Dirty Digital Footprints: An Exposé of “Green” Websites

Although interest in sustainability is expanding to include a wide range of areas, an analysis of 40 leading “green” websites indicates that digital footprints are often overlooked. At the end of April, the World Wide Web celebrated its 20th anniversary. While the Internet is often considered to be more environmentally friendly than traditional communications channels, this supposition is subject to a number of caveats.

Most people think the web is a green medium, but the average website has a carbon footprint that is similar to a book or a newspaper. Some web pages have a carbon footprint that exceeds that of a printed page, especially if the web page is left open for long periods of time.

According to a recent report in the New York Times, data centers use 30 billion watts of electricity per year globally, and the U.S. is responsible for one-third of that amount (10 billion watts). Most of that energy comes from sources that are neither renewable nor clean.

A 2011 analysis titled Carbon Footprinting the Internet, suggests that global IT is responsible for two to four percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Nowhere is the pursuit of sustainability more acute than in the business community. Most corporations now acknowledge that sustainability not only offers a competitive advantage, it is a business imperative. This trend is being driven by many factors, not the least of which is consumer demand.

As revealed in a 2011 Cone/Echo Global CR Opportunity Report, consumers now expect companies to be more socially and environmentally responsible. As revealed in this report, only 6 percent of consumers believe that the role of business is simply to make money and 94 percent want companies to change business practices so they have a positive impact on the world. More than 90 percent want companies to go beyond the minimum standards required by law.

Many, if not most, consumers (people) believe that, as a society, we should consume less, protect environmental resources more, and adopt a circular economy. Changing consumer demand constitutes a powerful incentive for companies to adopt organization-wide sustainability initiatives.

The business case for sustainability has been repeatedly proven. A summary review of 20 studies from Natural Capitalism demonstrates that sustainability offers tangible business benefits. Companies are now employing sustainability officers and deploying green teams who look for ways of increasing efficiency and minimizing their environmental footprints.

For most companies, improving sustainability begins in the physical space with initiatives like recycling programs and eco-friendly materials sourcing. However, it is far less common for companies to examine and improve their online environmental impacts. This represents an important opportunity, as many corporate sustainability leaders have websites that are both inefficient and unsustainable.

On Earth Day 2013, Mightybytes, a certified B Corporation, launched a web-based app called EcoGrader that assesses a website’s carbon footprint. The Chicago-based company’s new app analyzes and grades a site on a score from 0-100 based on a site’s sustainability performance in the following four areas:

  1.  Green hosting is assessed based on a provider that is powered by renewable energy or associated renewable energy credits (RECs).
  2. Findability is based on the amount of time the user spends looking for the information that he or she needs on a website. (The less time a user has to search for the information that they are looking for, the less energy is required to deliver that content).
  3. Design and user experience ranking is grounded in mobile optimizations and the use of HTML 5 and CSS 3 instead of Flash. (When data-heavy assets weigh down a site, more energy is required to bring up the site).
  4. Performance depends on page load times and the number of files and server requests required for each page to load.

Scores in each area are aggregated to generate a composite grade between 0 and 100 (Mightybytes’ website generated a score of 89).

A review of leading green websites using EcoGrader reveals that most receive a failing grade. Included in this assessment are the websites of corporate sustainability leaders, green business & sustainable development magazines, green news & environmental advocates and green lifestyle sites.

The website selection for sustainability leaders was derived from the top 10 in Corporate Knights top 100 for 2013. This is a list of the leading companies in what they call “clean capitalism.”

Corporate Sustainability Leaders

  • Storebrand:  38
  • Biogen Idec Inc.:  40
  • Statoil:  44
  • Neste:  45
  • Koninklijke Philips Electronics:  48
  • Novo Nordisk:  49
  • Natura Cosmeticos:  54
  • Umicore:  56
  • Dassault Systemes  64
  • Westpac Banking Corp.:   65

 Average score: 50

Green Business and Sustainable Development Magazines

  • Our Planet:  35
  • One World:  35
  • Environmental Leader:  36
  • Earth Trends (WRI):  38
  • Triple Pundit:  40
  • Greenbiz: 40
  • Sustainable Industries Magazine: 43
  • EcoWorld: 44
  • BusinessGreen:  54
  • Fair Companies:  57

Average score: 46

Green News and Environmental Advocacy

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): 24
  • WorldWatch Institute: 40
  • Treehugger: 41
  • Mother Nature Network:  41
  • EarthWatch Institute:  43
  • Earth Day Network: 43
  • Sierra Club:  44
  • Greenpeace USA:  55
  • Friends of the Earth:  59
  • World Wildlife Foundation:  61

Average Score: 45

Green Lifestyle Magazines

  • The Daily Green:  23
  • The Chalk Board:  38
  • Inhabitat:  40
  • GreenLiving:  41
  • Going Green Lifestyle:  47
  • Freshome:  52
  • EcoFabulous:  54
  • The Cool Hunter:  55
  • Jetson Green:  55
  • Apartment Therapy:  56

Average Score:  46

The combined average score across all four areas is 46.75. The failing average grade and the failing individual grades given to most of these sites demonstrates that even those who purport to be “green” are often oblivious to their digital footprints.  On the flip-side, these abysmal scores suggest that there are widespread opportunities to minimize environmental impacts in the digital realm.

Interest in website footprint assessment is destined to grow as we increasingly look for ways to minimize our environmental impacts. This may very well be the next frontier of environmental sustainability.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: bandarji, courtesy Flickr


Richard Matthews
Richard Matthewshttps://thegreenmarketoracle.com/
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. Good stuff. Thanks for publishing this guys. It’s an interesting set of criteria (ie, I’m not really convinced mobile optimization is that big a deal with regards to sustainability) but we are working on a new, far less intensive site design… also, our host, Pair.com is one of the longest running hosts using 100% renewable energy and is 100% carbon neutral via offsets … for some reason they’re not listed in the list these guys put together. We’ll let them know 🙂

  2. Nick, thanks for the heads up on Pair.com. We are accruing a list of additional hosting providers to vet since the Earth Day launch, so we’ll definitely add that one. Appreciate you letting us know about them.

    Our philosophy behind including mobile optimization in the EcoGrader scoring criteria is that it takes far less time to search, find and interact with information when a site is optimized for the device you’re using. Since there are 1 billion people across the world browsing the internet using smart phones, it makes good business sense to optimize websites for viewing on those devices. Collectively, those sites will use far less resources if the experience they offer is optimized for mobile.


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