Introduction to Web Sustainability

Draft Community Group Report

Latest published version:
Latest editor's draft:
Alexander Dawson
Tim Frick (Mightybytes)
GitHub w3c/sustyweb (pull requests, new issue, open issues)


This document provides an introduction to the subject of Web Sustainability, acting as the "what" and "why" elements to the "how" provided by the Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSG) 1.0 specification.

It aims to be a helpful entry point for individuals and stakeholders who have an interest in digital sustainability and the work undertaken by the Sustainable Web Design Community Group.

This is a supplementary document created to showcase the need for such guidance, helping individuals and organizations better understand the current Web landscape and how it is affected by sustainability issues. It also provides answers to common questions which may help those looking to become more environmentally friendly utilize the WSGs and gain a broader awareness of the subject and its relevance to the Internet.

Help improve this page by sharing your ideas, suggestions, or comments via GitHub issues.

1. What is Web Sustainability?

Sustainability, as defined by the United Nations [UN], focuses on "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Web Sustainability is the digital equivalent of this. It's an approach to designing digital products and services that puts people and the planet first [MANIFESTO].

Web sustainability addresses more than just environmental issues. It's about making the Web—and the world—a better place for everyone.

2. The Importance of Web Sustainability

Most people are aware of "green" issues. However, fewer understand that digital products and services directly contribute to the climate crisis. With the Internet producing more emissions than the entire aviation industry, anyone with an online presence can get involved and make a difference.

Collectively, by focusing on web sustainability, we have a real chance to make a global impact on the climate crisis going forward. Digital impacts are often proportional, with the biggest websites requiring the most change. However, larger organizations also have more resources to make that change. Plus, the Web often beats the physical world to solutions due to a focus on agility and continuous improvement.

3. Emissions vs. ESG

Many sustainability guidelines follow what are often referred to as ESG principles.

Sustainability's three pillars include:

While environmental factors cover planetary issues like emissions and waste, it's also critical to consider other intersectional issues related to people and society, such as accessibility, privacy, security, and so on. In other words, investing in people correlates to positive effects on sustainability:

With that being said, emissions accounting is challenging in any industry. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is still an emerging discipline. With the Internet, this becomes especially difficult.

Many data gaps exist when measuring emissions across the Internet stack. While we do have some information on electrical usage for servers, device usage, and, to an extent, rendering, we don't have a complete picture of the entire web ecosystem. In addition to emissions, we also come up short on data related to other important impacts like mineral waste, water waste, e-waste, and so on.

The Internet is anything but simplistic in how its infrastructure works. Because of this, we must take a holistic approach to sustainability, including web sustainability. In other words, restricting our focus to the obvious causes of electrical waste—otherwise referred to as "carbon tunnel vision"—sabotages our ability to consider the impact of the entire system.

Notably, as one issue can impact another, a "butterfly effect" of unintended consequences that undermine long-term sustainability efforts or beneficial side effects that enrich people and the planet can result from the choices we make. This is why it pays to consider all forces that might be affected by our work and decisions.

More research is needed to help us collectively understand how best to achieve web sustainability goals. Creating consensus on terms and the language we use to describe these goals is a step in the right direction.

4. The Current Landscape

Every part of the Internet has some sort of environmental impact from the developer's machine, to web service providers, to the physical infrastructure that carries data, right through to hosting and consumer devices. Aiming to reduce the impact of these different mechanisms, where possible, is as much a part of an individual or organization's responsibility as driving sales or improving customer service.

Increasingly, through awareness of green issues, the public and press have placed pressure upon industries to become more ethically aware and push for sustainable change. With several governments seeking regulatory enforcement in this area, the need to make our products and services match such a requirement will increase.

Whether you work in hosting, back-end development, front-end development, user-experience design, information architecture, content authoring, user-interface design, run a business, manage a product or service, or have another role, there are many opportunities to create meaningful change: performance optimizations, waste reduction techniques, emissions measurement, impact reporting practices, or other as yet unknown tactics, to name just a few.

We need champions within industries and organizations to spearhead web sustainability practices and meet these challenges head-on.

