Betting on Net Zero
Companies have a responsibility to do their part in the climate crisis — but can greener digital products and less content mean more profits?
Words by José Manuel Simián
Photos courtesy Getty Images and Unsplash
In his first decade working for creative agencies in England, Daniel O’Connell didn’t think too much about climate change. “I was never that bothered about the environment or considered myself an environmentalist or anything like that,” he says from his house in London.
But by 2018, as product director at the global creative consultancy Frog, now part of Capgemini Invent, things took a turn. “The stuff that Extinction Rebellion was doing along with the school strikes made me realize what a severe issue climate change was,” he says. So he decided to make a change.
“We set up a very small working group of people who were interested in the issue. And then, luckily we had some support from leadership to set up a bit of a working group or task force,” he says. They were focused on sustainability as a broad theme but started asking bigger and bigger questions about the impact of their work on digital products: What’s going on? What does it mean for our business, our clients and our designers?
In other words, O’Connell had started to raise awareness about digital sustainability — a chameleon concept that takes on a number of different meanings but that here refers to the environmental impact large organizations can make by implementing eco-friendly digital practices.
O’Connell and his colleagues began to think seriously about the digital carbon footprint of their products. Their goal was not only to reduce carbon emissions by consuming less energy and space on servers but also to turn more efficient experiences into higher revenues.
In 2021, O’Connell left Frog and, with his ex colleague Chris Moisan, co-founded Product for Net Zero, a professional coaching service aiming to “spark change in product teams across the industry” by capitalizing on the “net zero” transition to a carbon-neutral economy. It’s an opportunity that, according to a report from the New Climate Economy, is expected to inject $26 trillion into the global economy.
“We decided that we were going to try and focus our careers exclusively on climate and biodiversity,” O’Connell says, aware of the leap — but not looking down. “That’s kind of how it came about: sort of just personal interest and then, realizing the severity of the issue, being motivated to do something about it.”
The motivation was sparked by something O’Connell and Moisan saw happening within the advertising industry at large: a basic unawareness about the footprint of digital products and operations.
“There is generally just a kind of lack of connection — not seeing that this is the product that I’m working on, and this is how it connects to the climate emergency, versus someone who is working in transport or in energy, food or agriculture,” O’Connell says. “Those industries, I think, are much more active and engaged.”
Tragedy of the Commons
In many ways, the digital carbon footprint is a tragedy of the commons — and an invisible one, at that. Agencies can easily design digital products without thinking about their environmental impact, just as companies can put them out into the world in a similar way, and users can go on operating without considering that each interaction triggers a chain reaction that generates greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet every new photo they upload to the cloud, every webpage they visit creates some environmental impact. Those impacts may seem negligible — an average website produces 4.61 grams of CO2 per page view, according to German nonprofit Reset — but collectively they add up to the proverbial tragedy.
Large companies across industries are measuring their impact on climate change and are implementing their own net zero programs, sometimes promising complete carbon neutrality. A few actors on the most visible side of the spectrum — like the Big Oil companies that became synonymous with the worst actors in the climate crisis — have set lofty goals, raising skepticism among activists and watchdogs. (ExxonMobil aims to achieve net zero by 2050; Shell plans to “reduce the net carbon intensity” of the energy products it sells by 100% by 2050; and BP hopes to reach net zero “by 2050 or sooner,” while also launching its own environmental products that include solutions for capturing and storing carbon.)
When it comes to the digital carbon footprint, Big Oil has a natural counterpart: Big Tech. These companies may not have played the same role as the fossil fuel industry in lobbying against climate change legislation, but with increasing frequency, media coverage is raising awareness of their impact.
Big Tech’s Big Promise
Subsequently, Netflix joined other Big Tech companies in setting net zero goals and compiling a sustainability report. The 2022 version (released this June) claims the streaming giant is on track to meet its public sustainability commitments, which include halving emissions by 2030 from a 2019 baseline, bringing remaining net emissions from 2022 onward down to zero and reducing Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., those generated by assets not owned or controlled by the company, including data servers) by 2030.
Netflix’s commitments align with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) that serves as the most reliable standard for corporations committed to minimizing their carbon footprint. So do the ambitious goals set by Meta, which claims to have achieved net zero emissions in its global operations in 2020; it has set a goal to reach a similar impact across its whole value chain by 2030.
Meta’s plans explicitly account for the impact of Scope 3 emissions from its data centers. The company’s servers are responsible for the highest percentage of its energy use, water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, many tech companies don't acknowledge this 'elephant in the room.'
“Through our innovative server cooling process, data centers operating in 2021 were at least 80% more water efficient than the average data center,” claims Meta’s 2021 Sustainability Report, before noting that its six data center buildings that received LEED Gold certification in 2021 recycled over 50,000 tons (82%) of construction waste.
Google, for its part, claims to have been the first major company in history to become carbon neutral, in 2007, and the first in the industry to buy renewable energy at scale three years later. Other milestones include being the first major company to neutralize its legacy carbon emissions (2020), and — per its 2022 Environmental Report — being twice as energy-efficient on average at its data centers as compared to a typical enterprise data center.
