S2 #2 'Creating lightweight, meaningful, and purposeful Web experiences', with Chris Butterworth
Series 2 Episode 2
[00:00:53] James Gill: Hi there. Welcome to another episode of the EcoSend Podcast. The EcoSend Podcast is a podcast that goes out every week with myself talking to other very inspiring and often very entertaining other people who know lots more about the world of sustainability and climate, and every week we're trying to learn as much as possible from our guests.
[00:01:14] And we've already done series one. Hopefully you've had a chance to listen to some of those. We're now well into series two, and hopefully from this episode you'll be entertained, you'll be inspired, and maybe educated as well on a topic of interest. So every episode's about 30 minutes. Hopefully you'll enjoy this one as much as as much as the others.
[00:01:34] And this week I am very fortunate to be joined by the wonderful Chris Butterworth, who is founder of a company called Aline. Chris is a strategist. He's a designer. He's a developer and he is building digital solutions to measure and reduce digital carbon emissions.
[00:01:51] Now, I don't think they could be a more appropriate person to be speaking to, because this is a field we are incredibly fascinated and passionate about on EcoSend as well. And , I'm so excited to be speaking with you Chris. Hello. How's your day?
[00:02:06] Chris Butterworth: Hi there. Yeah, thanks for having me. It's yeah, it's been a pretty busy day today.
[00:02:10] James Gill: Awesome. I I know for anyone listening, they won't be able to see all of the guitars in the background of
[00:02:16] Chris Butterworth: No, they won't be able to see that. The beautiful artwork on my walls, which is my collection of guitars.
[00:02:21] James Gill: And R2D2 as well.
[00:02:23] Chris Butterworth: I, that is an, it's an empty cookie jar in the shape of R2D2.
[00:02:27] James Gill: Wasn't, it wasn't empty this morning, right?
[00:02:30] Chris Butterworth: No , it's always empty because I know that if I were to fill it, it wouldn't stay filled for long. So yeah, it's an ornament right now.
[00:02:38] James Gill: Yeah. . Chris, you're an incredibly talented individual being all of the things I just mentioned, designer developer, strategist not only interested in the web technologies, but also climate and sustainability. And you can play, I've forgotten how many instruments, but at least three I think it was, and can sing.
[00:02:58] So while I would love this to, to descend into a musical podcast where you give us some tunes, I'm very keen to hear why someone who has all of those skills and can do all of those amazing things. How have you gotten into, into the world of sustainability and particularly digital sustainability?
[00:03:15] Chris Butterworth: It's a bit of an odd thing, so I always thought that my climate impact was quite low. You know, I've been a massive advocate for using public transport and, wherever possible, I love walking and everything like that. So then working within digital agencies and creative agencies, I thought, is there something more that I could do?
[00:03:34] And then I think it was around four years ago, I came across a paper by Greenpeace that spoke about the impact of the internet and how bad the whole IT industry is and how high the emissions are. And that was quite eye-opening. . And then because of the skills that I had as a designer, developer, strategist type person, I thought I can do something about it.
[00:04:00] There's something that I can do to help lower lower emissions, whether it's from the work that I produce or whether it's helping teams lower that. So then as soon as that happened, I started working with an agency based in London who specialize in low impact WordPress websites. Worked with them for a little while and kind of felt, as great as it was to be able to lower that impact, after working with some more creative agencies, I felt like I wanted to get back to that creativity. So I started my own little studio with a colleague of mine and we started doing some really creative work. I think we produced the most sustainable photography website ever because it's literally, yeah, I mean we, you know, you, you look at a lot of websites nowadays and they're literally like two and a half, three megabytes in size, sometimes even bigger.
[00:04:54] Photography websites tend to be the worst because obviously they are a huge amount of imagery. And we managed to make one that was literally just a few hundred kilobytes in size. For a homepage with a huge amount of imagery and it's that for me, it's trying to find these solutions without sacrificing aesthetics. So that would literally work for around a year. And unfortunately due to other kind of commitments and everything like that, it didn't work out. So then that's when I set up Aline because I wanted to start to delve a little bit deeper. You know, because digital is now something that we touch on within our daily lives, like pretty much everybody has a smartphone nowadays. You know, we are all searching Instagram or social media. We're all checking emails, we're all sending Slack messages to our boss and, and everything like that. So especially with remote working, you know, so it's kind of trying to go a little bit deeper, trying to understand the processes, trying to understand businesses, and trying to work with them to create those small changes that have a massive impact. So yeah, so I founded I think it was February, 2021, so literally just over two years ago.
