We are in a digital age, with information at our fingertips. Yet, a lot of people are unaware of the impact of digital technology on the environment. Wholegrain Digital aims to help organizations thrive online using efficient design and web technology.
We are in a digital age, with information at our fingertips. Yet, a lot of people are unaware of the impact of digital technology on the environment.
Tom Greenwood is an author, Co-founder, and Managing Director of Wholegrain Digital. Wholegrain Digital is London’s original WordPress agency, founded in 2007, and a Certified B Corporation that aims to help organizations thrive online using efficient design and web technology. They are focused on digital sustainability, quantifying the environmental impact of digital services, and looking at ways it can be reduced.
In today’s episode, Tom and Cory talk about digital technology, specifically the carbon footprints from the online world, and have an eye-opening conversation about sustainable internet. Tom describes people’s digital consumption, showing the direct and indirect impact on the environment.
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Cory Ames 0:00
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Tom Greenwood 1:31
Choosing where you host your websites or your apps, or whatever it is you're building, choose data center providers that have like tangible commitment to high levels of energy efficiency, as well as having a renewable energy supply to the data centers. Like five, six years ago, it was hard to find those providers but it's gotten easier over time. And it's actually very easy to know who's who. It's a very easy choice to make, it's, okay, we're just going to host everything with them because they're doing that. It doesn't fundamentally change your design process or your development process.
Cory Ames 2:01
How do we create a sustainable internet? This is a question that we begin to answer today with our guest, Tom Greenwood, the co founder of the London agency, Wholegrain Digital, a certified B Corporation, and a specialist in web performance and digital sustainability. Welcome you all to this social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always your host here, Cory Ames, so grateful to have you listening in. Tom also authored the book Sustainable Web Design, where he offers a practical path to faster, more carbon efficient websites that are not only better for the planet, but also better for our users. In this conversation with Tom, we talk about his origin of curiosity into a digital carbon footprint, and what sort of trajectory that ensued from there with a both looking at his own business, Wholegrain Digital, which he co founded with his wife, now 15 years in existence, and as well what it's had him think about the the larger systemic implications of doing work on the internet, for both his agency and in the internet in its entirety.
So a very interesting conversation. Myself, I've done a lot of work online, my entire career has been online. And I will admit that in my earliest days, I didn't at all consider what the actual physical cost was to the internet, something that that seems intangible - anything but physical, really. So this was a really eye opening an interesting conversation for me with Tom and as well the prep was very enlightening and insightful too, so I know you'll enjoy this chat with Tom Greenwood - comes highly recommended from a mutual friend of ours Tim Frick. But before we dive into this chat with Tom, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly newsletter that I write, curate and publish myself and send out every single Monday to our community of changemakers and innovators from all over the globe, now well over 6100 folks reading this newsletter every single Monday. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to sign up and get the next one in your inbox. That's growensemble.com backslash newsletter. Alright, y'all. Without further ado, here's Tom Greenwood from Wholegrain Digital.
Tom Greenwood 4:27
I run a website agency in London called Wholegrain Digital. We've gone for 15 years and we specialize in working with mostly charities and the purpose led businesses to help them you know, spread their message or do whatever it is they need to do online. But specifically, we have a focus on digital sustainability. So like quantifying the environmental impact of digital services and looking at ways that we can reduce that.
Cory Ames 4:53
Excellent. I was curious just in the timeline to start because it seems like you can trace your work in digital sustainability by back to the early 2000s, maybe even before that, and I'm curious as to what about you, Tom? Or what sort of experiences led you into this particular field? Because that seems a bit early to really be taking these considerations seriously. So why were you so seemingly ahead of the concerns with the impact the environmental impact of our work online?
Tom Greenwood 5:24
Well, yeah, interestingly, so I wasn't as far ahead as you might think. I was ahead on the environmental side. So I actually went to university, and I studied product design, in terms of design of real physical things. And I was really passionate about environmental issues. And so I did my thesis on sustainable product design. And I created an online guide about like how you can design and engineer physical products to be more eco friendly. And that was kind of my first - one of my first forays into the online world is actually just putting all this information on the internet. Because back then, like everything that I found out was in like printed books and guides. And that then led me kind of on a journey. Really, I wanted to have a career in like, industrial design, designing physical things, but I very quickly got kind of disillusioned by the scale of the problem. But also, simultaneously, I was getting really excited by the potential of digital technology, having kind of dabbled in it for my university project, thinking, "Well, if we can create products and services that are really useful to people and really, like enhance people's lives, but they don't have any physical impact, because they don't actually exist, they're just on the internet, then we can solve a lot of problems, you know, we can make the world better and eliminate a lot of this environmental impacts."
So that was really kind of what led me into digital, was this kind of slightly naïve, utopian view that like digital technology could solve everything. And so I ended up setting up Wholegrain Digital with my wife, Vineeta, really, on that basis that like let's like use digital to do good things in the world. And that's always been our ethos, but we didn't actually really know about the environmental impact of digital technology itself at that stage. And it was only like, over the years of us doing this work and starting to explore the impact of our own business, and how we can reduce that, and questioning that - just questioning the fact that like, the internet is virtual, and it doesn't have any environmental impact, gradually kind of led us down this rabbit hole of realizing that oh, okay, that's not actually true. And, and once we knew it's not true, then then we started looking at, okay, how can we do something about this and really kind of try and champion this cause within our industry?
