosts and service providers with a commitment to using renewable energy. If only it were that easy! Yes, we now host all of our own websites and services in data centres that claim to use 100% renewable energy. And the proportion of our clients doing that has increased from about a third a few years ago to two thirds currently.
However, we struggle to transition the other third of our clients because they have their own relationships with hosting providers or niche technical requirements that can only be met by a small number of hosting companies. Until clean energy is standard across the whole industry, it will remain a hard problem to solve. Not to mention that if we dig beneath the surface, we find that not all claims of a 100% renewable energy are created equal. The dream of truly clean energy for all digital services is still a long way away.
But a digital agency doesn’t just exist on the web: we very much have a physical presence and use energy for our day to day operations. We must therefore transition it all to clean energy.
That is why we have always selected office spaces that use renewable electricity tariffs. Then, a few years ago we introduced an incentive for our team to switch to renewable energy at home. This was important because we all work at least partially from home, so we needed to include this home energy as part of our company impact. We offered an extra day of annual paid holiday for anyone using a renewable energy tariff at home. Only two households in our team had a renewable energy tariff at the time, so I thought this would solve it…. And then we waited. It took a long time, but eventually a couple of people made the change, and it got momentum in our team. Three years later, 100% of our team now have a renewable energy tariff at home.
But consuming renewable energy didn’t feel like enough. I also wanted us to take responsibility for generating the renewable energy that we used on the local grid. As a small business with limited funds, and one that doesn’t own any land or a roof, this has been a particularly tough challenge. Our solution was to partner with a climate change charity and fund a project to build a small solar farm at a social space in London using second hand solar panels. We had a great time helping to construct the mini solar farm but sadly it all fell through when the landowner, a powerful London property developer, changed their mind and demanded that the solar be deconstructed so that they could commercialise the land. It was a big blow and we haven’t attempted it again since.
As if electricity supplies weren’t challenging enough, most heating in the UK is powered by burning gas. Most of the team have gas boilers at home, and the building where we’re based in London also has a gas boiler for heating. Other than promoting general energy efficiency and wearing extra jumpers, heating is a challenge that we don’t know how to solve.
Finally, our goal to use only clean energy also extends to our transport. This is tricky as we often don’t have much control over the fuel used by vehicles in which we travel such as buses and trains, but we identified one area where we could make a big difference. Air travel is by definition powered by fossil fuels and has a very high impact on our annual emissions relative to its benefit. We therefore introduced a no fly policy, and are committed to not flying for business until electric flight is a real option.
The next point in the Sustainable Web Manifesto is to use energy and material resources efficiently.
We actually designed our business model with efficiency in mind from the beginning. For us it is significantly more efficient to work from home because it saves a lot of travel and reduces the amount of resources needed for office space. However, we do still need an office in London to meet each other and meet clients. Renting and heating an office space, and then working from home a lot of the time would be hugely wasteful and so we have always used coworking spaces—long before they were cool.
We have also embraced efficiency in our digital work, creating an approach that we call “Efficiency by design”, where we consider energy efficiency in every design decision alongside the usual design criteria. By incorporating efficiency as a design factor, we find that we can achieve much better results than just focusing on technical optimisation during development. At first we found this really challenging because we found it difficult to improve efficiency without making design looks too austere. Some of the elements we look at include file size of visual elements (videos, images and fonts), type of colours (which can be energy-hungry) and client-side processing (scroll, hover animations). We generally seek leaner alternatives and try to reuse elements. Gradually, with practice, we found ways to deliver the quality of design expected by modern web users while also delivering high levels of efficiency.
On top of that, we focused a lot on technical efficiency, and have developed the open source Granola Framework for WordPress, with efficiency at its core. This helps us to ensure that every website we build has an efficient foundation.
Being open and honest
The next two parts of the Sustainable Web Manifesto are arguably two sides of the same coin: open and honest.
We have tried to embed openness and honesty at the heart of our team ethos, and it is why we built our agency almost entirely on word of mouth. In some ways though, for us as a small agency of less than 20 people, I think our biggest impact can come not through the work that we do directly with our clients, but through the influence we can have on the wider web sector.
