#52 – Hannah Smith on Why We Need To Be Making Websites More Sustainable

Jukebox
Jukebox
#52 – Hannah Smith on Why We Need To Be Making Websites More Sustainable
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Transcript

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley.

Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case making websites more sustainable.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, well, I’m very keen to hear from you and hopefully get you, or your idea featured on the show. Head to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox. And use the form there.

So on the podcast today, we have Hannah Smith. Hannah is the operations and training manager for the Green Web Foundation, and founder of The Let’s Green The Web campaign. She’s also co-founder of Green Tech Southwest.

Her background is in computer science. She previously worked as a freelance WordPress developer and also for the Environment Agency, where she managed business change projects.

It’s pretty easy to forget that the device that you’re reading or listening to this podcast on is consuming power. We plug things in or charge them up, and they just work. They are sleek and sterile. No pollution comes out of the device directly. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that many of us never make the connection between our use of technology and the impact that this has on the environment.

Enter Hannah Smith. She’s been thinking about this for years and is on the podcast today to highlight the issue and hopefully get your ideas about what users of WordPress can do to make sure that the websites we create are having the smallest impact possible.

Her approach is not that we need to cease and desist using our technology. Rather it’s about coming up with new and innovative ways that we can reduce the impact that we have.

As creators of websites, there are a whole raft of options available to us. Reducing the size of our images. Inspecting the HTML to remove bloat. Choosing hosting options that source renewable energy.

With this in mind, Hannah and others have been working on a sustainability related blog post, which has been published on the Make WordPress site this week. This post is intended to trigger meaningful and open discussion in the global WordPress community about the topic of sustainability.

She really wants to encourage others to weigh into this public conversation with their own thoughts, so that we can build on what is already happening to make WordPress more sustainable.

It’s a fascinating and thought provoking topic, and if you’re interested in finding out more, you can get all of the links in the show notes by heading over to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast. Where you’ll find all of the other episodes as well.

And so without further delay, I bring you Hannah Smith.

I am joined on the podcast today by Hannah Smith. Hello Hannah.

[00:04:02] Hannah Smith: Hello Nathan. Thank you so much for having me today.

[00:04:05] Nathan Wrigley: You are so welcome. Hannah is here today to talk about the environmental impact of having WordPress websites, and I genuinely think this is going to be a real eye opener for many of us.

Before we do that though Hannah, we always orientate our listeners by allowing the guests to just give us a bit of background on who they are and what their relationship is with WordPress. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to ask you that very generic question is just tell us a little bit about yourself and how come you are into WordPress.

[00:04:35] Hannah Smith: Thank you. I’m a massive fan of WordPress. I’ve so much love and admiration for the community. So my background is as a computer scientist, so that’s what I studied in my degree. Had, like many people, are very sort of winding interesting journey in and around different things.

And about eight years ago, I set myself up as a freelance WordPress developer. So having done sort of other careers within tech, I won’t give you the long winding path that I got there, but serendipity basically somehow landed me, as a freelance WordPress developer. Finding myself wanting to give it a go.

I was living in Bristol at the time, and wanted to learn more about WordPress and found that we had a meetup community in Bristol, and decided to pop along. Was made to feel very welcome, and learn loads from the awesome people there. So, a shout out to Simon, Janice, and Rob, who were the people that grounded me into that community.

And then it wasn’t long before I somehow found myself invited to help run that community and help drive that community, which I was very happy to do for a good few years. And then in 2019 we did WordCamp Bristol. We had about 200 odd people come to that, which was brilliant. And I’ve been quite involved in WordCamps and speaking at conferences. Try and contribute where I can.

These days I’ve actually hung up my shoes, only recently as a WordPress developer, and I’ve transitioned to working full-time for the Green Web Foundation. But part of my role at the Green Web Foundation, so I do a lot of training and outreach and operations, because we’re small, so everyone wears lots of hats.

But I do also manage our WordPress website as well and our WordPress estate too. So, whilst it might not be my full job title to have WordPress every single day, it is still very much a part of what I do.

[00:06:35] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you. What a, rich and interesting history you’ve had. We’ve met in person on a number of occasions, but it’s been a little while since we met up in person. But you came across my radar on the 1st of November because of a piece that you had written over on make.wordpress.org.

I will link to it in the show notes and, it may well be a good idea, if you’re listening to this podcast and you are anywhere near a device, it might be a good idea to pause the podcast actually. Go and read the piece it’s called, now we have a sustainability channel in making WordPress Slack, what should we do?