Cory Ames 7:42
Well, maybe seemingly unrelated, but but interests me nonetheless, you mentioned that you started Wholegrain with your wife, Vineeta. How has that experience been, working with your spouse?
Tom Greenwood 7:56
It's been great, we get a lot of questions about that. I mean, we've been doing-- we've been there for 15 years now. And there are challenges, I think the biggest challenge for us is, is like how to switch off because, like, you're in like doing this really intense thing together of running a business. And, you know, it's a big part of your life, but then you equally you need downtime, and you need to be able to stop talking about it and go and enjoy some other things. So I think that's been the biggest challenge for us. But on the other hand, I mean, it was kind of a lifestyle choice for us. We wanted to be able to spend a lot of time together, feel like we were achieving something - like, creating something together - and be able to kind of build a life around it so that you have some freedom over where we live and like, what we spend our time doing. And starting a business was part of that kind of lifestyle design process, as well as being a kind of-- wasn't just purely like "let's start business," there was also looking at the other aspects of what we wanted to do. So on the whole it's been great it's given us a good life but but there are times when it's like we need to just switch off.
Cory Ames 9:13
Yeah, I mean, self interested, I founded Grow Ensemble with my wife Annie, too. So it sounds like some shared both hypotheses about what doing this together can create, and likewise, some shared findings about the difficulty to switch it off and make sure that there is some intentional separation. But creating this thing together now 15 years, that's a pretty notable milestone. How does how does that timeline feel to you? Does it feel like it sounds? 15 years seems like a decent amount of time, looking back.
Tom Greenwood 9:47
It does. Yeah. I mean, it's one of those weird things where, on the one hand, it's like wow, how did we get to 15 years - it doesn't feel that long. But then on the other hand, when I look back, I think we were so young and naïve. But it feels like a really long time ago. So yeah, it feels good. I mean, it's I don't know about over there in the US, but like in the UK, like, there's very-- the majority of businesses don't make it past five years. So, and very few actually make it to 10. So I think, you know, when you get to 15 years, you feel like, okay, this, this is working. We're still here. That's kind of like the purest definition of sustainability, right is like, we're still hit, it's still going so. So that feels good.
Cory Ames 10:33
Is there anything you you attribute to the sustainability of Wholegrain, anything in particular?
Tom Greenwood 10:40
I think it's kind of a combination of being very true to ourselves in why we're doing it and what we want to achieve. So that both for our own motivation that we want to keep going, even when it's hard, but also in terms of like, attracting and retaining staff and clients. If you're really doing something you care about and you're passionate about, I think that that earns you a lot of loyalty. So I think that's a big part of it. But also, the other side of it is-- it's I think, combining an element of sort of brave naivety with caution. And so, on the one hand, like we sometimes kind of pushed ourselves to do things that that may have seemed stupid at the time to other people, and taking some risks. But at the same time, like financially, we've been quite cautious that we haven't like grown really, really fast, we've just kind of grown organically. When we have had good years, we've kept the good kind of safety net of of money on the side. Because, you know, next year might not be such a good year. So, I think that that kind of that level of caution, has helped us kind of weather some, some of those tougher times as well.
Cory Ames 11:58
It certainly seems like just the ability to figure out how to kind of stay in it and stick around. Whatever that means. I think likewise, a few things you mentioned there just like you know, one, there can be, I don't know, varying perspectives on the idea of like, doing something that you are quite passionate about, or really care about. It's from my perspective, personally, and maybe you share this, it feels like one of the easiest ways to be able to really stay committed to something because it seems in the context of business, too, it's like, you can see why a lot of businesses perhaps don't sustain or persist, because it can be just so difficult, especially at, you know, acute times when things happen in the world or whatever. Because it can certainly seem like a grind. Like, without a doubt, especially in the early years. So you know, finding something that you do feel strongly enough about to where you're like, "Yeah, I can stick with this" for-- just be prepared to stick with it for a decade, you know, whether or not all circumstances can be in your control. Seems like you got to find something that you're really going to like perhaps, you know, customers and folks that you really feel excited about talking to and having relationships with over the long term. Because just something like that seems like, you know, what's really going to help you stay in the game. And then of course, that caution and everything is also difficult with much of the prevailing messaging that happens around business and entrepreneurship, especially with the emergence of social media. It seems like it's, you know, kind of rocket ship growth VC backed stuff.
Tom Greenwood 13:33
Yeah, I mean, it's not trendy at all to be a kind of steady, slow growth business.
Cory Ames 13:41
But then, you know, when you're 10, 15 years into it, it seems a little bit more trendy, you know, or something that that folks might moreso desire. But, Tom, to switch gears a little bit back to the substance of the sustainability conversation. You mentioned that there was some evolutions over the lifespan of Wholegrain that led y'all to maybe first become cognizant or aware of the environmental impact of the work that we're doing online. Was there any particular moment, or what started to really turn this tide to where y'all understood more gravely what impact was being made?
