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74: Creating Sustainable Digital Products with Tom Greenwood of Wholegrain Digital

Published April 20, 2021
Run time: 00:50:13
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Every podcast episode you listen to impacts the environment, and Tom Greenwood, Managing Director at Wholegrain Digital and author of Sustainable Web Design, joins the show to chat about the issues of web sustainability. He shares techniques and processes for making digital products more sustainable, as well as gives advice on how to be a champion for sustainable tech within your company and with your clients.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How digital experiences aren’t exempt from environmental impacts
  • The opportunity the digital sector has in building renewable energy supplies
  • Tangible benefits of more efficient websites and mobile apps
  • Choices you can make right off the bat to become more sustainable
  • The importance of “flossing” in the technical realm
  • How to drum up support for “Team Sustainability” by getting people curious

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded April 6, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Wholegrain Digital website

Sustainable Web Design Book

Tom Greenwood on LinkedIn

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today we are chatting with Tom Greenwood, Managing Director at Wholegrain Digital and author of Sustainable Web Design. Tom joins the show to chat about the issues of web sustainability. Yes, every Google search you do affects the environment. He shares techniques and processes for making digital products more sustainable, as well as givies some good advice on how to be a champion for sustainable tech within your company and with your clients. So without further ado, here is my interview with Tom Greenwood.

Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Greenwood 0:56
Thank you.

Tim Bornholdt 0:57
I'm really excited to have you here. You know, we've, over the last couple of months, I've been personally on this journey over the pandemic times to really try to be more mindful of the environment and the effect we're having on it with technology. And we started kind of getting my group here at The Jed Mahonis Group to look into the carbon footprint that digital products leave on the environment. And I have to tell you, like every time I Googled anything around this space, your name popped up. So it seemed like it was a no brainer to ask you on the show and just shoot the breeze with you about climate change and how we can work on building sustainable web and mobile software. So, Tom, I'd love for you to take a chance to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you became so passionate about the world of the sustainable web.

Tom Greenwood 1:47
Yes, sure. So I run a digital agency in the UK with my wife, Vineeta, called Wholegrain Digital, and so we've been going since 2007. And part of the reason that we actually set up Wholegrain Digital was to kind of get away from what we did before, which is that I had studied industrial product design and started my kind of graduate job in that field. And Vineeta was doing electronics engineering, so we worked on designing and engineering physical products. And I was very much kind of environmentally-minded and really keen that I could create a career on designing things that were going to be better for the environment.

And so when we came to start our own company, we were originally going to start like an industrial design agency, designing real things, you know, physical things that exist in the world. And we basically, going through the process of like how would we do this in a sustainable way, and that was something that I'd been researching for a few years prior to that, we kind of became a bit disillusioned with the world of physical things and feeling like, you know, what we really need to do is dematerialize the world of products and try to make them disappear. So you don't have to dig them out the ground and you don't have to ship them across the world and you don't have to throw them away at the end of their life.

And digital, you know, this is mid 2000s, and digital really looked like kind of this amazing panacea to all of these problems of consumerism and physical products from an environmental point of view. And so we thought, Well, okay, well, let's move into this digital world. And we'll design digital products and replace physical ones. And we'll do it to try and help like, organizations that have some sort of positive social or environmental mission, use this technology to do good things. And that's really where Wholegrain Digital came from. And that's been a real journey for us, you know, for 14 years now, is trying to explore how do we run our own business in a sustainable way, but also like, what's the role of digital technology in actually trying to solve environmental problems.

And we very much looked at it as like a very binary thing that it's like digital is inherently a solution. It's inherently good from an environmental perspective, until about five years ago, when we started looking at the possibility of going through the B Corp certification process. And for anyone who's not familiar, B Corp is a very rigorous certification of current environmental and social practices that any business can go through. And we wanted to do this process really to kind of challenge ourselves and to help us raise raise our game and in doing it, we were looking at the assessment and it's got this whole section on like your products and how you look at the impact of your products are socially, environmentally. And how do you measure it? And how do you reduce it?

