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Wondering how to incorporate the planet as a stakeholder into a digital project? Try starting at the end

Illustration by Zhi Wang
Illustration: Zhi Wang

Bring your team together, address issues and grow a culture of climate action by hosting a green retrospective at the end of your project.

By: Erin Gallup, Executive Advisor for Design and Sustainability

There’s a growing realization that those of us who create for the digital world are emitting carbon through what we make and we must act to minimize the unnecessary output of what we produce.

The fact is that while the IT world is not seen as polluting as other sectors, if it were a country it would be the third largest emitter after China and the United States. And with increased video use, VR and 5G on the horizon, it is on track to overtake the aviation industry in yearly co2 emissions.

The time is right for us to shift the culture of digital abundance and work to reduce the footprint of the digital things we make. But how do we start?
illustration 2 by Zhi Wang

The challenge is figuring out where to start

We actually struggled with this in a recent web project. The deadline was incredibly tight and ambitious. The client was betting big on the new sites we were creating. Our team had to rush and make decisions independently in order to hit our launch date. It was an exciting project where we all stepped a bit outside of our comfort zones. And we hit our goal, we finished two days early and launched successfully.

And that’s when we realized that during the process we were not able to assess the environmental impact of what we were creating. And because we hadn’t attempted integrating this before, we didn’t know how or when to do it. For a moment, it felt like we lost our chance to make it a part of our project.

But then we realized that it’s never too late to start the conversation, because by their nature digital products are changeable. And as climate best practices might be easiest to spot in hindsight, a good route could be to start at the end of a project.

So that’s what we did. A week after our launch and after our classic agile retrospective we held a green retrospective, where we got together and analyzed the work we had done, looked for areas of improvement and prioritized next actions.
illustration 3 by Zhi Wang

Preparing for the green retrospective

To get ready for the meeting, we started by writing out our reasons for the initiative. Through a bit of research we were able to compile a draft list of environmental best practices for creating digital products which could start to form our North Star.

Next we found some resources to calculate the carbon output of our sites. We found several sites that offered this service so we focused on three of them (websitecarbon.com, ecometer.org, and ecograder.com) and then compared their results and suggestions. These formed the starting point for our discussions.

We then set up a collaborative workshop space. If we were able to meet in person we would have used a whiteboard and PostIts. However, we had our retrospective during a Corona lockdown so we had to do it through a video call. We used Figma for our workshop space (as that is what we used for our project), but any meeting collaboration software would work– like Mural and Miro or even Google Slides.

Then, we sent out invites. We invited our entire team, which included frontend and backend engineers, user experience and brand designers, and our product manager.

Holding the green retrospective

Our meeting was an hour long and we divided it into two parts: First we gave 15 minutes for everyone to privately test our new sites on the carbon calculators, read our best practices list and come up with a list of edits for either design or development.

Then for the remaining time we shared what we uncovered and had an open discussion about the issues. We chatted through the results, asked each other questions and prioritized next steps.
Green retrospective digital meeting
Our green retrospective. Access a blank Figma green retrospective template here.

The outcome

The green retrospective was most effective at getting us together to rally around the environmental topic and give us each time to start to wrap our heads around it. It also helped us understand each other’s roles and limitations better and helped us leave with some concrete actions for this project, as well as some new learnings that we can take to our next.

The edits we made to our sites to reduce their carbon footprint were the following:

  • Try to secure hosting powered by clean energy
  • Reduce the size of our photographic images to the exact sizes needed
  • Make illustrations svgs
  • Trim content and images on our mobile design
  • Test and optimize javascript performance
  • Merge page components so there are fewer
  • Decrease build time for both websites

Here were some of our main takeaways:

1. Carbon calculators have their limitations. Carbon calculator sites are nice conversation pieces but are difficult to use for troubleshooting our work– their methodology is unclear and some of their resulting tips were either too general for us to act on or slightly irrelevant. However, they were effective for starting the discussion and helped inform our decision to use more specialized tools (like Google Lighthouse) for performance optimization to ensure our sites have the smallest possible carbon footprint.

2. Our list of fixes include many things that also increase performance. From optimizing illustrations and images to fixing our mobile design, to merging components, testing javascript performance and decreasing build time, all of these items make our sites run better and be more organized. Working through these issues is not only better for the environment but better for our users as well. They are win-win fixes.

3. We can use our power as customers to create demand for truly green hosting. Our host provider, Microsoft Azure, does score well on the overall ranking of host providers and it uses carbon offsetting to mitigate its footprint, with plans to be carbon negative by 2030. However, we were not able to select the nearest host location to us, Western Norway, which would have enabled our hosting to be powered mainly by clean energy. We contacted Microsoft to express our desire for this and posted on their suggestion board. If you like, feel free to upvote the post to increase demand for truly clean hosting.
illustration 4 by Zhi Wang

4. Is it worth doing again?
Yes! The truth is, we all want to make great things for our clients while respecting our planet as a stakeholder. And since environmental standards have not been set yet for digital products, it is up to us to help define them. Getting the group together to discuss them is the first step and plants the seed for each of us to continually seek out better solutions in each of our roles.

As was said by our team member Karen, “Good design and development are naturally green.” Good design prevents frustration while at the same time saves on erroneous clicks that make unnecessary server calls. Good development makes sites perform fast and keeps the file sizes low, reducing storage space and saving energy. Thus together they create something that is both pleasant to use and has a smaller carbon footprint.

We plan to keep the topic going. See everyone at the next green retrospective :-)

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