[00:06:04] James Gill: Oh yeah. In fact, happy, happy birthday to Aline then.
[00:06:07] Chris Butterworth: Thank you. But then within the first few months of that, I started speaking to the CEO at Yard. I started talking to a guy called Stephan Briggs who is a little bit older than I am, has a lot more wisdom than than I have. And he literally said, you know, I'm at that point now where I want to make a difference.
[00:06:27] I wanna try and do something really good. I wanna try and change our business to make it more sustainable. So I had them as a client for a little while and then I think a few weeks later he just went, can we acquire you? And I'm like, okay, it's an interesting conversation that I don't think I'd ever foresee happening, especially only six months after founding a company.
[00:06:51] But yeah, it happened. So in October that year, Yard acquired a line to, to form Yard Group and I have now got two roles because I obviously still do the day-to-day stuff for Aline but then also do a lot of the sustainability stuff for Yard as well.
[00:07:10] James Gill: Amazing. I think that's possibly, is that not one of the quickest turnarounds?
[00:07:14] Chris Butterworth: The quickest, I, I think it might be one of the quickest acquisitions ever.
[00:07:18] James Gill: Somewhere in there, I'm sure. Well, yeah. Congratulations on that journey. That's incredible. And so how does it work then with a client coming on board?
[00:07:26] Because I guess it's typical for a client to come along and want a website, a very shiny website, a fantastic website, that makes us look amazing. Do your clients come in already with an objective of having sustainability on their agenda? Is it your job to put sustainability on their agenda?
[00:07:44] How do you deal with those debates? It sounds like you managed to masterfully navigate things with that photography website, but how do you deal with sometimes the compromises that maybe need to be made, either to sustainability to make the site look great or to the aesthetics and shininess, for want of a better word, to address the sustainability side?
[00:08:04] Chris Butterworth: I think, I think a lot of the time, especially on marketing focused websites, there's a lot of things that make you make you just go, 'Ooh, that looks really pretty'. But but then it's whether that actually affects conversion rates, whether that affects people being able to, to visit your website. Whether it affects performance, it's whether it affects accessibility?
[00:08:23] There's a whole myriad of things. I do try and look at with that. But a lot of the time clients come to me just wanting more information. Like they wanna find out more, they are looking to measure a lot of stuff. I don't think I've actually... the last website I actually built was for Yard that's the last website that I built and that launched beginning of last year.
[00:08:45] So literally just after the acquisition . And that was, yeah, so that was the last website that I built. After that, we focused on pretty much everything else. So it's, it's looking at emails, it's looking at your cloud storage, it's looking at, you know, host and infrastructure. If you're a SaaS provider, it's looking at how much data you're collecting.
[00:09:02] It's looking at how it's utilized. Then if you are utilizing it, and if you're not, why keep it? As well as small things like well not, maybe not small things, but looking at e-waste and procurement policies and procedures and everything like that. So that when you are purchasing something, it has a lower impact.
[00:09:20] And then making sure that things are properly recycled as well. I mean, I know that there are laws in, in certain states in the US where you can't just throw electrical items in the bin, but that doesn't happen over here and it needs to.
[00:09:32] James Gill: Yeah. So, so you do span quite a gamut then of not just like, 'Hey, we'll compress the images on your homepage', but it's about how to think about the design of the site, and the infrastructure of the site runs on the credentials of those providers who are providing that service.
[00:09:53] The data you're collecting, the data you're storing where you're storing it right through to the equipment the team are using, and what happens with that when it reaches end of life. All of those aspects.
[00:10:07] Chris Butterworth: I mean, there's a lot to it as well. Like, you know, when we think about, when we think about data; data is pretty much everything. Data's not just websites. It's your social media profile. It's every single thing that you've interacted with on the internet. It's also a whole bunch of photos and files and emails and text documents and music that's literally hosted everywhere now.
[00:10:31] You know, I think we've all been guilty at one point of, of having, of literally using cloud storage as a form of archiving, you know, where we literally back up our farm to the cloud and never interact with it again.
[00:10:46] You know, I think having photos that are like 15 years old still stored on the internet, even though you've probably never see them again.
[00:10:54] It's that sort of thing. You know, there was, there was a, a study in 2017 by Carnegie Mellon from memory. That estimated that for every 100 gigabytes of data stored on the cloud, it would emit 200 kilos of C02.