Tom Greenwood 14:18
Well, I mean, being a question that had been sort of knocking around for a little while, but without any dedicated effort to actually answer the question. Whenever I've gone and asked other people who worked in our industry, "Do you know about whether our technology has any environmental impact?" Everybody either just looked at me blankly, or just gave me a flat "No, of course it doesn't. It's virtual, it doesn't exist." But the tipping point for us like really taking it seriously was about when was it like six years ago when we started going to the B impact assessment to certify as a B Corp. And in that, like it asks you about the products you produce. And how do you ensure that you're producing them in a way that is environmentally responsible? And how do you quantify that impact? And how are you trying to reduce the impact? And this took me back to like, you know, my product design days where I was like, "Well, yeah, I mean, this is all stuff that I was doing right at the beginning, before I got into digital, the physical stuff, I was doing lifecycle assessments and looking at the whole kind of supply chain of things." And I was looking at this in the B Impact system, and I was like, like, why do we not do this in digital? It's because we assume that there is no impact.
So and I contacted the lab, and I said, "What do you think about this? Should we be working on this so that we actually put some numbers in here," and they just messaged me back and said, "Well, no, like, you don't make real stuff. So just leave it blank." Which was totally fair enough, from their point of view, because that's what everybody seemed to think. But then it just really bothered me, because you get to a point where suddenly, you've suddenly been in your mind for a long time, and you've just kind of ignored it. And then like, that was the point where it's like, no, no, I can't handle the assumption anymore. I've got to go and research this and then sit together with some colleagues. We started digging through, like, Europe research papers and things to find out, like, you know, does digital technology have an environmental impact? You know, does the internet have an environmental impact? And we were really shocked by what we found.
The highlight is, and this has been pretty true, pretty steady over the last five years or so is the internet has, produces roughly 2% of global carbon emissions. And we take it as like one whole, giant system, like the biggest machine that humans have ever created, kind of spanning the globe with data centers and telecoms networks and billions of devices, whatever they might be, you know, whether it's laptops or mobile phones, or, you know, any other modern devices. If you add it all up, like 2% doesn't sound like a big number. You think, well, that's only 2%. But global aviation is 2%. And we all think like, aviation is like one of the really big polluting industries. So you know, when you put it in that context, it's like, okay, we really need to do something about this, especially in the context that we're using digital technology more and more. So it's not like it's some defunct old technology that's gonna fade away anyway, like, this is something that's here to stay. So we don't want it becoming 3%, 4%, 6% of global carbon emissions, we want to get it down to zero.
Cory Ames 17:47
Well, and so to to draw it out a little bit of where the the impact and the problem is, is it purely in the energy use for this work? Or can you outline a bit more for us? Like, where is the greatest impact? Specifically, from this this work in digital technology?
Tom Greenwood 18:07
Yeah, sure. So I mean, there's different ways you can kind of look at it. So firstly, just in terms of what the impacts are, I mean, we initially started looking at energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, which is mainly where our focus has been. But as we get more and more into this, we're like, realizing that there's like a huge electronic waste problem. And there's like huge water consumption, and like the manufacture of electronics and cooling data centers and things like that. So actually, the, like, the environmental impacts are much more than just energy and carbon emissions. But that's kind of where we started. And it's like our main focus. And in terms of where that's happening, it's really happening in in four places. One is like the manufacturer of all of the equipment, which doesn't necessarily seem like it's directly related to the website you're visiting, or the service you're using. But nevertheless, it's important to acknowledge. Then there's the datacenters, which are like huge factories full of servers that are on 24 hours a day, using a lot of electricity, both to run the servers and to cool the data centers. Then you've got like, telecoms networks that are sending huge amounts of data all around the globe, you know, traveling that, you know, hundreds 1000s of miles in many cases. So all of this is powered by electricity. And then all of those end user devices are either plugged into the mains, or they get charged up from the mains. So you've got-- it's basically a vast amounts of electricity consumption. And all of that has to be produced from somewhere. So most of it's coming from the power stations that are connected to the grid in whatever country that data is passing through. So you know, you and I might be talking to each other here, but you're in North America, I'm in the UK. It's not just our direct electricity that's being used, there's systems in between that are also consuming electricity to get it from me to you and back again. So, there's a lot going on. And then even like data centers, they also have backup generators - huge diesel generators. They can't ever go offline, right? So if ever there's like even the tiniest power cut, you're like firing up these massive these diesel engines to keep everything going. So there's a lot of fossil fuels powering our internet.
Cory Ames 20:30
Whew! That has a sense of a bit of overwhelm - there's quite a bit going on.
Tom Greenwood 20:36
I mean, it's like the biggest thing humans have ever created. The internet is like, it's like a system. It's like an organism in itself.
Cory Ames 20:44
Right. And we actively have the goal to get more people accessing, connected to it as well.
