Lower Your Organization’s Digital Carbon Footprint with the JAMstack Approach

Building your site in JAMstack can reduce your digital carbon footprint.
Aligning Your Mission Website

We previously wrote about how the using the JAMstack approach to website development helps social impact organizations achieve their digital goals. But there’s one big benefit that we didn’t talk about — because it’s worthy of an article on its own.

The JAMstack approach can also help reduce your organization’s digital carbon footprint. Social impact leaders are keen to be part of the solution, not only in their issue area, but in other aspects as well. Even if your organization is not focused on climate or the environment, you can still contribute to reducing the amount of carbon your online platforms create.

We build websites using the JAMstack approach and believe that every social impact organization should do so. Without getting too technical, we’ll lay out the benefits of the JAMstack approach and make a case for why you’re going to want to switch to it ASAP.

Systemic Change Needed

Similar to most every societal issue, the overall infrastructure that powers the internet needs to change. We should all strive for a sustainable internet, powered by renewable energy that’s free from negative impacts on the environment. Our work with climate and energy-focused organizations like Let’s Green California, MYNT, and WindHarvest has reinforced our understanding of the multiple puzzle pieces that need to be in place to create a sustainable internet.

While major tech corporations like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud are working toward powering their operations with 100% renewable energy, there are steps that social impact leaders and their organizations can take now. You can think of this as being similar to changing your lights to LED. Your actions alone aren't going to solve all energy consumption issues, but as we know, every little bit helps.

Website Energy Use

Website usage requires a lot of energy. Most live in ‘the cloud’ which is made up of servers across the world. Most of these servers sit in data centers, which are among the largest consumers of electricity in the world. When you pull up a website page, the data for that page is sent from that server to your computer. That server may be within a few miles or even thousands of miles away.

It was estimated that way back in 2015, the world’s data centers consumed 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity — much higher than all of the UK. According to Forbes, in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic pushed internet use up 70%.

Every page view requires energy. Today, the majority of that energy is generated by the burning of fossil fuels with the resulting contribution of more CO2 into the atmosphere. Great for keeping us connected, but not so great for the climate.

Static vs Build-on-Demand Websites

Not all sites use energy equally. The vast majority of sites today use a build-on-demand approach. When you open the site in your browser, each page is built — from scratch — every time, for every user that hits the page. So when your friend opens the link to a page you send them, the page is built for them.

You can think about the build-on-demand approach like a deli sandwich. Every time you go into your favorite deli, they make a sandwich for you from scratch. That takes a lot of time and energy. Like throwing away a paper plate every time you finish your sandwich, every build-on-demand site, each page is discarded when you navigate back to it.

JAMstack allows us to utilize a static site approach. When a page is first built, it is stored on the server in its completed form. When you ask to see that page via your browser, it sends you the entire page, already built.

To extend our sandwich metaphor, this is like walking into the deli to find that your sandwich is already made, waiting on the counter, and just as fresh as the day it was made. Your lunch is on the same real plate that your previous sandwich was on — because it’s essentially the same sandwich and plate.

By their nature, static sites use less energy and produce less CO2 than build-on-demand sites. You’re still sending data from the server of course, but the energy cost of sending data is far smaller than the cost of generating the data every time. In addition, you get your fresh premade sandwich really fast (to round out the metaphor). This translates to websites that are better for the environment and load faster too, which is a better user experience and improves your SEO.

A Better Visitor Experience

According to a 2017 CDP Carbon Majors report, just 100 companies are linked to 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. While your social purpose organization doesn't have as significant an impact as those companies, you still have the responsibility to reduce the direct negative impact of your digital operations. And in the process, you can help reduce the digital carbon footprint of the supporters who visit your websites as well as your own.

A computer or mobile device uses energy to render a site. Pre-made, templated, cookie-cutter websites are often bloated, inefficient, and require more processing power on the visitor-side due to the nature of their “one-size-fits-all” solutions. They usually have a lot of unused code from options and features you don’t use and long download times that require more processing power on a visitor’s computer, increasing their carbon footprint.

On the other hand, a well-made JAMstack site has only what it needs to deliver the content your supporters want, making it attractive, fast, and efficient while providing a great user experience. This is one of the many reasons why we believe that your site should be custom.

We live in an attention economy, and eye-catching bells and whistles like animations along with tracking, are great for capturing attention and monitoring user behavior. But they can slow down the user experience and demand more energy, creating more CO2. When a page is free from having to build those elements on the fly, they are much more efficient while still being delightful and representing your brand in a positive light.

Determining Website Efficiency

We carefully weigh every aspect of the website experience striving to find the right balance between delight, speed, and energy demands. You might look at your site, or talk about it with the developer, and determine if it’s built with those factors in mind.

There are tools designed to measure your website’s climate impact. But they are just one datapoint and often lack precision and accuracy. For example: websitecarbon uses averages based on the size of the files being downloaded but doesn't take infrastructure into account. The Green Web Foundation looks at stated pledges and practices of cloud service providers, but without taking frameworks and workflows into account.

You need to look holistically at your digital infrastructure to estimate which options will have the smallest negative environmental impact. You may not be able to get precise numbers, but an expert can help you think through choices that align with your needs and values.

Doing this type of analysis is something we commonly do for our clients. If you talk to the company that built your site (provided it’s not a template) you should talk with a systems architect, digital strategist, or full stack website developer. They should have the knowledge to advise you.

Short-Term Strategies

Unless you happen to be reading this when you’re ready to build a new site, you may wonder how to reduce your digital carbon footprint short of building a new JAMstack site (which we really think you should do). Here are some helpful tips to make things better while you gear up to create a new site.

  1. Look at animations and other actions on your site that could be energy intensive. Limit them where it makes sense, but be sure that your site remains engaging. A good developer will know which animation libraries minimize energy usage.

  2. Do an inventory of video assets. Video is good for SEO, but streaming takes a significant amount of energy. If you have all three pillars of your digital media presence — a digital hub for evergreen content, a digital media hub, and an action center — look to see how many video assets you host. Archive any that are out of date, or put them on a platform like YouTube if you still want people to have access to them.

  3. Talk with the vendors associated with your online presence, such as the company that hosts your site. Ask them what they do, or can do to help you lower your digital carbon footprint. Some hosting companies and data centers intentionally get a percentage of their power from renewable sources.

  4. Offload image processing from your server to an on-demand provider like Imgix who can both process and deliver images, reducing the energy demands of your server and improve user experience.

  5. Use aggressive caching strategies to reduce server load. DNS providers like Cloudflare can do this for you almost automatically–and, with a little coding, some Content Management Systems support caching too.

If your organization is climate-focused, using a JAMstack approach to website development is an operational area where you can have impact in addition to your programs.

And every modern social impact leader we work with is concerned about climate change, even if it’s not their focus area.

As we encourage leaders to transform their organizations to think and act like a digital media company, we also support approaches that are thoughtful and intentional when it comes to building the assets that can help you win in the attention economy. JAMstack is one such approach and we’re confident that since you now understand its benefits, you’re going to want to get on board as fast as you can.

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