[00:11:12] James Gill: Wow.
[00:11:13] Chris Butterworth: Now, don't get me wrong, that number's probably a little bit too high.
[00:11:18] You know, especially when we look at you know, efficiencies in hardware and software and networks that have changed and the energy grid, which is constantly evolving is so in reality it's probably a lot lower than that, probably down to about a third. But that's still nothing to be...
[00:11:33] James Gill: A third of that is still a lot . When you think it's not a hundred gig of data that's stored in a cloud, it's a bigger number than that.
[00:11:41] Chris Butterworth: Yeah, you know, one of the biggest clients, one of the biggest people that we dealt with is Allianz, you know, huge global mega insurance and kind of entity, you know, and speaking to their head office about all this, and you're thinking, God, you must be generating terabytes and terabytes of data every single day.
[00:12:02] And then dealing with somebody like Scottish Enterprise who are a client of ours at the minute and, you know, a lot smaller, but still having a huge impact. And literally looking at their cloud storage and they have, 200 gigabytes of storage, you know, 200 gigabytes that we used.
[00:12:21] And it's just constantly growing and constantly getting bigger. And I'm literally saying, yeah, just look at it. Look at your oldest files. If you need them online, keep them online if you don't delete them.
[00:12:30] And literally, you know, because of that, they've put in place a policy to restrict your file duplications because, when you've got a team, I think more than six files do just get duplicated because it means that it's a lot easier to work with. Because you might have different versions for different people and then just all merge them together.
[00:12:48] James Gill: Yeah, it's incredible. It's also quite interesting though because I guess in some ways, a lot of those practices are also just beneficial for the organization to think about, even if climate's not the highest thing on their agenda. Because I guess there's cost benefits associated, there's confusion around which files and, overwhelming just data having such weight in itself it which needs fi organizing, searching through, finding the associated cost of that as well.
[00:13:19] Aside from climate, means that there's a lot of, a lot of arrows pointed towards; treat data like it actually has a cost and or an even greater cost. And think about the costs that are harder to see than, than just your bill from whatever provider you get at the end of the month.
[00:13:36] Chris Butterworth: That's, one of like the biggest solid points, especially when it comes to cloud storage. You you will find information so much quicker. You know, cause the way the clients tend to approach is usually some form of internal sustainability champion.
[00:13:48] Whether that is like a CSL or somebody who is a department manager who really cares and, and really wants to change. So we can literally start, well, you know, this is, this is what is going on, this is what you can do.
[00:14:03] Then we help with audits and measurement and creating these reports. And then it is then up to them to start doing the next steps. I mean, we've got policies in place that we can, that we can supply yes, for people to protect the first step, but it's up to them to adhere to them and, and actually do something. We can't force them as much as we want to do. We can't force them to do it. But yeah, I mean, things are all...
[00:14:24] James Gill: Sorry, sorry to cut you off there, Chris. Do you find that you are brought in by the people that wanna make change in the organization? Or how does that engagement start? Because I guess, for some of these larger companies, they must have a lot of other things going on.
[00:14:40] Not just climate related, but even on the climate agenda, like huge offices. Huge, maybe huge other areas where there's tremendous impact. And getting digital on that agenda and, part of that conversation... I'm just intrigued by how they end up talking to you and how that happens from within a big organization like that.
[00:14:58] Chris Butterworth: I mean, it, it tends to happen after I've spoken somewhere, or if they've found me somewhere, I don't quite know how.
[00:15:06] James Gill: Magic.
[00:15:07] Chris Butterworth: it just, magic happens and people know my name. You know but yeah, it is one of those things. I think digital has become just another tick-box. You know?
[00:15:14] I think with more and more people talking about it now , the momentum is growing for change to happen. I'm not quite sure how long that's gonna take. I'm not quite sure how long it's gonna be before you know, digital sustainability is an everyday thing. It's definitely getting there.
[00:15:32] It's definitely getting there, but it's not quite there yet. So yeah, I think a lot of organization and a lot of organizations here is a tick box, you know? Yeah, a box to tick.
[00:15:41] But then the thing with it, there are other benefits, especially when it comes to, you know, as you said, cost savings.
[00:15:47] If you focus on websites again, which seems to be what everybody talks about within digital sustainability, there's the whole performance side of things. So, your website loads quicker. Conversion rates can be a little bit higher because of that it can rank a little bit better in, in search engines.