Tom Greenwood 20:49
Cory Ames 20:53
And so more on the personal journey for y'all at Wholegrain. Where did you feel like you started to notice your greatest impacts first? And then maybe, what were kind of some of the sets of action steps that you decided to take from there? Was it purely just measurement? You know, to start and understand it? Or how quickly did you move into some sort of action to reduce your your personal footprint?
Tom Greenwood 21:18
Yeah, so the first part was for us to take these like top level statistics and top level data about the whole of the internet and start to try to actually, like scale it down and say, "Okay, what does it mean for an individual website?" Because that's what we do, we design and build websites. So the first part of our project was really like, let's develop a methodology that will allow us to quantify the work that we're doing. And that, you know, it took a few months, a lot of reading and very dry academic papers. But fundamentally, once we got our heads around it fundamentally, not too complicated. And then once we got to that point, there were a couple of things. One was that we wanted to kind of share that with other people. So we created an online version of that. We've got a tool called Website Carbon, which you can just put your web address in, and it will give you an estimate of energy and emissions. But the other half was like, what do we actually do to reduce this? So that was when we really started experimenting, in the work that we're doing and saying, "Okay, well, like, why is one website so much more efficient than the other?" Like, how can we try to like, change our work so that all of our work is super efficient. And hopefully, like spread those best practices to other people. And, and it's really changed, the way that we actually approach our projects has changed dramatically, quite quickly. I'd say within the first year, that we were making some big changes, and it's just kind of continued over the last few years, really.
Cory Ames 22:56
And what are some of those changes? I'm interested, especially in - it seems like there are the differences between the individual and the system like that seems very important to acknowledge. I'm curious, then, you know, what, what were y'all looking at specifically, as you made the most, or the most rapid changes?
Tom Greenwood 23:15
Sure. So you're absolutely right, as a web design agency, we can't change the system of like, the infrastructure of the internet that spans the globe. So we have to focus on the things where we can really make a difference. But there are like two areas where we really do have some control. One is very simple, and doesn't really require any work, which is actually just choosing where you host your websites, or your apps, or whatever it is you're building. Choose datacenter providers that have like, tangible commitment to high levels of energy efficiency, as well as having a renewable energy supply to the data centers. So that's like, quite, like, five, six years ago, it was hard to find those providers, but it's got easier over time. And it's actually very easy once you know who's watching or who's who - it's a very easy choice to make and say, "Okay, we're just going to host them with them because they're doing that." It doesn't fundamentally change your design process or your development process. And then, within the design and development processes, basically, it's about efficiency.
Everything's about like, basically, how can we use less data in terms of storing data, transferring data? And how can we make the computers do less work? And once you've kind of got that lens in your head, that it's just about efficiency? Like, how can we just use less data and use less computation? Then you start seeing opportunities everywhere in terms of like, making files smaller, using more efficient technology, like software technology, and designing things so that you don't need as many images you don't need as many videos you don't need as many different fonts. It's a lot of opportunities just start appearing. It's amazing how much waste there is in like the average website, and it's true of my software as well, there's just like loads of code that doesn't really do anything. Because it was easier to like, copy and paste it all in, than to be really selective about it. Or it's just grown over time and no one's really maintained it, or you just put loads of stuff in, because it kind of looked cool. But you didn't really think about what the impact of that might be.
So like, big images and videos that can fill the whole screen, or loading things that no one even sees, like, a lot of images on websites, you know, you might think, oh, that images kind of fills half my screen. But if you actually open up the whole image file, it might be big enough to like print on your wall. And it's just because nobody actually bothered to scale down the image before we put it on the website. But the end user doesn't know that because it just, you know, they just see it as it is, but they don't realize is like massive amounts of unnecessary data being wasted behind the scenes.
Cory Ames 25:54
I'm wondering, I'd be curious if you have conversations with, like, potential clients along this thread. Do you see like that there's issues or conflicts between, like performance of what you're hoping to achieve with a website, you know, especially in the context of a business or a nonprofit, or whatever it is, they're hoping to, you know, have their website serve some particular function? You know, I think like in the images and videos for examples, like, yeah, if you're, like, a lot of images are, especially if they're extremely large resolution, you scale them down for a website anyways. So that makes sense to me. But I'm wondering, like, the complete exclusion of videos and images, that makes me wonder, like, oh, are there you know, some elements that, you know, some people really care about for the performance of their websites, or that users care about? And I know, you've had experience working on a lot of websites, especially with this lens, I'd love to know, what sort of perspective you have on that, that if there's any overlapping issue or conflict with performance versus the sustainability?
Tom Greenwood 26:57
Yeah, it's a great question. This was one of the one of the challenges we found really, in the early days was like, how do you design the web so that it's super efficient, but also, like, delivers a really great user experience. And it's not some kind of austere like eco experience. One of the things that I was really frustrated by when I was starting my career in product design was that there were like-- it the kind of early 2000s, there were loads of products, like physical products coming out on the market, eco products, and they all looked like eco products, like I bought them. But I was like acutely aware that like, not many other-- like it was quite a niche market, people who were into green things. And then a lot of normal people would just look at them and say, "That's not for me." And so when we started applying this in web design, the question was like, "Well, how do we make sure the websites are working?" That our web work doesn't look like this.