And the reason I’m asking you to potentially go and read that is because really it’s going to form the basis of everything that we are going to be talking about around the environment and so on. So tell us what was the concern? What was the primary motive for writing that piece?

[00:07:25] Hannah Smith: So, the piece was written very much in collaboration with four others, so I want to say from the outset that whilst it was my face next to the post when you read it, I was the nominated person to publish it. It was very much a collaborative effort with four others.

So with Nora, Nahuai, Pace, and Csaba, who are placed in different places across Europe. And, Nahuai and Nora, I knew from some workshops I’d run back in the spring, exploring the topic of digital sustainability. But we were chatting and we all felt that where was the action in WordPress on sustainability?

We were kind of looking around and, I’m very involved in the wider community around digital sustainability. But I was looking around and I was like, I just don’t feel this in WordPress. It’s just not surfaced enough. It’s very niche and, we are really getting to a point where sustainability can’t be a niche concern.

It has to be a concern for everybody, everywhere because what’s happening around us in terms of the changing climate, in terms of our lack of sustainable approaches, does affect every single person, whether they want to admit that or not. We are all impacted by it. Rich, poor, young, old, we’re all going to face these consequences.

So we were chatting and Nora and Nahuai I were at WordCamp Europe this year, and Nora actually asked a question in, you know the Q and A that Josepha and Matt have? So Nora asked a question about sustainability and stood up. I mean more power to her. She stood up in front of the whole crowd and said, hey, sustainability. We really care about this, but there’s nothing much happening, and Matt and Josepha said, well, okay, look. The very first thing we can do is set up a channel in Slack. So maybe that will help, WordPress Slack. You know to give people a collaboration space and a meeting space.

And they also said, well, and if you’ve got any ideas or specific proposals that you want to make, we are going to listen. The door is open, essentially. So Nora set this ball in motion really with her question. And then Josepha and Matt responded really well. And so since then, since the summer, a few of us have been sort of working, just informally, thinking, okay, well how do we capitalize upon this?

WordPress leadership is saying we’re listening, or, we are happy to collaborate with you. But now what we need to do is to get the community together and to get the community, A, to know who each other are, and B, to acknowledge this is a topic and to talk about it, and discuss it, and bring knowledge and ideas into a space together. So this is why we ended up writing the post. And the post is very much saying, hey, WordPress community, look, we’ve got this channel, but you know, a channel isn’t going to solve our problems.

It’s, it’s you. You and your ideas that are going to solve these problems or that are going to make progress. So, could we please get into a discussion about what people’s ideas are? So we’ve invited people to share their ideas and particularly any vision that they have. Or ideas that they have around what sustainability and WordPress might look like in the future.

Because if we can’t imagine it, we’re not going to get there. And I think a lot of the narrative around climate change is very doom and gloom. It’s very pessimistic. It feels almost like we’re accepting that we’ve been defeated. opposite. It’s so the opposite. We have every opportunity and potential here to turn things around and change things. It is not yet too late. So we wanted to really bring everyone together and imagine these ideas together and then see where that leads us.

[00:11:18] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you. That’s really helpful. You used the word sustainable a dozen times or more in, in that, last little section, and it occurs to me that there’s probably quite a few people listening who have some sort of conception of what we mean by sustainability, but I’m pretty sure that everybody’s conception of it will be slightly different to everybody else’s.

What exactly are you meaning when you say sustainability in WordPress or sustainability surrounding WordPress? What are the areas that you are touching on? What are the points of concern that we need to have drawn to our attention?

[00:11:54] Hannah Smith: Yeah, that’s a great question. You are absolutely right that most people will have slightly differing ideas of sustainability. Some people may even have a very narrow view of sustainability, which might be something called decarbonization. Which really relates around carbon emissions. But, Perhaps let me give a really sort of wide view of what sustainability is outside of the realms of tech or WordPress, and then we can kind of narrow in a bit and talk about how that relates then to tech or digital specifically, or WordPress specifically.

So if we talk about sustainability or the word sustain, it means that we’re able to keep doing things into the long term. There’s this quote that’s often used. It’s about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs, or the ability of the future generations to meet their needs. So at it’s most basic level, sustainability can mean that. To get a bit more specific about it, I draw on something called the donor economics framework.

If anybody here is interested in a really holistic way of thinking about sustainability, that’s a bit more in depth, I really recommend this as a resource to have a look at. Very accessible. Don’t let the fact that it’s about economics or economics turn you away, make you think it’s not for you. It is for everybody. And the way that donor economics talks about sustainability, I really love this is, it talks about sustainability as having humanity at the center of the story.

So sustainability is much more than us thinking about the environmental ecosystems. It’s about thinking about how humanity sits within the environment. So if you can imagine a simple donut shape with a hole in the middle. Essentially what you get there is two circles, one smaller one inside, a bigger one. That smaller circle, we might often think of something that they term as the social foundation. And the social foundation is a set of 12 things that, when you consider them all in relation to one another, define the things that makes us human, and defines the things that just allow us to survive as humans, but allows us to really thrive as humans.

So it’s more than just thinking about food, water, shelter, clothing. It’s also thinking about those emotional needs that we have as well around peace and justice. Around meaningful connections with other people around access to education and opportunities. So I love to think about our social foundation as the center of the story of sustainability. Because humans are a part of this planet. And it is a very dangerous mindset, or a very dangerous kind of thing to get into, to think that the only way that we become more sustainable is by not being here. And that’s really not a good story to tell, and it’s not the right story to tell. We are part of the planet, and we can live within the boundaries of what the planet can provide for us.

And that moves me onto the second circle, this outer circle. And donor economics talks about that as our ecological boundaries or our ecological ceiling. And that’s basically accepting that the planet has a finite amount of resources. There’s only so much wind that blows. There’s only so many raw materials in the ground. There’s only so much accessible water, drinkable water. There’s only so much land.

It helps us understand that we have these boundaries in place. We have these limitations. So when we talk about sustainability, or when I’m talking personally talking about sustainability, I’m thinking about those concepts. I’m thinking about humanity being at the center of the planet. Being at the center of our concerns, but I’m also thinking that humanity has to live within these constraints that the world places upon us.

And in donor economics, if you have that donut shaped circle, if I’m hoping everyone listening can picture it or maybe you’ve looked it up online. If you’ve got this kind of circle, what you have is, the way the donor economics talks about it is we talk about sustainability as being this sweet spot in the middle where we are meeting everybody’s needs to thrive. But we are doing that within the boundaries of the planet. And that it is absolutely possible that we can have nice things and that we can be happy, healthy, joyful humans, but that we can live within the means of our planet.

So for me, sustainability is that broad concept. And I’m just going to stop there, Nathan, because I know we haven’t actually talked about this before and I’m curious to know, how that resonates with you, as a definition of sustainability or as a way of thinking about it.

[00:17:05] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, I fully understand where you are coming from. I guess the piece that I’m confronted with is that, I always think of, how to describe this. I very often think of conservation and I think about it in terms of we’ve got to do less things. We’ve got to drive the car less. We’ve got to consume less electricity, we’ve got to get on planes less. We’ve got to produce less.

And so the environmental debate always, for me at least anyway, comes back to reducing what we’re doing and kind of admitting to ourselves that the aspirations that we seem to have as a species, to rampantly consume everything and believe that we are fully in charge of everything on the planet.

It feels as if we need to put the breaks on and actually, rather than that, we need to go in reverse. We need to, like I said, produce less things, consume less things. It sounds as if you’ve got a slightly different philosophy there, which is we’ve just got to figure out how we can carry on the way we are. But with cleverer solutions so that the things that we create, the plane journeys that we go on, the cars that we drive. All of that’s still possible, but we need to figure out how the impact of that would be lessened.

[00:18:28] Hannah Smith: Almost, yeah. That’s almost what I’m saying, but not quite. If we think about what we’re driving our cars for. What we are flying for. What are we doing these things for? It might be that the mechanism by which we create connection with one another or that we get from A to B, or that we see our family and friends, or that we have meaningful relationships with people.

It might be that those things are done differently. And yeah, so it might mean that we reduce car use. We reduce airplane flights. But that doesn’t mean we don’t replace it with other things. Technology is amazing. I mean, look at, look at the internet. It’s absolutely incredible what digital technology enables us to do.

So I think the story of sustainability, it’s very, very important to not get drawn into this narrative that we’ve all got to live like cave people, which is so often what people think being sustainable means. It means giving up all the things that bring us joy and bring us meaning in life.

And actually, I don’t buy that at all. I think that that is the wrong way to look at sustainability. I actually think what living in a truly sustainable way means is reducing the things that don’t give us those joyful things. Don’t provide meaningful connection in our life, and replacing them with the things that do. And do you know what? What’s amazing is that the things that genuinely, meaningfully do improve our lives, are generally sustainable, at the same time. Like riding a bike, walking, exercising, spending less time on social media, perhaps doing more time crafting or reading a book. Those things do all actually add to our lives, add to our happiness, add to our, you know, meaning and purpose.

So I think it’s a really important starting point just to say to the WordPress community, hey, look, being sustainable doesn’t mean we’re going to lose all these things that we love. In fact, we are going to lose the things that don’t service and replace them with better, better, more meaningful things.

[00:20:39] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. One of the things that I find tricky is I don’t really equate my use of the internet with the environmental consequences that there are from my use of the internet. Before we hit record, I was talking to you, I described how the technology that I’m using, so I’ve got a computer in front of me, I have a mobile phone. Unless I actually apply thought, my default in a way, is that they are completely benign and harmless. Typically, if I’m using my mobile phone say, there’s not really any part of me which is consciously thinking, okay, for every minute that I spend on this phone, there’s a consequence to this. There’s an environmental impact. I’m consuming electricity. That phone needed to be charged, and the same would go for any device, any piece of technology, any website that I visit.

Just not bridging that gap. Whereas other things, so for example, the driving of the car. I’m acutely aware of the consequences of that because there’s things actually coming out of the rear of that car through the exhaust system that I can detect. I can feel the harm from that.

You know? There’s no way that if you told me to go and stand behind a car for 10 minutes and breathe in deeply. There’s no way that that’s going to be something that I wish to do. I can draw a, a line between the stuff that’s coming out the exhaust, and my health and lungs, I can completely understand that. Whereas the phone, like I said, is completely benign. I could do that for hours, and so, I do think it’s an interesting thing.

I wonder if you sense that generally speaking. When you have these discussions and you are trying to encourage people to equate internet use, technology use, whatever it may be, with the consequences of that, I’m wondering if people are generally, they’re open to it, they understand it, they draw that line themselves immediately.

Or is there a bit of, what, hang on a minute. I’ve, I’m going to have to apply some thought to this. What do you mean? How can my, how can my computer possibly be doing any harm?

[00:22:53] Hannah Smith: oh yeah, it’s such a good point. I mean, I can speak from my own experience as someone that has always been really interested in the environment, and really conscious of sustainability, environmentalism. And it wasn’t until I went to WordCamp Europe, when it was in Berlin actually, and Jack Lenox was giving a talk and Jack Lenox’s talk was, are website’s killing the planet? Something along those lines.

I had this like total mad aha moment where I was like, oh my God, right? Digital tech runs on electricity. Has to be built. All that stuff’s got to come from somewhere. So of course it has an impact. But it wasn’t until I heard Jack’s talk, and also around the same sort of time, I heard Whole Grain Digital talking as well, I put two and two together.

So it’s funny, but once, as soon as someone told me, oh yeah, you are using electricity to run this stuff. And of course electricity is mostly coming from the burning of fossil fuels, and all this stuff has to be manufactured. So all the lithium and cobalt, gold and silver and all the stuff that’s in your phone all has to come from somewhere. And that’s really energy intensive and damaging to create, or extract.

As soon as I was given that little push in the right direction, suddenly this whole cascade of implications unfolded in front of me, and I was like, oh, well, yeah obviously, now I see it. But I, like many people, I think just need to be given that little nudge. Really helps to hear someone say that explicitly. Hey, did you know that between, see if I can get the numbers right. 1.9 and 3.3% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions arise from our use of digital tech.

Did you know that that’s more than shipping and more than aviation? Did you know that that actually means that the internet becomes the world’s seventh biggest polluter is a country? When you start to hear those things, yeah, it dawns on you. And that’s certainly how I came into this space, or certainly how I kind of realized this for the first time.

Maybe many people listening to what I’ve just said, the light bulbs have just flicked on as well and gone, oh right, yeah, of course, good point. It’s unseen, isn’t it, this pollution? To your point earlier, it’s all been abstracted away from us, so that we have clean, convenient lives. As you rightly say, you know, our phones are really sleek. Our laptops are really sleek. And that’s part of the service I suppose, that we’re being provided. We’re being given this convenience. We’re being given beautiful, well designed things. But that impact, unfortunately, is still very real at the moment. Maybe in time to come, we’ll get to a place where it’s not.

We’ll have some new technologies that perhaps use the regenerative techniques, where we’re not extracting materials from the ground. Maybe we can start to grow them or find other ways to create them. But right now, yeah, that impact is real. Whoever came up with the term cloud really like clever, but from a sustainability angle, not helpful.

[00:26:15] Nathan Wrigley: It’s about the most benign thing imaginable, isn’t it? It’s fluffy and, welcoming and, you know, they’re associated with the sun and all of that. Yeah, that’s interesting.

[00:26:24] Hannah Smith: Yeah, and it’s just not true. Like actually it’s like a big diesel plume. To your point, actually the reality is 62% of the world’s energy, electricity comes from fossil fuel sources. And we can think about it as the internet is actually the world’s largest coal fired machine. When you start to have those pictures in your head, it does change your relationship to what you’re doing and what you have in front of you a bit I think.

[00:26:51] Nathan Wrigley: And I guess that’s really the purpose of what it is that you are doing in the article that you wrote. Is you are, you’re keenly aware of this. It’s obviously something which is meaningful to you on a personal level. And you are, you’re really scouting out for ideas and suggestions and, for the community to gather around, and come up with what we can do.

So, let’s lay out a few things in terms of WordPress. These are the things which just come into my mind as we’re sitting here talking to one another. I confess that there isn’t a great deal of backstory here. I’m just going to generate things as they come up into my mind.

So the first thing is that our website’s dependent upon what is being presented to the end user. So, you know, if it’s a, if it’s a website, which is rich in large images. If it’s a website which is rich in video. If it’s a website which has huge amounts of JavaScript and CSS. We are pushing more bits over the wire. And so maybe there’s a piece there. Can we cut down the amount that WordPress needs to do, and needs to deliver?Would that have an impact?

[00:28:00] Hannah Smith: Definitely.

[00:28:02] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. And then another thing which comes into my head is, at the end of the day when I finish with my computer, the last thing I do is I switch it off. I turn it off, and then when I need it again, I’ll switch it on and I’ll, whenever I’ve finished I turn it off again, so it’s on, off, on, off.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s off more than It’s on. Significantly more. But our website hosting, let’s just call it that, wherever that might be, whatever system you are using. We need that to be on all the time because our websites need to be available all the time. That’s one of the points is something which is, you know, you don’t have to go to a website and be visited by a page which says, one moment, we’re just going to switch the computer on, and come back in a moment and everything will be ready to go.

No, you want it to be ready immediately. And in fact, we’re being told all the time that the faster our webpage is being served up, the better it’s going to do in search engine rankings, which is almost like a holy grail. So everything needs to be quicker and everything needs to be more available.

So there’s just a couple of pieces there really, which came to my head, the first one being that can we reduce the amount that WordPress has to serve up, and will that have a positive effect? And obviously that very much feels like a seesaw. You could argue that from both sides. But also the machines that our websites are running on, there’s probably quite a lot of conversations that we could have around there. The kind of things that hosting companies are doing to source the power and so on and so forth.

[00:29:30] Hannah Smith: Yeah, I mean, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? You start to think about these things and you’ve hit upon two real, really key actionable things that we can look at within WordPress. So we’re talking at the moment about electricity and energy use, and I’m just going to sort put this into context and say, hey, don’t forget that electricity and energy use is just one aspect of sustainability. There is a little bit more to it than that.

But I do think that when you are brand new to thinking about the impact of digital tech on sustainability, this is an absolutely awesome starting point. It’s very tangible and there’s quite a bit of research and tooling out there to help you. So I just want to kind of caveat and say, let’s deep dive into that for a little bit, awesome. But bear in mind, there’s more to think about.

There is a very direct relationship between the amount of data that you send and the amount of CO2 emissions that that creates. So the more data to use your words, the more data, the more stuff you’re sending down the wire, the more pollution or the more energy that you’re using.

And there’s a simple way to calculate this. For anyone that wants to get into this. If you know how much data you are sending, we can estimate how much electricity that is going to use to send that data from A to B. Whole load of assumptions that you’ll have to make in order to make that estimation.

But there’s some models out there that you can use. You can have a look at the sustainable web design website. So if you know how much data you’ve got, you can figure out an estimation of how much electricity that would use to send from A to B. And then we can use something called carbon intensity data.

