"If the Internet was a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter."
The Sustainable Web Manifesto compared the global impact of the internet to actual countries, and the result is surprising. After all, what's out of sight can be out of mind. Some days, my output feels wholly intangible: I tap keys that create pixels to spell out words. But there are physical consequences to a digital world, and my work habits impact the environment.
So what can office workers do to make their work sustainable? I asked around to see what workers and employers are doing to go green in the digital world—here's what I learned.
1. Reduce, reuse, and (properly) recycle your devices
Reduce, reuse, recycle is a more-than-50-year-old slogan, but it still offers solid advice to knowledge workers. While we usually think of this lesson we learned in elementary school as something to apply to things like plastic containers, our work devices are just as reduce-able, reusable, and recyclable.
Reduce the number of new devices you buy. For example, even if your company offers a laptop refresh every three years, if your computer is still performing as you need it to, keep it longer. You can always do some computer cleanup to make it last as long as possible.
Reuse items like charging cables. If possible, stick to devices that all use the same charging cord. A new EU law states that "all mobile phones, tablets, and cameras sold in the European Union must be equipped with a USB Type-C charging port by the end of 2024," so that will make things easier on that side of the pond.
Dylan Miller, a Content Marketer & Book Growth Partner, already has a personal one-charger rule. Here's what he told me:
"I have one charger for four of my Google/Android devices rather than buying a new one for each device. And then I just only charge or use one at a time. Heck, old useless cords have become craft projects or another form of rope or strap for semi-permanent structures for my kids rather than throwing them away."
Those little things will add up.
2. Travel mindfully
You don't need a private jet to think about the impact of your travel.
The first thing to consider is everyone's commute. And there are a few ways to deal with it:
Remote work. By now, we've all learned that remote work works (Zapier has been fully remote since its origins over a decade ago). So if you're able to, cut your commute some or all of the time. (And if you're an employer, consider offering remote or hybrid options if you aren't already).
Carpool or use public transportation. Companies can incentivize folks to carpool or use public transit by paying for or subsidizing transit passes or rewarding carpoolers with perks. The difference in carbon footprint is massive.
But there's more to think about than just the day-to-day. Consider conferences and annual retreats as well. If you want to get the entire team together once a year, consider looking for eco-friendly hotel chains. And try to send your employees to virtual conferences instead of in-person ones. Bonus: virtual events can be more accessible and inclusive.
3. Clean up your code
Our digital creations require physical resources. You may not see it, but everything you code and design requires energy. Maggie Storino, an engineer at Zapier, shared:
"Last year, A Book Apart released Sustainable Web Design. It changed my perception of how the internet impacts climate. Now, as a frontend engineer, I am more intentional about writing sustainable code (especially for large assets, images, fonts, etc.)"
A Dutch programmer named Danny Van Kooten reworked his WordPress plugin's code to send 20 KB less data. When multiplied by the number of sites that use the plugin daily, it saves as much monthly CO2 output as 85 round-trip Amsterdam to NYC flights.
4. Download your favorite content
Some sustainable swaps require very little effort—downloading content is one of them. Maggie also said she "downloads songs that I listen to on repeat and turn off video clips in the song view on Spotify" to use fewer resources. While downloading and streaming require similar amounts of energy, if you're listening to or watching the same things over and over again, downloading is hands-down the more sustainable choice.
Tip: To turn off video on Spotify mobile, open the settings in the app, and select Playback. Then toggle off Canvas.
5. Be mindful of consumption and gifting
Gifting can be a relationship-builder, but flooding clients or employees with unnecessary swag and unwanted snacks wastes resources and leaves the recipient to decide what to do with it. Take a look at how Alyce, an HR tech company, uses AI to give thoughtfully at scale, partially because of sustainability.
There are plenty of options for ways to make employee gifting more sustainable:
Give employees a chance to opt out of swag if they don't want it.
Offer alternatives like donating the cost of the swag or getting a small cash bonus.
Make sure your gifts are as personal and impactful as possible, so that folks use them instead of throwing them out.
Suggest that your employees donate unwanted swag instead of tossing it in the trash.
Buy from eco-friendly companies.
Also, just in general, maybe ask your employees if they want the swag or the cash.— Brandon Montenegro (@mxnotarobot) June 23, 2022
6. Move your infrastructure to the cloud
Wildbit, a technology company that sold Postmark and DMARC Digests to ActiveCampaign in 2022, measured their company's environmental impact in 2019 and 2020. The review focused on three areas of emissions: infrastructure, travel, and operations.
After reviewing the environmental impact of its technology infrastructure, the company moved its hosting to Amazon Web Hosting (AWS). According to Wildbit, that "helped reduce our estimated infrastructure footprint from 61.4 tCO2e in 2019 to 58.4 tCO2e in 2020."
Tapping into a dedicated shared infrastructure like AWS can make a big impact. One study found that AWS's infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy efficient than the median of the surveyed U.S. enterprise data centers. Aside from data hosting, you can also move your phone system to the cloud.
7. Choose eco-friendly products
Many of the sustainable swaps you make in your personal life also apply to the professional world. Some ideas include:
Switching to LED bulbs
Setting up your home office in a sunny area, so you need to use fewer lamps
Using reusable water bottles
Buying office furniture second-hand
Bringing a reusable mug to the coffee shop to work
Embrace progress over perfection
There's no way to interact with an environment and not impact it somehow. But that doesn't mean it's futile. Small, continuous progress will help—especially if it's done at a company-wide level. It's time to start conversations with your team about what kinds of changes you can make.