And we did make some mistakes early on, including with our own website, where we like went really eco. And actually, we noticed that like our own sales inquiries, like really dropped off quite suddenly. So that was like a lesson learned the hard way. But what we've kind of learned over time is that actually, like most of most of the things that we do actually have a benefit to user experience in the sense of actually what you're doing is making like, more discerning choices about like, content, and, like, navigation and like all of the aspects of user experience. And like, really thinking carefully about like, how are we going to tell this story? And how are we going to use design technology to tell the story and questioning everything. And when you do that, you get kind of two benefits. One is that if you make things technically more efficient, so they use less energy, generally, the website gets faster. And everyone likes fast websites. People don't like slow websites, especially if they're on mobile devices. And also for charities and businesses. If you've got an international audience, you shouldn't assume that their internet's as fast as yours, or their devices are as powerful as yours. So actually designing things to be super efficient means that if you've got people in another country where they've got like, much less powerful devices and slower internet, they can still use it and have a good user experience.
So there's that benefit, but then there's also the benefit of like, actually, when you really start questioning everything in the design - yes, there are some types of conflicts where it's like, you know, somebody just wants something flashy. It's like, but we just want this thing because it's cool. And sometimes there is like a tension there. But actually, if you have like, it becomes the the environmental aspect becomes a kind of a lever to have an intelligent conversation about like, "Okay, what is it we're trying to achieve here? What does the end user really want," and you can end up creating stuff that is still really engaging. Doesn't mean you have to get rid of all the images or all of the video, but you're getting rid of all the stuff that actually never really added value to somebody. And that actually creates a much better user experience, because then their attention is really focused on the stuff that really matters. And that stuff, you can like, you know, make it as visually rich as you want - behind the scenes, you'd like technically optimizing it. But if you need if you need a big image, use a big image if you can really justify it. But you've got rid of all of those other images that maybe like didn't need to be there.
So we find that actually, like, you've got to be fairly pragmatic about saying, like, we've got to always keep the end user in mind and keep, like the use case in mind. So if you're trying to communicate something that inherently like needs somebody to get excited about something visual, or-- but you need to retell a really, like powerful, like emotional story, and like visual imagery is important, then we shouldn't be saying, oh, yeah, but images, pattern environments, where you're gonna have to write this in plain text. That's not gonna work. Like we've got to be realistic about this. But equally, if somebody say, like, oh, I want like, I want a full screen, autoplay video background just because it's cool, then generally, we can have a conversation about why actually, that's probably not good for the user. It's gonna be really slow for them to load, it's going to cost them a lot of money and data, if they don't have unlimited data on their phone, for example. It's gonna be really distracting. So actually, there's like, I think there's a sweet spot where you can get, you can actually create much better user experiences. As long as you don't go too far. There's like a very kind of fine line where if you go too far, then you end up that with this eco product that only people like me want.
Cory Ames 32:01
Well, and maybe a tangent, but this is been a pertinent conversation for my wife and I. We have a two month old, and we're exploring different, more sustainable diapering options right now. And I won't name the company because I do believe the intent is really in the right place. But there were these bamboo made diapers that just seem to disintegrate. It was almost like they were made for some sort of practical joke for new parents, like they just weren't affective at being a diaper at all.
Tom Greenwood 32:34
You don't want a diaper disintegrating.
Cory Ames 32:37
No, it was, you know, it's like it. You know, like, everything's great about it. It's like completely compostable, like, their whole process is really interesting, but like, it's just not effective as a diaper, so we just can't possibly use this. It just doesn't work. You know, and so part of like, I think, in the definition of sustainable products, or you know, as well sustainable design, it seems like it does have to meet that element of the performance that you know, or the purpose that it's intended to serve. Otherwise, it's not really going to be sustainably used anyways. Because, you know, it's like, oh, yeah, this is compostable, or whatever it is. But it doesn't serve its function, right? Well, it's not really that product that we're describing. That seems to be an important consideration of it.
Tom Greenwood 33:18
It's got to be fundamentally like a really good product that, even if people didn't know about the environmental credentials, they would just think this is like best in class anyway. And then it's a bonus that it's also really good for the environment. And everyone's a win.
Cory Ames 33:33
Absolutely, it seems that it invites a bit more creativity into it, too, you know, where you're working with, like a different set of constraints. And like, I think there's an interesting, like, kind of flip on our perspective of like, well, what level of environmental, I guess negative impact, are we okay with? Versus like, what sort of level of drop in, you know, performance or conventional performance, if that sales or whatever it is that you're specifically looking for? Like, we're not okay with a drop in sales or revenue, but we are okay with a particular level of environmental degradation and exploitation or in the context of, you know, other industries like labor exploitation. It's like, what level of exploitation and extraction are we comfortable with, you know, as opposed to, like, don't expand or kind of scale up or build up the thing until we're certain that it can be done, you know, sustainably or equitably or justly. So it's like a little bit of a different frame where like, well, I can't, you know, remove all my images or whatever it is, because of what it does for my business. You're like, Well, you know, maybe it's just a little bit of a different tweak on the value set that we have, you know, to begin shifting.