But Google aims for more: to become the first major company in the world to run on carbon-free energy by 2030 (claiming that five of its data centers around the globe are now operating with near or above 90% carbon-free energy), along with more mitigation measures and sustainability measures, including “carbon-intelligent computing.” (Google’s plans, through parent company Alphabet, are marked as “committed” in the near term by SBTi).
For each promise of Big Tech, though, there is a skeptic: A 2023 report by the NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch says that 24 of the world’s largest companies, which together are responsible for about 4% of global CO2 emissions, have offered “net zero” climate plans that in reality add up to emissions reductions of only 36%. The Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor also casts doubt on Google’s carbon reduction promises.
World Wide Waste
Gerry McGovern is perhaps the most prominent, outspoken skeptic of the corporate world’s promises to mitigate its digital impact on the environment.
He is also a practitioner of digital sustainability. McGovern developed “Top Tasks,” a method for getting rid of up to 80% to 90% of unnecessary content, menus and links on websites, and achieving better search results. The Irish consultant is also famous for coining the term “World Wide Waste,” also the title of his 2020 book. It can perhaps be summarized in one provocative fact: that up to 90% of digital data is not being used.
“What sort of society accepts 90% waste?” he famously asked — a question that lingers on, as we keep producing content and data at an exponential rate.
McGovern has been involved in web content production since the 1990s, three decades of experience that have allowed him to question the nature of digital content practices and the software we use for them.
“They called them content management systems, but they were really content publishing systems,” McGovern says from his home in Valencia, Spain. “We never had serious maintenance! There is a saying: Websites are designed by dogs, but managed by cats.”
For McGovern, practices for digital sustainability mean making large organizations aware that they’re starting a cycle every time they hit publish. “It’s not just an end-of-cycle process,” he says. “We must really introduce serious maintenance and auditing at most organizations. They don’t even know how many computers they have — let alone how much content!”
Practices for digital sustainability shouldn’t stop at just deleting content, McGovern says. The whole cycle can resemble what we’re doing with physical waste in many forms: recycling and repurposing content, and designing and accounting for that goal from the beginning of the cycle, starting with the code.
“Digital sustainability is not at the same level as user-centered design or accessibility in the industry,” says O’Connell, noting that digital sustainability via green design and content management and repurposing are, in many ways, still nascent. “There are no standards, and there are four or five different ways to estimate or think about the footprint. We are seeing a set of best practices emerge, so it’s not like Jakob Nielsen’s 10 heuristics of usability.”
The Bottom Line
In the long run, becoming digitally sustainable is not just about being a virtuous organization: It’s also an economic opportunity.
Part of that opportunity is a no-brainer: Less content to create, manage and store means less energy devoted to its creation, storage and maintenance (and fewer billable hours). This also means lower costs. For users, less content that’s more focused — and apps that are more agile — mean more efficient user journeys, which arguably translate into higher conversion rates and better results.
While the “less is more” doctrine is not widely adopted by organizations that may still be relying blindly on the “content is king” mantra and the promises of cheap cloud computing and storage, some notable examples reveal the potential impact. In the past decade, the Norwegian Cancer Society has reduced the content on its website tenfold, from 5,000 to 500 pages, after applying McGovern’s Top Tasks method. Donations to the charity-based organization have doubled.
The most famous case of content consolidation and reduction to achieve better results both for users and the bottom line might be the U.K.’s government website. The Government Digital Service, launched in 2011, replaced 1,882 websites for 25 departments and hundreds of smaller agencies with the lean, unified gov.uk site. This substantial consolidation and reduction of digital waste meant achieving an annual operational cost of less than 30% that of the original sites, and more than $75 million in annual savings from department budgets.
Evidence of the economic benefits of reducing our digital carbon footprint is everywhere.
According to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of renewable energy continues to fall and in some cases has become cheaper than that generated by fossil fuels. By becoming more energy-efficient and switching to lower-cost renewable power, companies have reportedly achieved substantial savings.
For example, per the World Economic Forum, Unilever achieved $900 million in savings by sourcing low-cost renewable electricity, while IKEA saved $147 million over five years by implementing renewable energy. Similarly, climate leaders in the energy sector, including Enel, Iberdrola, Neste, NextEra Energy and Ørsted, generated total annual shareholder returns close to 30% from 2017 to 2020, a level comparable to that of Big Tech.
Energy and storage costs aside, reducing the digital carbon footprint and achieving better economic results and user experiences comes back to the atomic structure of digital. The future demands leaner, smaller, more efficient digital products devoid of unnecessary content and that don’t contribute to the aforementioned tragedy of the commons.
“The first step for agencies and organizations that create digital products is to acknowledge that there is a problem, confront its severity and start talking about what to do,” says O’Connell. “And from there, engage with peers, the industry and clients on the issue. That’s really, really important.”
José Manuel Simián is associate director of content strategy at Huge. He educated audiences on the topic of digital waste at SXSW 2022, and his writing on the matter is published in the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing.