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Conversation of Change with Tom Greenwood


“There’s really only an upside.” Tom Greenwood expressed as he thought about his hopes for the future of digital sustainability. He’s the author of ‘Sustainable Web Design’ and co-founder of Wholegrain Digital, London’s original WordPress Agency which designs and develops Wordpress websites, and they’ve been a certified B-Corps since 2017.


“One of the nice things about the B-Corps certification process is that it gives you structure and makes you really kind of think about things more seriously.” he said. “And although we’ve been trying to run our business in a sustainable way for many years before then, it helped us to get a bit more focused.”


For the last 14 years, he and his wife, Vineeta, started their business with the aim of helping organisations that are trying to have a social or environmental mission through design and technology.


At Wholegrain Digital, they definitely practice what they preach. They’ve adopted several green initiatives in their agency, and he notes that one of the interesting ones is how they incentivise their team to switch to renewable energy at home.


“It’s not possible in every country, but in the UK we’re quite lucky that we have lots of different electricity providers. Some of them you can buy a renewable energy tariff, so basically we offer our team, we give you an extra day of holiday every year if you switch and it doesn’t cost anymore. They’re basically the same price in the UK, but not many people know that.


“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, it’s gonna cost me more, it’s gonna be a real hassle but actually it’s really easy to switch and doesn’t cost any more money. It was a slow start and took about 3 years, but now every single person on our team has renewable energy.”


How they support their team members also includes a scheme called Climate Perks, which was started by a charity called ‘Possible’. They were one of the first to sign up and made a commitment that if someone takes a personal holiday without using an airplane, they get extra time off that covers the time that takes them to travel by a slower transport.


“The idea is to encourage people to be mindful about their personal travelling.”


MORE TO BE MINDFUL OF


“I would always say that reducing emissions is what needs to happen, so always find ways to reduce emissions first. But we are in a world where we are all emitting emissions from all that we do, day to day, and while we’re doing that, we need to find ways of avoiding the damage done by that.”


There are two types of offsets: one is to pay people not to pollute and the other is to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


For the first offset, Tom clarifies that “paying somebody not to pollute would be like, I pay you to put some solar panels on your roof and then your energy will be cleaner in the future, and that’s a good thing. Those projects are very often worth supporting but they don’t undo what you did, they don’t really remove your emissions from the outside. What they do is that they help decarbonise our energy supplies.”


The second method is the more common nature-based projects, such as tree planting. “There’s no right answer here. Carbon offsetting is inherently imperfect. I would think about how you’d want to support people to reduce their emissions; or try to take responsibility and suck your own emissions back out of the atmosphere.”


OUR DIGITAL CARBON FOOTPRINT


We know the main causes of climate change, but the lesser known truth is that our internet usage contributes to it more than we think.


When we are faced with devastating facts, like learning that the internet uses more electricity than France or the UK, it makes sense to be inspired to draw attention to this extreme situation.


“The first thing is just be aware of the fact that the internet does consume a huge amount of electricity in places we don’t necessarily see.” explained Tom. “Ask the web hosting company whether they have a commitment to using green energy in their data centres and if they don’t, then see if you can move to somebody who does. That’s not too difficult to do.


“The other thing is to be really conscious of the size of the files you’re putting on there. So if you’re a web developer you can get really geeky about this and really into the detail, but if you’re just a content creator and you don’t want to get into the code, you can still think, ‘How big are these images am I putting up on my website and can I make them smaller and maybe make it in a more compressed format before I put them up?’”


He goes on to say that even adding videos to your website uses huge amounts of data and is also quite processing intensive. When someone enters a page and the video starts playing, it’s already bad for the environment. “Just be mindful of that and definitely the one no-no for me is auto-play.”


Though it seems restrictive, Tom emphasises that it doesn’t have to be. It’s all about the choices we make.


And one way to really know how we’re fairing is testing the digital carbon footprint of our websites. Wholegrain Digital is the creator of websitecarbon.com, which is a carbon calculator that tests websites for their sustainability.


“It did start off as a passion project, and it came about before we were certified as a B-Corps,” he said. “We thought, this is really, really important: the fact that there’s nobody doing this, nobody is quantifying an impact of their digital projects and we really should be. Because even if it’s insignificant, we should know that it’s insignificant, we shouldn’t be making that assumption.


“So it was a passion project that we spent a huge amount of time digging through data and how we can translate it to a tool that we can use on an individual website or an individual webpage.”


According to them, the average web page tested produced 1.76g of CO2 per page view. So imagine if a site gets 10, 000 monthly page views? That’s 211kg of CO2 per year.


HIS HOPES


But Tom remains optimistic for the future of digital sustainability. It’s a slow start but data centres are moving in the direction of renewable energy.


He’s hopeful that “people - the digital industry as a whole - will realise that actually making things energy efficient is a win-win for everybody; it’s not like an extra kind of hassle or extra work that you have to do just for the environment.


“If you do, it’s gonna improve your user experience, accessibility, conversion rates, search engine optimisation.”


And his final is for society as a whole, that we “will gradually become more mindful of our use of digital technology. I mean, I think the harsh reality is that as much as digital technology has brought huge benefits to society and will continue to do so, it’s also brought many problems alongside it. We’ve become addicted to it, which is not good for our mental health either.”


It’s the same for social media. “They feel good in the moment and are designed to give us that dopamine hit. It’s like a drug, you feel good immediately when you get that hit but actually like any drug it’s not really good for us in the long term; so there’s obviously the environmental impact, we’re just using the services so much. Also I think socially I don’t think it’s good for us as humans.


“One of these dangers of technology is that they’re so addictive that even when we can go outside to talk to humans we become kind of stuck inside this world and looking at our phones when our friend is sitting right next to us.” he expressed.

“These services gave us a way of feeling a sort of connection but actually when we had the opportunity to go and interact with real humans we should always opt for that.” Tom emphasises that the internet is “a really powerful tool where it adds value but then take a step back from it when we don't need it, and we go outside and listen to the birds, smell the roses.”


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