And we just couldn't fill it in, because we were doing digital. There was just nothing we could say. We didn't have any information on this. And we spoke to some people, and they were like, Well, you don't make products. So just skip that section. And it just felt really unsatisfactory that we were just skipping this entire section as if it didn't matter, but we didn't really know if it did matter. And that really led us to kind of go down this rabbit hole of saying, Well, you know, great, if digital has no environmental impact at all, that's amazing. That's brilliant. But we want to know for sure, so let's research it, and, and in researching, and what we found out was actually quite shocking, that, you know, the digital sector as a whole has an enormous environmental footprint. It's sort of, headline statistics are that it's like carbon emissions of the internet are roughly equivalent to Germany, which is the seventh biggest polluter in the world, that they've almost certainly overtaken the aviation industry in terms of annual emissions now. And we all think of aviation as being a very polluting industry. And it's like when you hear things like that, you think, Whoa, hang on a minute. What's going on?

And that was really the beginning of the journey for me to know about this kind of impact and since then, really just educate ourselves and step by step try to figure out, How do we quantify this for our own work? And how do we take steps to deal with that? So that we can kind of maximize the benefits of digital, but also make sure we are taking responsibility for the downsides.

Tim Bornholdt 6:53
Yeah, it's something where, I just wrote a blog post that I've been stewing on ever since really getting into this space about the impacts of the environment. And it's kind of crazy when you actually take an app, take really any app, any of the big apps you see on the App Store, like I used Uber as an example, because it's kind of an easy one to poke at. But not for reasons that most people would think. I mean, you've obviously got the emissions of the cars that are driving around the roads. And if you take one second, you might think about the emissions of your own phone. But people don't think about the real severe impacts of things behind the scenes that you don't think about. So do you have some examples that you often use for how digital experiences aren't exempt from environmental impacts?

Tom Greenwood 7:43
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just the Uber example in itself, and you've got millions of people using their services on a daily basis. And yes, like, almost undoubtedly, the cars have the biggest impact. But there's also a huge sort of physical infrastructure behind the technology. At the end of the day, they're really a software company. And behind the scenes, behind all those cars, you've got data centers that are holding all of this data and working out the logistics of like, which driver is going to go where and when, and how are they going to route themselves then. And all of that work is being done in data centers that, you know, consume huge amounts of power. A typical data center uses as much electricity as sort of a medium sized town. And yet, you kind of don't really know it exists. It's just an anonymous warehouse somewhere. You can drive past it and not even realize it was a datacenter. And then you've got the transmission networks that send you this data, like, between your phone and the data center and back and to the driver and back. And it's like, all of this is physical, like we think of it as very much kind of this, you know, it's in the cloud, as if it's just kind of in the air, and it doesn't really exist, but it's not in the cloud. It's on earth. And it's made of like concrete and silicon and plastic and metal and glass fiber. And all of this stuff, it's not just consuming electricity, but it's also that you've got to build this infrastructure. And that applies to any service, but particularly at scale. You know, Uber's a great example of how, you know, it's not an app that only a handful of people use occasionally, like this is in constant use by millions of people.

Tim Bornholdt 9:39
And it's one thing for, you know, if these data centers were powered by equally large solar farms or wind farms or something like that, but most of these data centers are not being powered by those types of renewable energy. So it's like every time you drive in an Uber it's like not only are you digging up gas to put in the car to transport you from A to B, but you also are having to like dig up the ground and use those resources to power all those different pieces of the data center. Like the cloud piece is so funny because, yeah, everybody thinks that, you know, we're beaming things up to space and back down, and it's all just this magical, ephemeral waves that transmit all this stuff. But no, it's like real world physical cables, and just, you know, billions of miles of infrastructure of things that, you know, get your data from A to B. And I think people don't really think about the kind of the plumbing of how all of this works.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when you visit a website that, you know, I can visit your website, and it might be hosted in America, and I'm sitting here in the UK. And yeah, the website loads up in next to no time. But when it comes down to it like that data has traveled from America, across the ocean, through a cable that was laid by a big ship, powered by bunker fuel probably and that sailed all the way across the Atlantic laying glass fiber. It's quite incredible, really, that we've we've built this machine that literally spans the entire globe. And as you say, the energy is coming from, in most cases, just whatever the local electricity grid is, and it's not renewable.