Tom Greenwood 34:44
Definitely. I was just gonna say like, I've always been a big believer that like the best designs come out of really tight briefs. You know, if you give a designer a complete blank sheet of paper, you're, you know, you might get something great, but chances are you'll actually get something that's kind of unwieldy and inefficient, not just from a like, energy point of view, but probably not like actually the best user experience when you have like really tight constraints. It's like, okay, this is really, really challenging, how are we going to do this? That's when like, you really have to think, and when you really have to think, you come up with new ideas, you come up with different ways of approaching things, and you end up with much better solutions across the board, not just in the kind of specific things you're trying to achieve. And I think that's what we've seen as a team that, like, when we reflect on the work that we were doing five years ago, like, you know, our clients thought work was good five years ago, but it's way better now. And it's way better now because we've like tightened down our own constraints of what we're actually doing in every project beyond the constraints they're giving us. We're like adding additional constraints on ourselves. And actually, we've ended up like, you know, becoming better designers, better developers. And our clients benefit from that, too. So, yeah.
Cory Ames 36:01
It seems like some sort of short term discomfort for maybe a good long term payoff. The short term discomfort of the change and transition. Really interesting, Tom. I'd be curious, on kind of the systemic standpoint, I understand that you were an integral part of putting together the Sustainable Web Manifesto. And I'd be interested to know, or for us all, what exactly is that? And why did you create that in partnership with other folks?
Tom Greenwood 36:28
Yeah, sure. So the sustainable Web Manifesto is basically, I mean, you can find it online just by Googling for that. But it's six core principles that we feel are important to be considered in every every web project that and from a sustainability point of view, and things that we thought are not really actually considered very often in typical briefs of typical projects. And when we first got interested in this topic of like, how do we actually like, genuinely create greener, digital products? We went out looking for, like, who else is actually talking about this? Who else cares about these issues within our industry? Because we can't be the ones. We didn't find very many people. But we did find some - Tim Frick from Mightybytes who you've had on the podcast before was, was one of them. And we got a bunch of us together and basically said, okay, like, what is this thing that we care about? And how can we simplify it in a set of principles that we could then communicate more broadly in the industry and try to get people talking and thinking about sustainability in the digital projects? And that was really the aim was like, How do we get other people talking about this?
And so we came up with these six principles, really, really simple. So it's like clean and efficient. So clean is like, let's use renewable energy. So we're not creating pollution. Efficient, is mostly energy efficient, like I've spoken about, so we're not wasting energy. And then then the two that people like, often questions the most: open and honest, which are kind of two sides of the same coin. And they don't necessarily sound like they're necessarily to do with, like, environmental sustainability. But what we felt was that like, openness is kind of important for us to like, spread that knowledge as quickly as possible. Because if we keep this as like, proprietary thing that like, oh, we know how to make eco friendly websites, that's kind of crazy. Because like the planet doesn't care if Wholegrain Digital makes eco friendly websites. We need the whole web to be eco friendly. So openness is really important in terms of like accelerating the adoption. And then honest is about like making sure that this doesn't become like a greenwashing exercise. Let's make sure that actually people are doing like real, tangible improvements, and we're genuinely making things better. And not just using this as kind of marketing gimmick.
And then the final two principles were were regenerative and resilient. So regenerative was really just a nod to the fact that actually, which you kind of touched on earlier, but like how much environmental damage are we okay creating when we're producing something, and acknowledging the fact that the ultimate aim should be that actually, in the long run, we're trying to see how we can actually repair nature and have more like a net benefit. You know, that's not easy. But it's at least it's there to make us try and kind of think beyond the minimum. And then and then resilient was actually not in it originally, we added resilient after like big wildfires in Australia a couple of years back. And we realized that sustainability is not just about like, reducing the environmental impact. It's also about that literal sense of sustainability that we've talked about here. We need the Internet to work in like times of crisis, and particularly with the climate crisis growing, you've got people who need to, like they need to access the weather and the news, they need to communicate with family, they need to find a way of contacting emergency services or find their way to the hospital. In an emergency where actually like, you know, telecoms networks might be damaged, they might have limited access to like power to like, charge up the devices. So how do we actually make the web itself like really, really resilient to the kind of the threats that climate change is bringing into the technology?
Cory Ames 40:39
And did you find the process of distilling what what a sustainable internet would look like down to these few principles - did you find that challenging?
Tom Greenwood 40:51
Yeah, I mean, I think it's like any of these things. It's inherently incomplete. I mean, you can always find more like angles that you could potentially include. So it was one of those things where I think having a group of people involved was really helpful, because then it's like, consensus based that if we all agree that these are kind of core principles, then that kind of feels right for what we want to kind of promote within within our sector.
Cory Ames 41:18
I'm wondering, Tom, you mentioned working in collaboration with other industry peers, like Tim Frick from Mightybytes as an example, you know, that there is the potential that y'all could be seen as competitors, in some respect, you know. I know, you are both located in different parts of the world. So, you know, localization is different, but, you know, still in the same sector and industry, how do you see, or like, rationalize working with with partners like Tim Frick, as an example, who? An excellent person, for one, but I'm curious, like, why why is that made so much sense to you in Wholegrain overall?
Tom Greenwood 42:03
Yeah, I think, I think generally at wholegrain, we've kind of got the principle of wanting to maximize our impact and like blindly assume, to some extent, if we do the right thing, that somehow we'll be okay along the way. So, in wanting to create, you know, bigger impact, I think, it just makes a lot more sense that we get as many people involved as possible. But it also means that we can learn from them. And this is one of the things that actually, I found really refreshing when we got certified as a B Corp was, we entered this world that I hadn't really seen coming. Whether all these businesses who are wanting to like, share everything they're doing and show us inside how you know how everything works, and discuss problems really openly. Whereas I find like the world of business, a lot of people that they want to put on their, kind of make their brave face and say, our business is amazing, and everything's perfect, but we're not going to show you inside because it's all proprietary. And you don't really learn that much from from other businesses.
And we entered this beautiful world where suddenly people were so open and generous. And we learned so much from them. That, you know, as we've been exploring this kind of parallel track of like digital sustainability, it's really kind of made sense for us to kind of mirror that in this work, and try to open up what we're doing as much as possible and just share it, like, share as much as we can, so that other people can actually get on board and make positive change, but also hope that somehow that's reciprocated. And that we can learn from that, and that we can get better because of that. And Tim has been incredible. I mean, he's, he's been interested in this topic for, you know, longer than I have, he's been running an agency for longer than I have. And he's been so open and generous with his time. And like, we've worked on some projects together, which has been really, really great to learn from each other.
So yeah, I think it just makes sense, both in terms of maximizing impact, and just kind of from the point of view, if you want to get make your business better, collaborating with other people in the same industry, as long as like, I think there's it's all about trust, if you trust each other, you can learn so much from each other, and it's so rewarding. If you don't trust each other, then you know, probably you shouldn't be necessarily collaborating on something together. And I think you naturally kind of have a sense of like, who you feel comfortable collaborating with and who you don't in terms of whether they're like a real kind of like hard nosed competitor that that might kind of use your use your own inside secrets to win your clients or something. But I think we haven't seen much of that. I think it's amazing how when you're open with people, how good they are back, I think.
Cory Ames 45:03
That seems to be a shared experience of many of the folks that I've interviewed from the certified B Corp community. And in not, you know, some outside that as well. But I think a much healthier approach to being in business and perhaps starting to be something that kind of becomes a piece of maybe redefining how business should exist and should be and in should operate in the world is not necessarily the feeling that everyone's success is, you know, at the detriment of your own, and, you know, perhaps deferring to some sense of generosity and trusting in that kind of karmic element that you mentioned, there, you know, focus on doing the right thing, you know, with other people and offering yourself up in that way. And things will, you know, rather take care of themselves, you know, for that you'll, it'll be okay, indirectly, as it may be, you know, for the most part, kind of just trusting in that path. I mean, like, I feel like, as a business owner, and an entrepreneur, like it just feels better to, you know, to assume the best intent from others and to, you know, work to exercise and practice that yourself, you know, as opposed to assume that someone else is trying to, either, you know, it takes some sort of insider knowledge that you have, or whatever it may be, I think, assuming the best people just just feels better.
Tom Greenwood 46:24
It's a very stressful way to live. Right? If you always think that, like, every other company is a competitor, and they're out to, like, steal your secrets and get your clients like, you know, that's, that's attractive, that was great. Whereas if you kind of think about, you know, what, most people are good, we're all good at what we do, and like, we win our clients on our own merit, then, actually, you can make some really good friends and learn a lot from each other. And you can all kind of benefit in the process.
Cory Ames 46:56
Well, and as well, it seems with the B Corp community, there's different sense of shared goals. So I mean, if the conversations there, as I've been to a few of the conferences and followed along, quite extensively, it's conversations around, you know, how the B Corp community can be a critical part of addressing the climate crisis for one, you know, and so that's, that's a goal that is way bigger than any individual businesses, you know, profit margin, or, you know, it client acquisition rate. Those things are different, you know, and so if you're coming in someone else's way, it seems like it's getting, you know, in, it's creating a barrier between that shared goal, where ideally, it's having businesses, you know, operate more sustainably. Is there some special significance to being a certified B Corp to y'all wholegrain? Do you feel like there is?
Tom Greenwood 47:53
I think, for us, it's really just, I mean, there's many benefits to it. But I think the significance is that there's a validation that they were on the right track, and that we're on like, and that that track has like room for improvement, because I think, for the first sort of 9, 10 years of our business, before we were certified as a B Corp, we were trying to do everything in what we thought was the best way. But we didn't really know if it was a good way. And you know, and because we were not part of this world that people were so open between necessarily, like, get to see inside loads of other people's businesses, for comparison, as well. So we're very much kind of marking your own homework. And so I think being certified as a B Corp as being a great way for us to like validate what we're doing, learn where we can do better, and feel like, we've got that framework for improvement and a support network of people who could kind of help us get there.
Cory Ames 48:49
It seems kind of a some sort of shared theme, as well in the collaboration component. Well, Tom, I'm interested in I mean, you've spent a lot of time thinking about sustainable web design. You've you've written a whole book on the topic as well. Do you feel like there's any aspect of your definition of sustainable web design that is unclear or still uncharted? Like where are there ideas or things that you're still exploring to kind of become a component part of that, that comprehensive definition?
Tom Greenwood 49:25
Yeah, I think the more the more I get into it, the more the definition expands in my head. So you know, initially it was like, "Okay, how do we quantify energy and carbon emissions?" Then it was like, "Okay, well, how do what then then you're starting to think like, well, maybe we also need to think about the other impacts I mentioned, like all this water consumption, who knew?" There's electronic waste, like these things are really important. And I still haven't totally like, we haven't developed a methodology yet, like where we factor all of that stuff in. But actually, what I'm increasingly thinking is that we also need to look beyond just the technology in terms of like, how are we using digital technology? And what is the impact of that? So, you know, whether that's like how we're actually-- well, firstly, like, directly, like, what are we creating? And who are recreating it for and is that going to have like a positive impact in the world?
But then the even like, getting into the kind of minutiae of design, like if you're, if you're designing an e commerce website, for example, like, no doubt, there are like different things that people could choose in there. I'm gonna buy some shoes - like, I need some shoes. Like, how could you use design to actually guide somebody to buy like, the more eco friendly pair of shoes versus, you know, the less eco friendly option, but then equally, like, how can you get them to buy one pair that's the right size, rather than buy three pairs and different sizes? And two of them that, you know, and how can you get them to like, pick a kind of a greener, perhaps slightly slower shipping option and take care of those products and keep them for longer? So looking at like the bigger picture of how do we actually use a digital technology to encourage more sustainable ways of living, and enable that, rather than just looking at the direct impact? And I think, yes, the direct impact is like 2% of global carbon emissions. But the indirect impact is potentially even more than that. Especially as we're living in this world where everything is going digital, right. So that's, that's something that's really, really interesting here.
Cory Ames 51:37
Well, Tom, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me here. Before we wrap up. Do you mind if I ask you a few rapid fire questions?
Tom Greenwood 51:47
Cory Ames 51:50
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Cory Ames 52:47
All right, so to get us started, what's perhaps a book that you could recommend to our listeners, something that's impacted you recently, or something that you always come back to?
Tom Greenwood 52:57
I think something that I always come back to is Designed For the Real World by Victor Papanek. So it's like, I don't know how old this book is, 30 or 40 years old, but it's like a design classic. And, and I find Victor Papanek, where he's like one of those designers who really cared about, like, let's use design to make the world better, like good design is good for people good design is good for the planet. And even though the internet didn't exist when he was writing it, I think the principles that he that he shares are really, really worth taking on board.
Cory Ames 53:33
Excellent recommendation. Next one for you: what's maybe a morning routine or daily habit that you absolutely have to stick to, if if anything?
Tom Greenwood 53:43
I wouldn't say there's anything that I absolutely have to stick to. But I generally try to do like a round a Wim Hof breathing every morning. It sets me up well for the day, and I think totally keeps my immune system strong. So yeah, that's something I do most days.
Cory Ames 54:03
Awesome. Well, what's maybe an individual organization or another business that you think is doing exceptional work in your industry, or not, that you think is deserving of a plug right now?
Tom Greenwood 54:16
Well, I mean, I definitely say Mightybytes is worth checking out because they're really the kind of the pioneers in this space that that we've been lucky to be in touch with.
Cory Ames 54:27
That's a good one. I'll second that one on Tim Frick. And lastly, Tom, what what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it.
Tom Greenwood 54:43
I think my advice would be to stay pure to like, your vision, whatever that happens to be. I think it's so easy for your vision to get diluted along the way because of just the need to make ends meet and survive and please other people - whatever it might be. And I think, you know, it comes back to this thing we talked earlier about: motivation, and like, you know, staying in the game over the long haul. If you're true to your vision, you'll get energy and motivation from that, but you'll also like, create something great in the process. So, yeah, that'd be my advice.
Cory Ames 55:20
Wonderful advice for us to end on. And lastly, Tom, where should folks keep up with you and Wholegrain? Where would you like to direct listeners?
Tom Greenwood 55:27
I would say go to-- I mean, wholegraindigital.com is where you can find out about Wholegrain. But also, like, I wrote a lot of blog posts on the blog there. And there's links to our social channels where we share stuff, but you can also look me up on LinkedIn, Tom Greenwood, and I'll be happy to connect.
Cory Ames 55:45
Perfect. All right, we'll have all things linked up in our show post at social entrepreneurship.fm. Thanks, Tom.
Tom Greenwood 56:03
Cory Ames 56:05
All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.
Managing Director, Co-founder
Tom Greenwood is the co-founder of Wholegrain Digital, a Certified B Corp and 'green' trailblazer in the digital agency world. Tom is known for writing and speaking about how business, design, and web technology can be part of the solution to environmental issues and is author of the book, Sustainable Web Design.