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Shopping online? Beware of the digital carbon footprint

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

22 Mar 2021

Fashion’s shift to digital is not as sustainable as we may have been led to believe.

The more time we spend online, the greater the need for electricity, which has seen internet usage increase 40 percent worldwide in 2020. A study by Yale university shows a surge in digital activity – from online shopping to following a fitness class to meeting on Zoom - has hidden environmental costs, with 42.6 million megawatt hours of additional electricity to account for.

“The pandemic-related switch to digital has important environmental benefits, such as the reduction of travel-related carbon emissions, but the transition to a more digitally-centered world is not as clean as one might think,” said Kaveh Madani, the Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, who led the study. “We want to provide people with the information they need to make good choices, so they don’t develop habits that harm the environment and are difficult to break.”

Digital carbon footprint

If remote working and other physical distancing requirements were to continue through 2021, an additional 34.3 million tons in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be generated worldwide, the study forecasts. To offset that would require a forest twice the size of Portugal, the study says.

Data published by Save on Energy shows which major UK city is potentially producing the most CO2 as a result of the number of fast fashion searches on Google and which brands have the greatest digital footprint.

London potentially emits the highest total of CO2 overall, based on the number of site searches for online retailers and their emissions per site visit. The capital was estimated to emit over 9 million grams of CO2 on average each month. This is approximately equivalent to 9,005kg of CO2 or flying from London Heathrow to Perth and back – twice. Birmingham and Liverpool round out the top three. Within London, the most searched for online fashion retailer is Asos, with 673,000 Google searches per month on average, followed by Next (450,000 searches), and Zara (368,000 searches).

Boohoo was found to emit the highest number of CO2 emissions per visit at 7.21g. Next is Nasty Gal, with 5.18g, Forever 21 with 4.80, Fashion Nova at 4.48g and Misspap at 4.17g. Asos and Zara emit some of the least CO2 emissions per visit, with 1.23g and 1.43g respectively.

Next is the most Googled online fashion retailer in the UK with 5,100,000 average monthly searches according to Save on Energy. Asos, Matalan, Bohoo and Newlook round out the top five.

In order to find out which online fashion retailer is potentially the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions, Save on Energy analysed the total number of searches per brand, alongside the grams of CO2 produced for each visit to their site. From this, they estimate the fashion retailers most likely to produce the highest CO2 emissions each month, assuming that every search resulted in a visit to their website. Next has the highest monthly emissions with 14,127g. Boohoo (10,815g), Asos (3,075g), New Look (2,716g) and H&M (2,628g) are the highest CO2 emitters.

Fashion needs to embrace a framework based on green IT solutions

For websites to be more low-carbon it would mean updating designs and user experience (UX) with sustainable digital solutions like an option to switch to dark mode, using smaller images to reduce data transfer, page weight and unnecessary page views. Switching to a web host powered by renewable energy will also reduce the digital footprint.

At a granular level, every single internet search consumes about 0.3 Wh of energy and contributes to the release of 0.2g of CO2 in the environment. There are many best practices advised with respect to the UI and UX of a website to make it greener. Rethinking website building practices will have a positive impact on climate change.

Image: Online search via Pexels