Tom Greenwood 11:27
And then, you know, this is a huge problem we're facing as a society. We've got to decarbonize our energy grids. And one of the fastest growing sources of energy demand, energy consumption, is the digital sector. It is the data centers and the transmission networks. And this is a real problem, because we're kind of, we're fighting against ourselves, because on the one hand, it's like, we need to build more renewables, so that we can switch off the coal power stations and the gas power stations. But then at the same time, if electricity demand keeps going up, then every time we build a new solar farms, it's like, Oh, but now we need more electricity, so we've got to keep the coal-powered station switched on. And so this is one of the real challenges of where the digital sector has a weird kind of opportunity, but also kind of an Achilles heel, which is, the opportunity is that with all the money,, especially in big tech, to use that to actually invest in building renewable energy supplies that actually power these services in a real true sense, can really help decarbonize the grid, and help bring down the cost of renewable energy, you know, in a general sense. But then at the same time, if we don't make that investment, then we're actually making the problem worse, because what we're doing is we're just gobbling up the supply of electricity that is there and making it really hard for society to decarbonize.

Tim Bornholdt 13:00
Yeah. What always bothers me about, as I've gotten more into reading about getting off of like, having a more sustainable, renewable energy grid, all these companies make these promises about, you know, we're going to be sustainable, 100% sustainable by 2030. Like, Uber just did that. They announced that not too long ago, and I read that and I was like, Okay, that's great. That's gonna be really cool in nine years. Do we think that Uber is not going to grow in the next nine years, or that there's not going to be, you know, just the demand is going to keep growing, like you said, and until we do, either, you know, mitigate the growth, or we, you know, improve our ability to generate electricity through sustainable means, we're kind of like, Okay, so what are we going to do for the next nine years? How do we keep you know, not killing ourselves slowly by using all of this energy?

Tom Greenwood 14:00
Yeah, absolutely. And, I think, one of the big issues here, I mean, there's like the technical side of like, how do we make things more energy efficient? And how do we transition like digital services to genuine renewable energy supplies? But then there's the sort of the general issue of Jevons paradox, which is that sort of the more efficient you make something, the more we consume. And this kind of, you know, this concept goes back to kind of, I think, sort of, you know, back to the Industrial Revolution and steam engines and so on, but you think you're gonna save energy, but we actually ended up building more steam engines. Because now, it's like, Oh, steam engines are so cheap to run. Let's use them for everything.

I think the digital sector's kind of like that. You see how it just keeps permeating more and more areas of our lives and it is getting more and more efficient all the time. It's constantly getting more and more difficult. And yet the total energy consumed by digital services is constantly increasing. And that's the paradox. And part of that is because more people are getting online, you know, more people in developing countries are getting access to digital services. And, you know, we could say, Well, that's a good thing that we wanted to happen. But then at the same time, it's not just that. It's that those of us who already had it for quite a long time are just constantly consuming more and more, and the cheaper it gets, in terms of, you know, the cost of data and the cost of devices, and the cost of running data centers, the more our imaginations go to like new possibilities of all we could use digital technology for this new thing. And I think, you know, we're seeing that with AI now that you say, Oh, we could use it. Now we've got all this cheap computing power. We can now use AI for everything.

Tim Bornholdt 16:01
Yeah, people always try to shove. It's just like everybody needs to be on the blockchain. But why, for starters. I think that's a really interesting point you make about the way things, the paradox of things becoming more efficient, we use them more. It's funny how every single iPhone that comes out has the exact same battery life, even though the batteries in these devices are physically larger as generations go, and they're more efficient, we still use the same amount of that battery. And it's like, if you were to take a battery we have today and put it into the technology that we had 10, 11 years ago, when the first iPhone came out, think about how like crazy that would be in terms of efficiency and speed. I mean, we would have phones that last for four or five days, because they're efficient. Where now it's like, we ramp up everything and try to maximize the most that we can out of that kind of eight hour block of time that we've come to expect out of our devices. It's just kind of maddening in many ways.

Tom Greenwood 17:05
It is and it's this age old issue of feature creep. I mean, I remember when, I remember the 90s when our PC that we had at home, that we got our first PC, and it was like, so amazing, and it could do everything we wanted to do. And there was only a few years later that it's like, Oh, we can't like find new software for it, because it's like this issue of feature creep. But now like, as there's new features, then you need a more powerful machine to run it and and that just goes on and on and on. And now it's like, you know, the average web page, for example, wouldn't fit on a floppy disk. And I remember, like, I'm showing my age, maybe a bit. I remember when I had a floppy disk that had multiple games on it, 10 games on one disc. And, you know, it's crazy to think now that you can't even load a single web page in the amount of data that would be on one floppy disk. And it's this constant feature creep. And in some ways, it's just our constant kind of hunger, always maxing out, like you said. It's like what are the possibilities? Let's push things, let's constantly push the envelope. But then I also think to some extent, it's also the device manufacturers kind of want us to do that, you know. It's like, they, especially with the operating systems that, they want you to buy a new phone every three years. They don't want you to have a phone that is so fast, but you never need to buy another one. The irony is that like our phones are already so fast, that we should probably never need to buy another one.

Tim Bornholdt 18:54
And then you get that reference that, I think it's a myth. But when Bill Gates said, You'll never need more than 640 kilobytes of RAM, or disk space, or whatever it is. And I'll also throw out there that I can show my age too that you were talking about floppy disks and web pages not being able to fit on them. I found a bunch of floppy disks at my parent's house, maybe you know, six months ago, and I was going through them and I had one floppy disk that had all of the websites that I had ever made from like first through fourth grade, and they all fit on there just fine on a 1.44 megabyte disk. I was able to cram a ton of websites. And it's because I didn't have to put in Google Analytics and Facebook's SDK and all these other just, you know, I didn't have to include jQuery as an entire dependency. It's like, you know, I had my blink tag and my marquee tag and that's all I needed. That's all you needed for a successful website.

Tom Greenwood 19:51
Yeah, absolutely. I think, I mean, what we found at Wholegrain in our work over the last few years since we really started looking into this is that actually there are huge kind of efficiency gains that can be made when we just apply ourselves to it. You can easily build a web page that is, you know, multiple megabytes and it's normal to do so. But actually, if you really focus your mind on that, and you ask like, what's in this multiple megabytes, like most of it is waste. It doesn't really need to be there. If you strip it out, like if you strip out that JS dependency, bakery dependency, and you optimize your images, and you don't use, like, the full Google Tag Manager code, and you use kind of a minimal analytics script or something like that, you know, and you just look at all of these little details and say, Oh, is there a more, is there a more efficient way of doing that? Like 9 times out of 10, the answer is yes. And you find that you can create something that, to the end user looks and functions exactly the same. But it's just way more efficient. And in being way more efficient, you've also made it faster, which is always a good thing. So it's totally possible, you know. You can still build a website that fits on a floppy disk, but is acceptable to a modern user. They think it's still a great website. It's not a 1990s sort of, you know, basic HTML page. You can create something that people actually think is modern and wonderful and feels alive. But it's still very, very efficient and fits on that old floppy disk along with a couple of other websites.

Tim Bornholdt 21:44
Man, it hurts, but you're right,. W shouldn't go back to the early 90s for design, but you can do a lot of great things with SVGs and with other ,you know, crunched assets so that you can deliver that, similar experience. And one thing, so in your book, you talk about fundamental principles for designing a sustainable web, and we've been kind of going on that topic. So I wanted to stay on there. So in your book, you talk about how a sustainable design can benefit not only the planet, but also users. And we talked about some of the speed gains from it. What are some sustainable approaches that you take with simplifying user experiences and just talk about some of those different things you mentioned in the book of how you can, you know, change some of those assets? Like maybe we can give our listeners some tangible things to take away for how to make their websites more simple.

Tom Greenwood 22:32
I think we can look at this from many perspectives. We can look at it from, like a design perspective, or a planning perspective, or a development perspective. And everything, everybody has a role to play here. And I always think it's good to start just with user experience. It's one of the things which is really intangible. It's very hard to measure. But actually, there's huge benefits. So you know, just simple things like streamlining user journeys, and finding those dead ends, like where are people constantly looking for something they can't find. And they're going into pages, and they're coming back out. And it is sustainable web design. But it's kind of not, you know, what I mean is it's just good UX of identifying where people are wasting time, and then loading things that actually are not serving them. And solving those problems, I think, looking at those types of things, is a really, really good starting point. Because that's good for everybody. It's good for the user. It's gonna improve, like, you know, conversion rates and customer satisfaction. But it's also good for the environment.

But then we can go on this journey of like, Okay, like, once we've actually planned out what's a really efficient user journey and how do we optimize it, and we find that, like I said, like, nearly everything can be optimized. We can find ways of using images more efficiently and like questioning, do we really need this image? Like, what value does it does it add to the user? And is it telling a story? Or is it just there because we think all websites have a big full screen image when you arrive. So we just put one there. Did we really ask ourselves what it's doing and could we replace it with something else, like just color and shape or a smaller image. And then, you know, you go through these kind of layers of like, constantly asking questions about can every element of the design justify its own existence? And stripping away those, peeling away those layers of the onion and stripping things out.

And then you get to the development, where it's like, okay, now there's not that much left. How do we technically optimize it? And, you know, looking at compression techniques, whether that's in build tools, or whether that's in image compression. And Apple, whether that's on the server side, and how do we actually kind of find efficiency gains there to sort of shrink down everything that's left. So you know, everybody has a role to play here. And I think that what we've found at Wholegrain is that the best results come when like everybody's working together. So you've got, you know, project managers and clients and designers and developers really working together as a team to actually explore these problems, rather than it being a kind of linear process where, you know, somebody makes some decisions upfront with the client, and then the designer gets called design this and then it gets thrown over the wall to the developer, build this. When you actually bring everybody together, like right from the beginning, that's when you find that actually, you can really make kind of some big steps forward in efficiency rather than just kind of incremental shavings.

Tim Bornholdt 25:50
Yeah, there's so much with web design and development that most, you know, our clients, obviously, like yours and mine, aren't experts. That's why they come to us. But that's what we bring to the table is saying, Hey, there's some real tangible costs to putting these things and elements on your site. You know, even something as simple as like a web font, just people sometimes want to install like the, you know, Adobe fonts, and they need to have this very specific font, and they just plug it in without thinking or, you know, a marketing person might come in and say, Hey, we need to include, like, you know, this LinkedIn Tag Manager. We need to include, you know, all these different things so that I can get better metrics and analytics on the site. And those things are all good and helpful and useful in the right context. I'd argue maybe not in terms of the privacy side of things on some of those. But yeah, we'll leave that for a different discussions.

Tom Greenwood 26:50
Yeah, that's a whole different conversation.

Tim Bornholdt 26:52
From a sustainability standpoint, though, I really like that point of working together and being able to share your expertise and say, Okay, how can we work together to make sure that you can do your job by, you know, tracking and measuring and quantifying different things that we take, but then, you know, we do our job in saying, We can strip out three megabytes of junk that doesn't even really get used at all. And we can optimize it, like, you can take a web font, for example, most web fonts include all these characters, you know, for different languages, different Cyrillics, different just features that you might not actually need in your English speaking website. So what if you were to take a font and strip out all of the different characters so that you're just left with the ones that you're likely to use? It's taking those little shortcuts and things like that, that can really help speed up and optimize a website.

Tom Greenwood 27:47
Yeah, exactly. And I think so many, so much of the modern web is, I feel, plug and play is the wrong term. Because, you know, it's never that simple. But there are so many kind of off the shelf libraries and tools and fonts and so on that. They're there to make life easy for us in building products, whether it's a website or some other web service, or a mobile app. And the general approach to those is in order to be helpful, they include a lot of features. But actually, often, what we're using doesn't require all of those features, or it's not delivered in the most optimized way because they're just trying to make it easy for people to get hold of it, rather than deliver efficiently. And actually just sort of looking at what it is that we're including, you know. If you're using something like bootstrap, for example, and saying, Well, okay, but how much of bootstrap are we really using? Like we're using all of it. Okay, fair enough, but you're probably not and seeing whether there's ways of finding options that are available off the shelf, but you can actually kind of be a bit more refined about your inclusions and just including the things you need. But like you said, web fonts are a great example where you can subset the fonts and strip out all of the characters that aren't even used in the languages that you're creating the services. And nobody misses out on those things. That is the digital waste is all of those things you've bundled in often without even realizing you've bundled them in that were never going to be used. They're just there because they came as part of the package.

Tim Bornholdt 29:38
Well, and that sounds a lot like in my space with doing custom iOS and Android apps, one of the things that I frequently have to battle is do we build native with using the technologies that Apple and Google specifically provide or do we go hybrid and do kind of the write once, run everywhere thing whether you're using React Native or Xamarin or Flutter. There's all these, kind of, I won't call them no code solutions. There's plenty of code that goes into them. But when I think of no code solutions, and those kinds of things like React Native and Xamarin, there's so much overhead that goes into an app like that. When you're writing a React Native app, for example, there's certain places where you have to then branch off and write specific Android code or specific iOS code. And that stuff gets compiled and bundled in with the app, even if you don't access the Android stuff on the iOS version of it. And it's really interesting to think about it from that perspective as another reason why not to go with a solution like that is, you might save a little bit of time, but you then have to compile it and then you bundle in all these libraries and things that are completely unnecessary. When you're building an app, you can really just bundle in the things that you specifically need and then you've optimized it, and you're not sending out, like you said, all this digital waste that no one ever actually ends up seeing. No one would ever miss it. Tt just comes along for the ride, because, we as developers, admittedly are quite lazy.

Tom Greenwood 31:14
Yeah, and I think, you know, to be fair to those of us who are creating digital services, I think, you know, maybe one of the elephants in the room is that, like, there is this trade off of time and money. And whether you're working in house for a company that houses and digital services, or whether you're, you know, working in an agency environment, on some level, it's like, it's commercial. And often, like, the reason for using these kind of bundled off the shelf tools or libraries is because it saves time. And inherently, therefore you get to your golf, you know, you get to deploy something faster. But you also get to create something cheaper, and so we end up with this kind of awkward trade off where there are times when actually to really make things efficient, we have to spend more time looking into these details. And sometimes doing some things manually because it requires that nuance that you can't get off the shelf. But then who's gonna pay for it. And of course, the benefit of it is that you'll create something that performs better. It's faster. And that's good for user experience. And it can be good for conversion rates and so on. But it's not always seen that way during the process of creating things. It's like, Oh, this thing is available now. Why would I spend a couple of days like fiddling around trying to do it the hard way?

Tim Bornholdt 32:55
Well, and that's exactly it. It is hard to be optimized and to really take that critical look. I mean, I would imagine that, you know, you've got two sets of clients in this, you know, hypothetical world. You've got clients where you're building from, you know, a Greenfield state, brand new, nothing has been written before. And I'm sure that you have one approach of steering them towards making sustainable choices when they're developing things. But then you've got this other world where people come to you and say, Hey, I've got this existing website, or I've got an app or something that I need to make optimized because I want to be more sustainable and thoughtful with how I'm building the software. What do you advise? Like, what's your process when someone comes to you in the latter, where they say, I've got something that exists right now. How do you help them make choices right off the bat to become more sustainable?

Tom Greenwood 33:47
Yeah, that's a really great question. I mean, normally, it starts with, like any project, like assessing what their actual business requirements are. Like, what is it that they're trying to achieve with this service? What's working for them now with what they've got? What's not working for them now with what they've got? And really assessing it from a sort of business and technical perspective of like, how far away are those two things? Is what they've got close to what they need? Or is it a million miles away? And at the same time, we're looking at these opportunities for kind of technical efficiency. Because there's a lot of things that although you can't get necessarily like the best outcomes from an efficiency point of view by retrofitting something, you can nearly always make improvements.

It's a bit like a house. You know, if you build a brand new house, you could design it to the highest energy efficiency standards and, you know, make it super super efficient and sort of hardly need any heating energy at all. But then, if you've got some old house, it might be beautiful in many ways, and you don't want to knock it down. You're never going to get it to the level of efficiency that you would get if you built a brand new house. But you've got to kind of make that trade off and say, Okay, but we can still make improvements. We can still patch up some of the drafts, maybe stuff a bit of insulation in the loft. And I think we always find that there's nearly always improvements that can be made from an efficiency point of view. And it's worth doing that if what they already have is close enough to like where they need to go in terms of business objectives. But if you look at it, and you're like, Well, this is just not fit for purpose anymore. Like what you're trying to achieve as an organization is so far away from this piece of technology that you have built several years ago, that actually it just doesn't make any sense to try to kind of shoehorn this thing in a new direction. You'd end up creating a Frankenstein. And I think in those cases then that's just an open conversation that needs to be had with the client about, you know, what is the best solution for your needs. And the sustainability thing can always be woven in one way or another. You can always find efficiency gains, but I think you've got to start with delivering what the client really is asking for, what's really gonna, you know. What are they paying for? Why are they spending money on this?

Tim Bornholdt 36:36
Yeah, it's probably, unless you're working with a green organization, specifically, I'm sure it's, you know, sustainability is kind of a nice to have sort of thing, and not necessarily top of mind for people. But it kind of then becomes our goal and objective, if you're driven to build sustainable software and have that in mind from the beginning. It's funny how, like, all the good things about all these good choices you can make to make things better, more efficient, more faster, are all the things that people are like, Yeah, that's nice to have, but I'd rather just have the product, just give me the jQuery, give me the bootstrap, I don't care. And so you kind of, you know, really have to take that approach right out of the gate of, you know, we're gonna make choices, and it is a trade off that we'll find and strike that balance of, we actually need to ship at the end of the day. But can we ship with something that, you know, will have a better impact on the user experience, a better impact on the environment, you know, things like accessibility. All that stuff, to me, feels like flossing in a way, like, you know that you're supposed to do these things, because they're just good things for you to do. But when it comes to building a product and building a business, you also need to think about return on investment and all the business-y things and it's just like such a weird problem, a weird line you have to solve.

So overall, I'm trying to get to the point of I'm really glad you brought that housing analogy up. Because I always equate things back to building a house or owning a house. Most people that come to us have experience at least in living in a house. So you understand, like, there are some repairs that might be worth making, because they have to be done. Like you need to have your furnace up to date or, you know, if your furnace goes out on Christmas Eve, you're going to pay for a new furnace and pay the rates to get it done. But if you can do a little foresight and, you know, constantly be tuning up your furnace and making it more efficient and finding ways to optimize it where you can, that's going to lead to overall a much nicer house to live in.

Tom Greenwood 38:47
Yeah, yeah, that's it. And I think there's an education kind of journey that we have to go on ourselves. But then we have to take our clients with us about the importance of flossing. And I think that these things, they are in the client's best interest, you know, like you said, about, you know, maintaining the furnace in your house. It is in your best interest to do that. But sometimes it's easy to just kind of say, Well, it's not broken now. I'll just ignore it. I won't worry about it. But actually chipping away at these things gradually is often the best thing to do, even if it doesn't seem like it. And I think for us, we're always trying to look at like, what is it that the client really cares about, because there's always something that they really feel is important to them. And it might be something like search rankings, it might be something like, you know, brand experience or conversion rates or something like this. There's always something that they're really passionate about. And it's normally a good way for us to try to kind of use that as the doorway in to say, Okay, well, this is what you care about, but these activities, they require extra attention to detail. And they require a bit of extra work. And they require an ongoing, maybe some ongoing maintenance or continuous improvement. They're worth spending that time and attention to detail because they support this thing you really care about, you know. It might not be sustainability. But actually, when it comes down to it, like, all of these things tie together behind the scenes. They're all kind of synergistic.

Tim Bornholdt 40:35
I could not agree more. I think we've talked a lot about our clients and getting them on board with sustainability. One thing I'm curious about, because I'm trying to get my company to move this way, and it's nice when you're the boss, because then you can just say, We're going this way. Buck up and deal with it. But, you know, I've got business partners too. And we've got just a lot of different personalities, and maybe not everybody is bought into, you know, the concept of sustainability from a technology standpoint. What advice do you have for people that are listening to this who may be technical or may have, you know, an ability in their organization to implement the sustainable tactics? What advice do you have for them for kind of drumming up support and getting people on team sustainability?

Tom Greenwood 41:26
Yeah, sure. I think part of it is just starting the conversation. And that can be a bit of, that can sometimes be a bit of a slow burn, you know, to get people interested. But I think regularly dripping it into conversation is a good way of just starting to get on people's radars. Nobody's going to immediately go wholeheartedly into something if they've never even heard of it. And I think one of the problems in the digital sector is that, although there's a lot of people kind of working in the digital space, who, on a personal level, care about sort of environmental issues. And in many cases want to use digital a bit like we did when we set up Wholegrain, want to use digital to actually help solve some of those problems. There's very low awareness of the fact that like digital actually has its own environmental impact. So I think dripping it into conversation and just getting on people's agenda is a good starting point. And it might not change things overnight, but it kind of lays the foundations for them taking it further.

And then I think the next thing is really find those champions, the people who are quite quickly on board with this and think, Okay, yeah, I didn't realize this is a thing. But now I've realized this is actually really interesting. And kind of form those alliances to do little, you know, prototype projects to show people the benefits of it, because actually, when it comes down to it, like, you always end up delivering better work. And I think that's the thing that then gets everybody else on board, it's when they realize that, okay, even if this isn't something I'm personally super excited about necessarily just purely from an environmental point of view, if they see that the lens of sustainability is helping people create higher quality work that they can be really proud of, it's kind of objectively better in other ways beyond environmental, so whether that's accessibility or web performance, or conversion rates, or whatever it is, then I think, like, a lot of people who have other priorities can get on board with it and realize that this is not necessarily like an overhead that they should be worried about. It's actually an opportunity that can help them create better products and deliver better service to their clients.

And for us, I think, like, what we've seen is that anybody who's really good at what they do, is always trying to push themselves to do better and they want new challenges. They don't want to just do the same old, same old, Oh, here we go. Let's just build another generic website, or let's roll out another generic app like we've done, you know, 50 before. They want there to always be that learning, that sense of satisfaction that like, Hey, I learned something new. I pushed myself a little bit into challenges. And using this lens of sustainability actually is an interesting challenge for people to get their teeth stuck into, just on a kind of professional level that it forces you to start asking questions you wouldn't otherwise have asked. And that can be really interesting for people.

Tim Bornholdt 44:44
Yeah. Both those are really great pieces of advice. And that last piece of finding a way to get people curious is I think the thing I've been really trying to lean on is just throwing out little nuggets, just to get people to be like, Hmm, that that's interesting. And then having those challenges, like you said, developers really like those kinds of challenges, learning new frameworks, learning new ways of doing things. And I think throwing out the challenge of how can you make this as efficient and optimized as possible. There are a lot of developers that love that challenge. And it kind of harkens back to when we didn't have all this space and memory and, you know, firepower that we have in computers. It's like, the challenges that developers used to have back in the 80s and 90s, like, developing the original Super Nintendo or Super Mario Brothers game, how they fit that entire game on to, what, like, 40 kilobytes of space is just unbelievable. And so I think those are all great pieces of advice if you're trying to get people in your organization thinking about sustainability. I think that's the way to do it.

Tom, this has been such a great interview. I wish I could go for another hour, cause I have another 1000 questions that I want to ask you. But I want to give you an opportunity too to plug your book and plug your agency and give people a way to reach out to you and learn more about all this stuff that we've been chatting about here.

Tom Greenwood 46:07
Yeah, sure. So I wrote a book that launched a couple of months ago with A Book Apart, and imaginatively titled, Sustainable Web Design. And it basically goes through, you know, kind of the rationale for like, Why should we be talking about sustainability within the web design world? And once we start talking about it, like, What are the practical actions we can take? So, you know, how do we think about this in terms of quantifying our impact somehow in a meaningful way? How do we look at it in design? And what are the actions we can take? And kind of examples of design strategies we can use. Again, in development and hosting, and how do we look at the hosting environment we're using and try to make that more environmentally friendly? And then the last few chapters are looking at like the business side. So we've touched on that here, of like, how do we actually get people on board with this and get our clients and our colleagues invested in pursuing, you know, more sustainable outcomes within our work?

And then, finally, a look at it the other way of, How will climate change impact the internet itself? And, you know, we've got growing challenges of like, you know, rising temperatures and rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather events like hurricanes and so on that actually, like, our challenges for creating resilient web services, in terms of the infrastructure that we're depending on, and the way that we set them up. So it's kind of an interesting look to the future. So it's a short book. You can read it in a weekend. That's kind of the intention, that you can read it in a weekend, and really feel like you've got some solid actionable starting points for embedding sustainability into your digital projects.

Tim Bornholdt 48:04
I couldn't recommend the book any higher. Like I read it, basically, in a day. And it really is super impactful for what we've been doing here at JMG. And I think anyone out there listening to this that's curious about it, you'd be a fool not to read that book.

Tom Greenwood 48:24
Yeah, it's really great to hear, really great to hear. And yeah, you can get it online from abookapart.com and if you want to reach out to me personally, then you can either go to the Wholegrain Digital website, wholegraindigital.com and send a message through or just find me on LinkedIn, Tom Greenwood on LinkedIn.

Tim Bornholdt 48:42
Awesome. Tom, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Tom Greenwood 48:46
It's been great. Thank you.

Tim Bornholdt 48:49
Thanks to Tom Greenwood for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about Tom and how his company is helping accelerate the shift to an internet that's good for people and the planet at Wholegraindigital.com. I seriously cannot more highly recommend Tom's book, Sustainable Web Design, to learn more about how our digital world affects our physical world. We'll link to the page where you can buy his book in the show notes.

Speaking of show notes, show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the sunny Jordan Daoust.

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This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. If you're looking for a technical team who can help make sense of mobile software development, give us a shout at jmg.mn.