This influence requires us to be open not just inside our team and with our clients, but with the wider world. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. There is a lot of bravado and marketing hype in the agency world. Nearly everyone claims to be perfect and admitting flaws seems like a risky marketing strategy. The truth is, it can sometimes feel like quite an intimidating world and as a result it can feel hard to be vulnerable in public. However, we have gradually found confidence to be publicly open about what we’re doing, including things that we’re struggling with. It’s actually become a real asset for us in building a following of people who trust and respect us, and perhaps best of all, are willing to help out and collaborate.
It’s helped me to see that when we are all open and honest, we can form stronger, mutually beneficial relationships, even with competitors, and work together to make the world better. This translates across into tools like our Granola framework and website carbon calculator that we share as openly as we can. Both are open source and have led to some great collaborative relationships.
Becoming a regenerative business
The next point of the Sustainable Web Manifesto is that the products and services we create will be regenerative, supporting an economy that nourishes people and planet.
We have reached a point in history when climate change and ecosystem collapse have gone so far that simply trying to be less bad or be neutral is not enough. We need to actually start restoring our ecosystems and ensure that we do more good than harm.
We try to do this through our selective approach to client projects, applying our skills only to things that we believe are, at best, improving the world, and at worst, are doing no harm. In truth though, we can’t claim that we are having a positive impact simply by riding on our clients’ coat tails.
The challenge for us is figuring out how we can help restore nature when our day job is to design and build digital services, which is something that feels very disconnected from the natural world. Yes, we can build and share tools like Website Carbon that have a positive impact in helping our industry reduce emissions, but it doesn’t actually restore nature. That’s why we joined 1% Percent for the Planet, and commit 1% of our annual revenue to supporting non-profit helping to restore nature.
Over the past couple of years, we have funded the planting of over 20,000 native trees in projects designed to regenerate ecosystems and support local communities. Calculated in the trees’ lifetime, this is enough to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere annually as we output, not just as a business but as individuals, too. It’s a good start, but we need to go further and look at historical emissions as well as explore how we can maximise our positive impact to the point where we can honestly claim that our business, over its entire life cycle, has had a net benefit for nature. I suspect that this is a never-ending job.
The final point of the Sustainable Web Manifesto is resilience. Although the manifesto focuses on digital projects, we have tried to embed resilience at the core of our business.
We started our business in 2007, just before the global financial crisis. It taught us a thing or two about resilience, not just financially, but mentally. I believe that in order for us to have a positive impact, we need to also have the longevity to keep delivering that impact.
I am not shy to admit that I run the business cautiously, prioritising resilience and stability over growth and perks. By planning for the worst and hoping for the best, we have thankfully been able to grow organically and remain profitable, even during the turbulence of Brexit and COVID-19.
This resilience has also helped us to be selective about the projects that we work on. By keeping a financial cushion, we have been in a stronger position to turn down projects that don’t align with our values, holding out for projects that we genuinely care about. Over the years, we have turned down over half a million pounds worth of non-aligned projects. It hasn’t been easy, and it was often very uncomfortable, but our financial resilience helped us stay true to our mission. Over time, that has helped us build a reputation that attracted more of the type of projects that we believe in.
That said, it hasn’t all been perfect. We have sometimes struggled to turn down projects that weren’t a good fit, and in one case we became overly dependent on a client that didn’t align with our values. We made the decision to phase out the client in a way that was fair and painless for both parties, but it didn’t go to plan and unravelled a lot faster than we expected, leaving a big hole in our finances. Thankfully we survived, but it was extremely stressful for our team, and it is one of my biggest regrets.
A sustainable digital future
We set out to create a truly sustainable business and have a positive impact on our home planet. After 13 years, I feel like we have made great progress, and I am proud of what our team have achieved pursuing the principles of the Sustainable Web Manifesto.
That said, I have also become acutely aware of how hard true sustainability really is.
If we are to tackle climate change and bring our ecosystems back to health, we are going to need to go a lot further in reinventing not just the products we create and the way we run our businesses, but challenging our fundamental beliefs and behaviours as a society. Digital can help communicate the shift we need to make in the way we live and deliver efficient solutions. It can play a key role in enabling the transition to a sustainable future, if we as an industry decide to make it our priority.
About the Author
Tom Greenwood is the Managing Director of Wholegrain Digital. He has spearheaded many initiatives in the sustainable design scene, including the creation of the Sustainable Web Manifesto and Website Carbon. He gives presentations and writes regular articles on design, business and sustainability.