5. The Web Sustainability Guidelines

The Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSGs) were created to help individuals and businesses more easily obtain implementable advice that would have a sustainable benefit on their digital products and services. Previously, best practices were scattered and not easy to find with new resources appearing regularly. In this environment, keeping tabs on the latest information is challenging.

Plus, many of these resources do not weigh cited evidence with regulatory references that are aligned with common sustainability reporting standards. This makes it difficult for organizations to include the impact of digital products and services in reports they're already working on.

If you are aware of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines [WCAG22], it may not surprise you to know that the WSGs were inspired by them. As such, these guidelines can be considered very similar, except that our goal is to make the web more sustainable. Equally, if you've read a W3C specification, the WSGs will look familiar.

The WSGs are not only evidence-backed wherever possible but the work is also aligned with open standards from the Global Reporting Initiative ([GRI]), in readiness for helping organizations meet compliance targets. This is especially relevant for upcoming legislation in the EU ([CSRD]), alongside additional standards and laws we aligned our work with. Hopefully, this will prove useful to drive change as part of a wider portfolio of evidence to reduce emissions and improve sustainability.

6. Incorporating the Guidelines Into Your Work

When utilizing the Web Sustainability Guidelines, a progress-over-perfection approach is advised. The specification is very long and may appear quite intimidating. However, if you examine the accompanying quick reference, the guidelines are a lot less dense than they might initially appear. The best way to get started is to scroll through the categories (picking which suits your skillset) and choose items that you feel you can make a mark on easily.

Also, the guidelines are written from the perspective of those who work on the web. For example, advisory guidelines in the web development section use technical terms common to that industry. User-experience design guidelines adopt the terminology of this discipline. And so on.

If the description, success criteria, or examples are confusing, expandable resources can help you delve into each topic with third parties providing explanatory details of how to implement and accomplish such tasks.

Finally, these guidelines are meant to help you get started quickly on a journey of continuous learning and improvement. You don't need to read or adopt them in a specific order or all at once.

Don't worry about getting things wrong or even if you can only do a couple of things—if we all made a few small changes to our own little corner of the web, this would make a huge difference! If you can scope out the time to drop in some more sustainability improvements later, great. If you can design sustainability into your process from the start, even better. However, it's something that will constantly evolve and need work.

Here are answers to some common questions about the guidelines.

What can people do?

Speak out on and learn about sustainability issues! If your organization isn't yet doing anything, propose an initiative and offer to train coworkers. If you work with partner organizations that could use help, offer to be that resource. Just be sure to meet them where they are. Web sustainability can be intimidating to newcomers. Offer to help get them started on their learning path.

What can designers of new web platform features do?

Make sure that tooling is accessible, performant, private by design, secure, non-exploitative, and powered by renewable energy. If your product or service is for the public good, ensure its infrastructure is tightly optimized and meets the WSGs. In turn, this will help you get a leg up on potential regulatory requirements down the line.

What can browsers do?

Browser makers have a few key opportunities: optimize their rendering processes as much as possible, reduce resource utilization, don't do anything unethical within a product, and keep improving developer tooling!

What can hardware vendors do?

Hardware vendors can improve software efficiency with their products, reduce production waste through circular economy practices, and increase product life cycles with a greater focus on maintenance.

What can regulators do?

Regulators can ensure that digital sustainability has a prominent role to play in both climate change modeling (due to its impact) and climate reduction targets (due to the significant economic and cultural force it has on the world's current and future population).

7. Resources

Resources are for information purposes only, no endorsement is implied.


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A. References

A.1 Informative references

Corporate sustainability reporting. European Commission. 05 January 2023. Informational. URL:
Global Reporting Initiative. GRI. Informational. URL:
Sustainable Web Manifesto. Sustainable Web Manifesto. Informational. URL:
Sustainability. United Nations. Informational. URL:
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2. Michael Cooper; Andrew Kirkpatrick; Alastair Campbell; Rachael Bradley Montgomery; Charles Adams. W3C. 5 October 2023. W3C Recommendation. URL: