Sustainability isn’t someone else’s weather

At WordCamp Europe 2021, I had a brief conversation on contributing to open source as a company. I referred to sustainability as an approach to doing business which embeds but also goes beyond the environmental aspects of the term.

The next day, I tried to connect a few dots on Twitter; this post is an adaption of my initial thread with some additions. A tonne of additions, frankly.

Go to retweet by Heather Burns (@WebDevLaw): “Want to build a better web? Start here.”
Thanks, Heather!

Change is hard

What do topics like sustainability, accessibility, progressive enhancement, ethics, diversity, data privacy, and website performance have in common?

  1. Tech people talk about them a lot.
  2. Few companies incorporate them well as a whole.

Why is that?

Because change is hard. And being the proverbial ‘change you want to see in the world’ – in an economy dominated by mega corps, perhaps having to answer to investors, certainly needing to drive revenue, probably while battling a bazillion problems – can feel near impossible.

However, I believe we can do better than sociopathic business as usual, as Tom Greenwood of Wholegrain Digital puts it. Tom mentions how businesses are part of the (environmental) problem, but that they can and must be part of the solution.

I wholegrainheartedly agree with Tom here. And I don’t think it’s too hard of a concept to wrap your head around, once you understand sustainability as means to the end of being able to continue doing business on this planet. Because we don’t have another.

Follow Tom: LinkedIn
Follow Wholegrain Digital: @eatwholegrain · LinkedIn

Sustaining your business now and into the future

To me, one way companies will start being part of the solution is when you begin to think about sustainability literally as your primary business goal. You want to stay in (i.e. sustain your own) business, right?

So what sits at the heart of any value proposal of any honest business?

People, clearly. Markets are people. Products and services are for people. D’oh? D’oh.

Start with accessibility

The foundation of any resilient, sustainable product or business on the web is accessibility.

Why? Because we’ve just established that sustaining your business long-term (i.e. your success) will depend on people – probably quite a few – being able to access your product. On the web, why wouldn’t you start with accessibility as a core design principle?

Jeremy Keith highlights that accessibility is not regarded a mainstream issue (I’d add: it should be), but that it is important regardless of the numbers of people affected.

Look, if I make a website for a client, I don’t offer accessibility as a line item with a price tag attached. I build in accessibility by default because it’s the right thing to do. The only way to ensure that accessibility doesn’t get negotiated away is to make sure it’s not up for negotiation.

Jeremy Keith, Accessibility

I agree it is “the right thing to do” and I applaud Jeremy’s strategy of not putting it up for negotiation – it’s great to see more and more agencies pick up similar approaches and refuse to compromise the ethics of their guild.

I also believe there is an argument to me made that accessibility, in fact, translates into hard cash – money you leave on the table if you dismiss it, to be precise.

Too many people on the web, developers and decision makers alike, still picture accessibility as ’only for blind people’ – that’s a myth you need to let go off right now.

Here’s what happens if you don’t build accessibility into the foundations of your digital product:

  • You exclude cohorts of potential customers.
  • You gamble on trust and brand reputation.
  • You amass technical debt that will be much harder to pay back than to avoid in the first place.

Scroll back: what sits at the heart of any value proposal of any honest business? What are markets? What are products and services for?

People, exactly. And people are online all the time, everywhere!

Think about an able-bodied person who just happens to be interacting with your product under sub-optimal lighting conditions: that colour combination that looks great in your office – shades down, perfect light – may very well turn out terribly inaccessible out in bright daylight in the middle of Berlin.

What about folks like yours truly who get triggered very easily if you screwed up keyboard navigation on a checkout form? You want me to trust your brand, yet you make it hard for me to give you my money – something that, of all things, should be effortless in your own best interest?

Also, do you really want to programmatically exclude yourself from selling to public service or health institutions, government agencies, schools and universities, and every other customer segment who is under legal obligation to comply with WCAG AA standards?

Are you beginning to see the money you’re leaving on the table?

I’m saying it again and I’m wrapping it in a ridiculous pullquote, because we all need to hear this loud and clear:

Accessibility is hard cash. It is the right thing to do not only in ethical terms, but for your company’s bottom line. Your business – like every business – depends on the trust of the people you serve. Gambling on your customers’ ability to access your product is a fast lane to losing their trust, and an utterly unnecessary risk to take. Sustaining your business into the future means: start with accessibility.

An actual must-read expert on accessibility is Rian Rietveld.
Follow Rian: @RianRietveld · LinkedIn

Progressive enhancement

If you start with accessibility (in order to sustain your business long-term), you may naturally begin to think about progressive enhancement. Why not add to your fully accessible core experience progressively to make it even more delightful and stand out from your competition?

Jeremy Keith, again (brilliant man), has published a whole book on resilient web design. Offline support and progressive enhancement play a huge part in it, and the best part is: you can read it for free online. Jeremy literally applied all the techniques he talks about to his own publication.

Read in your browser: Resilient web design
Watch: Design Principles For The Web (47:30)
Follow Jeremy: @adactio · LinkedIn · RSS

Ethics aren’t abstract

Next interconnection: ethics. If you build your product to be accessible and delightful for as many people as possible (still, in order to sustain your business long-term), wouldn’t you want to think about the implications?

  • What are you enabling?
  • Who will be affected?
  • How are you going to keep people out of harm’s way and earn their trust?

My friend Morten Rand-Hendriksen teaches a course on practical ethics in product development on LinkedIn. He has also written and spoken about ethics a great deal.

Ethics aren’t abstract philosophy. The web is full of stories of corporations who ignored ethics early on and suffered from it later – and by suffering I mean bad press, an exodus of users, seeing your name and reputation burn up high and bright, and losing the trust of audiences for years to come.

You don’t want that if you’re looking to sustain your business. What you want is down-to-earth, common sense ethics baked into the morals of your company and the design of your product.

Watch: Ethics of Web Design (34:30 + Q&A)
Follow Morten: @mor10 · LinkedIn · RSS
Follow Hattusia: @hattusia · LinkedIn

Diversity and data privacy

Enter diversity and data privacy. An accessible, delightful, ethically designed product that will help sustain your business needs the trust of people from all kinds of backgrounds. And no matter how diverse your audience, you can’t spy on them, or nick their data.

Legislation like the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has helped re-establishing data privacy as an imperative in this digital surveillance economy. However, the overwhelming majority of web practicioners have no training, education, or guidance in online privacy, as tech policy and regulation specialist Heather Burns points out.

In an excerpt of her upcoming book (which a mention from an old friend should not pressure her to complete), Heather outlines six guidelines geared towards developing for the pandemic.

I believe these make a good starting point to your practical understanding of Privacy by Design in any case, whatever personal views you may or may not hold about the future relationship of humanity with fellow viruses.

  • Data minimisation
  • Purpose minimisation
  • Lifecycle limitation
  • Information, technical, and security measures
  • Transparency and notice
  • Choice, control, and consent

Heather goes into detail about each of these, and following her work may help you prepare for sustaining your business through the present and nearer future of the web. You probably don’t see what’s coming right now.

Watch: Building Privacy-Conscious Projects (54:10 + Q&A)
Follow Heather: @WebDevLaw · LinkedIn · RSS

Sustainable web design and performance

Another couple of dots easy to connect: you can engineer your web software towards low carbon impact, and in return benefit from significant improvements in performance.

Which can make your now more sustainable website more accessible to people on low bandwidth – sustainability, performance, accessibility, and diversity in one go, are you beginning to see the pattern?

Go to tweet by Chris Wiegman (@ChrisWiegman) on how he added search back to his website and wound up knocking 30% off the homepage’s page weight

Or vice versa, setting a page weight budget to improve performance will make your website more sustainable at the same time. Plus, you may increase reach. Which again brings us back full circle to accessibility and progressive enhancement.

Or finally, if you focus on data privacy and apply design by removal to avoid cookies and trackers in the first place, it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to see amazing improvements in performance and carbon footprint.

Go to tweet by Heydon Pickering (@heydonworks): “Worry less about people disabling JavaScript for websites. Worry more about JavaScript disabling websites for people.”

How is your website impacting the planet?
Estimate your site’s carbon footprint: Website Carbon Calculator


Let’s take a step back…

So you’ve created an accessible product, built ethics and data privacy into its foundation, and progressively enhanced its UX, so it can cater to a diverse audience and sustain your business long-term.

Now you may need to scale. Sustainably.

Climate-positive tech

Scaling a digital product sustainably certainly has a variety of aspects to it, but the one most companies on the web these days may think about first (because it’s relatively low hanging fruit) is renewable energy.

One reason why I chose RAIDBOXES as my current employer is that we try to run our company climate positively (as opposed to ‘neutral’). Our servers and office run on renewables, and we plant trees for every customer website we host. (We planted another 10k just for WordCamp Europe 2021.)

There are amazing opportunities for sustainable economies of scope in the digital sector. Did you know your data center could not just power your website, but also grow your salad?

Remember, sustainability isn’t someone else’ weather – we’re talking about your business, on this one planet. We don’t have another, no matter how hard a gang of entitled billionaire arses are trying to get you excited about a lifeless desert some place in outer space.

Your company is not going not operate on Mars. You depend on the trust and spending of ordinary humans, right here, right now, and hopefully for decades to come.

Follow Hannah Smith for all things green tech on the web:
@hanopcan · LinkedIn · RSS

Grow sustainably

All in all, scaling your tech sustainably is relatively straightforward. What is more tricky? Scaling your team sustainably. (Hello again, diversity and ethics!)

Business people used to dismiss economic models geared towards sustainability as science fiction, but a number of those are alive and kicking today.

Another reason why I chose my current employer is our commitment to an Economy for the Common Good (ECG), a global social movement advocating an economic model beneficial to people, the planet, and future generations.

To me, ‘social movement’ doesn’t quite nail it, though. Sustainability, in every sense of the term, is an economic imperative.

One last time, what are economies, markets, products about? Right, people. And people are a diverse bunch. So models like ECG blend in with topics like diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunities as naturally and inevitably as a data center emitting enormous amounts of heat can make you think about setting up a green house next to it.

Do you get my drift? What I’m trying to say here is:

All those good tech things you want but may not feel able to focus on are interconnected.
Not in a vertical hierarchy, but in a variety of horizontal relationships and inter-dependencies you can understand and utilise to you company’s benefit.

Stop thinking of the cornerstones of holistic web design and modern business as feel-good items – stuff that tech folks like, but that doesn’t sell. It does once you take a step back, look at the full picture, and admit to yourself that no one person, or company, is an island.

Accessibility, progressive enhancement, ethics, diversity, data privacy, even website performance – all of these seemingly abstract concepts are key ingredients to sustaining your product and business through uncertain times, into a healthier future, a healthier economy and society, on a healthier planet.


Cover image: NASA

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