Technology vendors are rushing to prove their environmental sustainability credentials. However, the implementation of these technologies is often delivered by partners. Those partners have to meet the needs of the buying CIO, the technology vendor from whom they have won the partnership, and their own stakeholders. So, you can see how environmental sustainability can be a difficult fit in this equation. Aware of this risk, Danish content management and digital experience platform vendor Umbraco created a sustainability competition to encourage and support its partners.
Is this unique approach a template for increasing digital sustainability? The very partners taking on the challenge spoke to diginomica about both the competition and a forum, the Umbraco Sustainability Team, that has set out to reduce the impact of technology on the climate emergency.
Umbraco launched the Sustainability Challenge to its partner network in October 2023. The competition encourages its partners and the open source community to submit ideas on how the carbon footprint of websites and digital services can be reduced.
Lasse Fredslund, who also leads the Umbraco Sustainability Team, said when launching the challenge:
This could involve writing code, changing processes, or educating colleagues, clients and end-users on sustainable web design practices. The winners will be those who can show measurable impact from their actions or changes.
Advisor to CIOs and co-founder of Conchango, a digital services agency, Mike Altendorf commented on the value of competitions from vendors to partners:
We would always welcome having the software firms involved in our projects as that meant they were accountable. So, a challenge that is focused on outcomes benefits everyone. So many technology companies don't get that. It is too often about how much we can sell.
Altendorf added that vendors need to learn from this competition as success for vendors, partners and the customer CIOs and CTOs is only achieved when there is an aim to build capabilities, strong trust and outcomes.
The sustainability challenge follows the launch in August 2023 of the Umbraco Sustainability Team, a forum to bring together partnering digital agencies, business technology leaders and Umbraco. A set of sustainability best practices was announced at the launch, focusing on reducing power usage and, therefore, increasing the sustainability of websites and digital services. These include compressing images and fonts to keep sites to below 1MB, using content delivery network technology and dark modes, turning off auto-play and the application of lazy loading (where the site only loads the necessary elements).
Fredslund said of these practices:
Applying these sorts of changes can measurably reduce the CO2 emissions for every home page visit. That makes a really big difference to the carbon footprint of a site that sees millions of visitors.
Over a quarter of a million developers use the Umbraco platform, so the firm has high hopes that it can trigger a positive change in behaviour. Sustainability Team member Andy Eva-Dale, technical director and enterprise architect at Tangent, says of changing attitudes:
I have always made systems quick, and there is a cloud cost to that.
Steven Gale, Chief Commercial Officer of CTI Digital, agrees:
So much of what we deliver relies on energy, so we should be more sustainability-focused.
As CIOs consider the scale of the sustainability challenge their businesses face, the humble website or digital platform has a greater role in achieving sustainability than you may think. Storm Eunice in February 2022 led to power cuts in South East England and a significant load on the web platform of UK Power Networks, the local energy grid operator. Research by Eva-Dale in his work for UK Power Networks revealed that the old monolithic web platform emitted 1.44g of CO2 per visit. Storm Eunice led to the UK Power Networks website receiving 3.2 million hits, which Eva-Dale says is the same as nine flights from London to Copenhagen:
We saw 3.2 million people hit the site at the same time. Most users didn't just hit the homepage; they went to three or four pages.
Dr Friederike Otto, a lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, said of storm Eunice to the BBC:
Climate change can be one of the causes, and it can make events worse.
This article was written 24 hours after storm Ciaran killed six in Europe, and storm Eunice quickly followed storm Dudley. These weather events are becoming increasingly frequent and impacting the bottom line and productivity of organizations.
Following storm Eunice, UK Power Networks engaged Eva-Dale and Tangent to redesign its web services to cope with the volumes experienced during these increasingly regular storms.
Gale says too many websites and digital services have an excessive number of inefficiencies:
Excessive calls, messaging, requests and crawling use a lot of compute. How you interface with other systems can be light. This is both more secure, stable and therefore more efficient.
The longer an HTML package is travelling on the web it is creating carbon emissions.
Built in sustainability
A core element of the sustainability competition and community is to build in sustainability from the outset. This will require a change in attitude from business leaders commissioning new websites and digital services, says Neil Clarke, Planet Officer and Service Design Lead at TPXimpact, a member of the Umbraco Sustainability Team:
What we really need is for firms to look at use rather than cost. We want sustainability to be one of the considerations that they make, along with security and cost. I want sustainability to have a seat at the table.
Gale at CTI Digital agrees:
What Umbraco are doing and why we are so supportive of it is they are thinking about sustainability at the beginning of the build. It is the same as understanding the requirement of the client and the targets around performance, so sustainability can be a byproduct.
Building a site to meet the issues that Umbraco highlights in its competition has business benefits beyond meeting sustainability targets. Kirstie Buchanan, Partnership Director at CTI Digital, says:
Attracting and retaining top talent is an issue, and people want to work with a firm that thinks with a human touch. We also find it improves employee morale.
Organizations are also demanding it, she says:
We are on multiple frameworks, including the UK government, and with the new regulations coming out of Europe, the demand for better sustainability will increase.
Technology vendors of all types should take note of these two initiatives from Umbraco. It is easy for large vendors to make sustainability statements, but in most cases, it is the partners and CIO customers integrating the technology that bear the responsibility for the success of the technology and, now, the sustainability.
Investing in creating a forum, guidelines, and feedback from the partner network will foster the trust that Mike Altendorf says is vital and also ensure sustainability is built into implementations. All three of the partners we spoke to said the sustainability conversation with Umbraco was two-way. Technology vendors of all types should take note.