And carbon intensity data allows us to understand how much CO2 emissions are created per unit of energy, or per unit of electricity that is created. So I mentioned to you that 62% of the worlds electricity is generated by fossil fuels. In different countries, and in different regions that will change. So I think Norway, for example, is 100% renewable energy.

So depending on where you are in the world, you’ll have different carbon intensities to consider. But yeah, so essentially it can come down, a really good starting point is to think about performance and optimization, and think about how can I reduce the waste around this. There are dozens of reasons why we should be thinking about performance anyway.

This is not a new ask of developers, or ask of technical people to think about performance. We have reasons around accessibility. We have reasons around cost. We also have reasons around SEO as well. The more performant and optimize something is, the better your SEO. And we also have things to think about in terms of people’s enjoyment of using said service, or said website.

And we can add another one, another cracking good reason to think about this optimization and performance, and that is also the sustainability angle. So, I mean, really this stuff is just stacking up and stacking up to be like a no brainer. If you want to be a sustainable web developer, your first job is to get good at performance and optimization.

[00:32:50] Nathan Wrigley: It’s interesting, the whole performance thing, while you were talking about that, I was thinking about the fact that performance really can go in two directions. The performance could be gained by cutting out waste, but it can also be gained by using more resources.

[00:33:05] Hannah Smith: Ha ha, yes, good shout.

[00:33:07] Nathan Wrigley: It is possible to simply say to yourself, I shall purchase more expensive hosting, which has got more CPUs and so on and so forth. And in that way, I cut out the need for me to make my website leaner, if you know what I mean. So, just to be clear, when you talk about performance, you really are talking about getting rid of the waste, considering whether that image needs to be that big or could it be smaller? Do I need to put that video on there? It’s more trimming things down as opposed to spending more money on a faster machine for example.

[00:33:39] Hannah Smith: Interesting point. I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Yes and no I would answer that question. 100% the yes part is definitely around the waste. Is around just not sending stuff we don’t need. Not having analytics collecting that we don’t need. Not generating data that we don’t need.

The resources part is a really interesting one, because there’s a piece around maybe using our resources more wisely. So there can be arguments for perhaps having better hosting. Because if that better hosting, say you are serving a website across, you’ve got users all across the world visiting your website. Actually having a better hosting service that makes really good use of CDNs, content delivery networks, actually can have an impact on sustainability.

Because if you are serving your data closer to the person that actually wants to use that data, you can save quite a bit of energy, electricity, because you’re not sending it from one side of the world to the other. And there is an electricity cost to doing that. Again, it’s not seen by us, but it’s real. It is there.

So the service side, the hosting side of things. Something very specific you can do there is look for hosting companies that are using renewable energy, using renewable energy sources to power themselves. And I’m going to plug the Green Web Foundation where I’m working now.

We have a really awesome data set, which we’ve been collecting for 10 years or so on hosting companies that are powered by renewables. That’s a very specific action you can take. But yeah, to your point that you can make something really performant by chucking loads of resources at it. Yeah, that’s not what we are talking about here when we are talking about sustainability. We are talking about speeding things up through the use of wise resources instead.

[00:35:36] Nathan Wrigley: I know that time is pressing for you, so we’ll wrap up fairly shortly, but I just want to, just want to offer a few thoughts as well, and, the piece that I mentioned towards the beginning of the podcast where I said that, it’s very difficult I think for me, and I’m sure a lot of other people as well, to draw the line between the website and the impact on the environment, and I’m wondering if it might be that we need to be alerted to the consequences of our use of the internet.

So just throwing out some ideas, which probably, may very well have no legs, but just some thoughts really. Would be interesting, for example, if in the WordPress backend we could see something which gave us a measure of what it was that our website was doing. So if it gave us a direct link to okay, every, every time somebody comes to this particular page, this is what you are sending to them, and that has this kind of consequence.

Now, obviously, that’s much more complicated, as you’ve described, because it depends on the hosting that you’re using. It depends whether they’re close or far away. But just some sort of broad metrics so that we could understand what the consequence of the thing that we’re building is. So I don’t even know what that would look like. Maybe it would be some sort of graph or chart or just raw number that would give us some indication.

And then also more broadly, just browsing the internet. If we could have this kind of information coming back to us. So, I don’t know, I’m thinking of like a browser extension or something like that, which would measure what it was that I was doing when I went around the internet, and then give me some kind of feedback for, okay, this week you consumed this much in terms of electricity or carbon that was produced as a result of your browsing the internet.

Last week it was this, the week before it was this, so you know you’re going in the right direction. Just those kind of things. I’m just wondering if there are things afoot. Maybe tools that exist already, or projects that you know about that can help us to understand the consequences of what we are doing.

[00:37:39] Hannah Smith: Definitely, and do you know what Nathan? These ideas absolutely have legs and these are exactly the kind of ideas that we are inviting people to come and share on our post with us. All of these suggestions, all of these ideas are relevant and very, very actionable, and have already been actioned in certain ways.

So to your point about CO2, understanding CO2 emissions of websites, so there’s a fantastic tool called Website Carbon Calculator. I think the URL is websitecarbon.com. So you can go along to that and put any URL in, and immediately get a sense of how polluting that page is. And that is such an awesome tool to use with bosses or clients, who perhaps aren’t so interested in the nitty gritty technical detail, but want a number, or a statistic or a sense of how good or bad they’re doing.

And the Website Carbon Calculator has a little bit of JavaScript code that you can embed in your site that will give you a reading of each page of how much CO2 that that page is polluting. Now I believe that there is a plugin for that as well, and I don’t know if that would give you the information in the back end of WordPress, but Website Carbon Calculator’s being developed by Whole Grain Digital. If you’re interested in WordPress sustainability, I mean, they’re really thought leaders in this space, so definitely worth checking them out.

I had some conversations with Jenny Wong many years ago, and, and those of you that are in the UK WordPress community, you’ll probably know Jenny. I think most people do. And if you’re listening, Jenny, hello. Jenny and I exchanged some ideas around using Site Health, and actually building some of these ideas into Site Health. That section of the WordPress backend. It might be difficult to get that as a core contribution to begin with, but we could certainly look at making some plugins.

There’s loads and loads of data out there that we could use to surface these emissions. And then to your point about browsers, yes. Actually at the Green Web Foundation, we’ve been talking quite a lot with the Firefox people, made by Mozilla. And there are some open issues in GitHub at the moment around integrating carbon emission readings and estimations into the Firefox browser.

I don’t know off the top of my head whether the intention would be to track it in the way that you’ve talked, but you know how if you’re a developer, you, you might be familiar with the web dev tooling that we have, say within Firefox or Chrome. The idea is to create a separate tab in the performance section, to start to give you a reading within the browser as well.

So there are all these things happening, and this is where I really want to invite people to come and join us. Please let us share these initiatives that are happening. If you’ve got some time and capacity and you’ve got some energy, and you want to take action, we desperately want people to come and join in, and make these things happen. So yeah, please share these ideas that you have.

[00:40:49] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you. Yeah, that’s really, really interesting. Just before we wrap it up finally, it just occurs to me that we’re always looking for ways to, to have a competitive edge. If you are a freelancer or an agency, you’re always trying to figure out ways that you are different from your competition. And it just strikes me that maybe this, maybe this could be one of those ways. You are one of the developers who actually gives this some thought. And it may very well be that there are a whole load of clients out there for whom this would be a very important metric when making hiring decisions, so.

[00:41:24] Hannah Smith: Such a good point. As a freelance WordPress developer, uh, you know, people were, were starting to know me as someone who knew about digital sustainability and who could build sustainable WordPress sites, you know, efficient WordPress sites. And the demand was mad. I couldn’t keep up with it. I was constantly being like, oh, I need more people to recommend this work to. So yeah, I think this is a really strong selling point, and it makes you feel good as well, to know that you’re doing the best you can, you’re doing the right things.

[00:41:55] Nathan Wrigley: Hannah, just as a very final thing. If people have been interested in this, I will obviously link to the post in the show notes. You can check those out on wptavern.com, but if they want to contact you, are you available? And if so, where should we do that? What’s the best way to reach out to you?

[00:42:12] Hannah Smith: Yeah, well, I mean, I would love to chat with anyone that’s interested in bouncing some ideas around, or is interested in finding out more. The best way to get hold of me is through the Green Web Foundation, so hannah@thegreenwebfoundation.org, or if you’re in make WordPress you can also drop me a line. You’ll see me lurking around in the sustainability channel quite a lot in the make WordPress Slack space. You can drop me a line there too.

[00:42:38] Nathan Wrigley: Hannah Smith, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast.

[00:42:41] Hannah Smith: Oh, thank you Nathan. Thank you for making time for this today. I really appreciate it.

On the podcast today, we have Hannah Smith.

Hannah is the Operations and Training Manager for the Green Web Foundation and founder of the Let’s Green The Web campaign. She’s also co-founder of Green Tech South West.

Her background is in Computer Science. She previously worked as a freelance WordPress developer, and also for the Environment Agency, where she managed large business change projects.

It’s pretty easy to forget that the device that you’re reading this post on is consuming power. We plug things in or charge them up, and they just work. They are sleek and sterile. No pollution comes out of the device directly. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that many of us never make the connection between our use of technology and the impact this has on the environment.

Enter Hannah Smith. She’s been thinking about this for years and is on the podcast today to highlight the issue, and hopefully get your ideas about what users of WordPress can do to make sure that the websites we create are having the smallest impact possible.

Her approach is not that we need to cease and desist using our technology. Rather, it’s about coming up with new and innovative ways that we can reduce the impact that we have.

As creators of websites, there are a whole raft of options available to us. Reducing the size of our images. Inspecting the HTML to remove bloat. Choosing hosting options that source renewable energy.

With this in mind, Hannah and others have been working on a sustainability related blog post which has been published on the Make WordPress site this week.

This post is intended to trigger meaningful and open discussion in the global WordPress community about the topic of sustainability. She really wants to encourage others to weigh into this public conversation with their own thoughts, so we can build on what is already happening to make WordPress more sustainable.

It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking topic.

Useful links.

The Green Web Foundation website

#Let’sGreenTheWeb Campaign

Wholegrain Digital website

Sustainable Web Design website

Website Carbon Calculator


4

4 responses to “#52 – Hannah Smith on Why We Need To Be Making Websites More Sustainable”

  1. I’ve always thought of this as a self-regulating issue. The primary driver for most people/companies, is to reduce costs and increase profit, and an increase in website efficiency automatically gives you those advantages. So perhaps the best route to achieving a reduction in energy usage, is simply to inform people of the advantages of increasing their website efficiency and explaining how to get there. Most of the web is diabolically inefficient.

    • Hi Ryan, Nice to see you pop up here, hope you’re doing well!

      I think you make a good point here. Performance and optimisation of the web are important and do relate to sustainability. They also tie into better experiences and sometimes reduced costs. Mostly its a no brainer. However, there’s a lot more to think about than just energy usage, especially if you think of sustainability in a wider context. I give my thoughts on that wider context at the start of the episode.

      Mainly, we can’t optimise our way to sustainability. There are a few reasons for that. A key one is because of Jevon’s paradox and the rebound effect. The more efficient you make something the more it get used. So it doesn’t actually help us find the reductions we need. We have to think beyond that and come up with other ways of finding reductions such as switching all tech to be powered by renewables, making software more carbon aware and also asking deep questions like what is all this tech for. It’s one heck of a rabbit hole once you start going down this train of thought!

  2. Hey folks, for anyone catching this episode, please do take a look at the recent post on the Make WordPress blog asking the WP community for their views on what a sustainable community might look like to them in the future. The post is listed in the notes above, but I’m drawing it out here as we’d love people to engage with their thoughts and ideas. Do join us in the Making WP sustainability channel too. https://make.wordpress.org/project/2022/11/01/sustainability-channel-what-should-we-do/

  3. So this is a trend I’m following closely in my company. Question – why are you only focused on WordPress? In the grand scheme of things, WordPress is an irrelevant participant, a spec in a dust storm. I think the idea of sustainability is great, but if the goal is sustainability, then it would be short-sighted, irresponsible, foolish even, to focus on possible solutions without removing WordPress from the question.

    You said in a previous response to Ryan’s comment “we need to think beyond that … “. I get what site I’m on, and I’m 100% positive if I say to you, “Recommend me a solution to use for a non-blog website that I want to maintain myself”, you’ll wrongfully recommend WordPress – I get it, I know where you stand and where your target audience stands but WP has no stake in this argument. Hosting providers and people are the ones who have the stake in this. If you’re asking people to think bigger, then you also need to think bigger, and get yourself out of the WP bubble. My comment probably won’t get posted, because it’ll rub the die by the WP sword fan boys the wrong way, but the problem is quite simple to solve, and again, WP has no play in this. Why is it being discussed here, and not on a more visible platform? You’d probably get a bigger response if you did. All the best.

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