Like most of my colleagues in publishing, my work exists almost entirely online. My articles aren’t tangible, physical things; they float among the 4.2 billion webpages swirling around the internet. That number has no doubt increased in the minutes since I started writing this; the internet is like the universe, always expanding and lightyears away from “running out of room.”
We’ve convinced ourselves we’ve come to understand it, or even mastered it: We use SEO tricks to launch our features to the top of Google searches, we optimize keywords, metadata, and URLs. We teach ourselves Photoshop; we might even have a basic understanding of HTML. But we don’t really understand the internet; like the universe, it’s almost too complex for most of us to grasp. We also take it for granted to the extent that we don’t bother ourselves with questions about how exactly a photo taken half a world away loads in our Instagram feed in a matter of seconds, or how Google is able to deliver our search results in the blink of an eye.
Another question most of us don’t ask ourselves: What is the carbon footprint of those Instagrams and Google searches? If you asked me if my Vogue.com articles on sustainability had a carbon footprint, I’d probably say… no. Right? They’re online, not printed. (“They’re in the computer!”) My MacBook Air does require electricity to charge, but otherwise, I tend to regard the internet as something that just… exists. Like water, I expect it to be available to me, I don’t know where it came from, and I assume I can use as much of it as I want.
While we don’t abuse the internet like we do our water supply, we need to understand that it does have an impact. A significant one. The internet is responsible for around 3% of global carbon emissions—roughy the same amount as aviation. It’s striking to consider how often we talk about curbing air travel; the sharp decline in demand for flights has been considered one of the “silver linings” of the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re all vowing to fly less. But we’d never advise anyone to use the internet less.
Organic Basics isn’t doing that, either. The Copenhagen-based label (which makes, as the name suggest, T-shirts, underwear, and other basics in certified organic cotton) simply wants to educate its customers about the internet’s impact and hopefully spark a few conversations. The company just unveiled a second version of its e-commerce website, something of a “lower-tech” sibling to its dynamic, high-resolution main page. Called the Low-Impact Website, it was built to give its highly-engaged customers a more sustainable option—it runs on green energy from Denmark’s windmills when available—and to provide some visual context when you toggle between the Low-Impact and regular sites. The Low-Impact version was built on 10 principles, from granular tweaks—like storing data on a user’s device to minimize data transfer, or compressing data as much as possible—to more obvious ones. There are zero videos because they require significant data, and at first glance, the site doesn’t even have images. Large editorial photos require a ton of data to load on a webpage, so they’ve included illustrations of the clothes instead. Only when you “request” to see a real image of an item will it appear (with a note reporting how much carbon it emitted—likely around 0.1 gram per image).
As the brand’s head of technology Jesper Fogh put it: “We’re only showing people images if they want to see them.” If you’re in the market for a new sports bra, for instance, you might go straight to that section without even glancing at the leggings and tanks. On a typical website, those images would still load, but if you aren’t engaging with them, the data is sort of going to waste.Photo: Courtesy of Organic Basics
If you’re wondering, How did I not know any of this?, it’s worth pointing out that the Organic Basics team didn’t, either. The idea actually started with a customer who reached out to ask about the site’s carbon footprint. “We get a lot of feedback from our customers,” co-CEO Christoffer Immanuel says. “One of them sent us a link to a site that measures your website’s footprint, and it got us thinking, ‘Okay, physical shops have a carbon footprint because they have lights, they use energy, they have trash to take out… But what about our online store?” This is a brand with rigorous sustainability goals at every level of the supply chain, from recycled materials to regenerative agriculture, so it’s fair to assume that if its leaders hadn’t thought to address this before 2020, most other brands haven’t, either. Fogh described the conversation as nonexistent in the tech community. “Even tech people don’t give it much thought,” he says. “There is a very small group of people blogging about this, but I think it’s slowly growing. Everyone talks about aviation being such a big contributor to climate change, but no one talks about the internet. And we’re only seeing it rise with more people working from home and doing video calls—I wonder where the emissions are at now.”
But what exactly creates those emissions? In short, it’s electricity—and lots of it. Fogh put it in layman’s terms: “There are hundreds of steps between your phone and where the image actually starts,” he says. “Whenever you go on Instagram and load the image on your phone, it’s coming from somewhere. It gets transferred to your phone through 4G or 3G [or another network], and that comes from something that runs on electricity. The waves that transfer data to your phone, they run on electricity. There are wires under the ocean that transfer electricity to a data center, which runs on electricity… And every time you load it, and every time I load it, or Christoffer loads it, that costs more and more electricity.” Maybe it would be easier to wrap our heads around that if the internet wasn’t so unbelievably fast; whether it’s an Instagram or a two-hour film, we access things so quickly that they just seem to happen.
“When Jesper pitched this, he didn’t just pitch a low-impact website, but also an educational tool for how the internet actually works,” Immanuel says. “Breaking it down into these 10 steps makes it easy for our customers, for me, and for you to understand it.”
Our call took place a few weeks ago at a time when most of our conversations revolved around the pandemic. We discussed the future of remote work, the carbon footprint of all of those Zoom calls (which must be something!), and the possibility of a virtual fashion week. At the time, reflecting on the internet’s environmental impact felt like yet another good reason to unplug from our phones and spend some time in nature. But the conversation feels a lot more complex now: We’re witnessing the first major civil rights movement in the age of the internet, and much of the change we’ve seen in the past few weeks—from Derek Chauvin’s heightened charges to the Louisville FBI finally investigating the death of Breonna Taylor—comes down to social media. It’s impossible to imagine this movement without the internet; it’s been a vital tool for sharing information and, for many of us, the internet is now a crucial part of our self-education.
Like most things, balance is likely key. Right now, our internet use is through the roof, and for very good reason. In the months and years to come, companies should still consider Organic Basics’s low-impact guidelines as the public increasingly demands transparency and accountability from the people they shop with. We’ll want to know how a brand is or isn’t harming the planet, who they’re employing, how they treat those employees, and beyond. “We don’t want to point fingers, we just want to do things in a new way that can inspire other companies,” Immanuel adds. “We want to show them that you can actually build something that has less of an impact, and you will still have a healthy business. I think our whole approach to being an organization with a purpose goes way beyond our company and our brand. We’re really trying to help the whole industry. We all have a huge responsibility for the change that is happening in our world, and we really need each other to figure out better ways to live together.”A product page on Organic Basics’ low-impact website.Photo: Courtesy of Organic Basics