[00:16:03] You can tackle accessibility issues by being more sustainable as well. Because a lot of the practices are very accessible too. So, yeah, and it's, and because of that, it massively helps. It also helps with this, this idea of, of data poverty. You know, I don't live in the city. I live outside of the city so my broadband speeds aren't the greatest. If I literally go less than a mile down the road, that speed drops by half.
[00:16:31] James Gill: Yeah!
[00:16:32] Chris Butterworth: But the thing is, is that, you know, we're still under the same council, so we still have the same collection days. For even something simple like your bins, still have the same bus route.
[00:16:42] Trying to find that information online is literally four times quicker for me than it is that person down the road. Whereas if the whole website was more sustainable, then it would load quicker for both of us.
[00:16:55] James Gill: It is sort of, again, all those arrows pointing towards a better way to do things with maybe a slightly different set of priorities that... it just has the net benefits are so much greater for so many more people. And honestly, it's so good talking to you about this. Since we've been working on EcoSend and working on this podcast and talking to people; the narrative around, Digital Sustainability and, and the part digital can play, it feels either we are listening to more people talking about it, or genuinely more people are talking about it.
[00:17:26] And I think it feels like the latter and, you're seeing more and more things popping up, whether it's businesses trying to do something about it, people writing about it, and raising awareness about it. People going into careers, trying to do something about it. And some people are...
[00:17:43] Chris Butterworth: people starting companies to do this.
[00:17:45] James Gill: Yeah. Well, yeah. I was also gonna segue into making tools to try to do something about it. And I think the reason we ended up starting to talk to each other; you've been tinkering and hacking away on a little tool yourself, so I'm keen for listeners to hear a little bit more about that and hear about what you've been thinking there, Chris.
[00:18:07] Chris Butterworth: Yeah, so one of the main tools that we built is this tool called Beacon. So digitalbeacon.co. And basically you enter in a web address and it estimates the carbon footprint for a single visit. So whether that is somebody that's visited that page for the first time, or whether it's somebody that's come back, it will tell you the common emissions of both.
[00:18:31] It was important for me to have something like that. You know, there are other tools out there that give you a single number 'website of carbon' or 'Eco Grader' being one of them, you know, well being two of them. But as somebody with a technical background, I'd want that little bit more information.
[00:18:46] I'd want to be able to tell that information and to be able to do something. You know, I'd want to know where that footprint comes from, what's creating it and how can I lower it. So that was the main focus behind it. I'm working on version two, which is gonna be like a complete redesign and rebuild. And as part of that, also looking at emails as well. Because as I said earlier on, within digital sustainability, websites are the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to it, you know, when we consider , I think I send more emails in a day, than I visit websites, so I think for me, that could be my biggest impact.
[00:19:25] James Gill: Yeah.
[00:19:27] Chris Butterworth: You know, so that's why I wanted to do it. We have all of these email newsletters. I mean, I get probably about two dozen a day. I've tried unsubscribe to literally as many as I get, but there's still some that come through. So because of that, it's kind of like, I know that's then creating a carbon footprint.
[00:19:42] I wonder how much it is? There's a book by Mike Berners-Lee, called 'How Bad Are Bananas?' I don't know whether you've read it.
[00:19:49] James Gill: Yes. Yeah, I know. That's come up on a few episodes of, of this show. It's hard to not forget that title!
[00:19:55] Chris Butterworth: Hard to, it's hard to avoid that book! It's literally everywhere. . But even within that, you know, there are estimations for emails. I think the previous edition, not the newest one. , it came to the conclusion that an average email generates around a gram co2 and it's kind of like, that is mad.
[00:20:14] That's mad. No matter how you look at it, that is insane, especially when you consider how many emails we send. Now that is an average, so I wanted to find out a little bit more.
[00:20:25] I just, I like tinkering. I like solving problems. That's what I do. So then I wanted to find out a little bit more. So one of the things that I have started to build is a version of Beacon for emails.
[00:20:36] The name is still up for grabs because I don't think 'Beacon for email' has a really good ring to it.
[00:20:41] James Gill: Remembered it, but you know, I might be an outlier there.
[00:20:45] Chris Butterworth: But it is, but then he is trying to find out a little bit more. It's trying to find out where those emissions come from? What those emissions are exactly? What can, what can we do to reduce it. I've mainly built it so that it can be used with newsletter sending services. So, you know, email sending services like EcoSend, like MailChimp, like CampaignMonitor or whichever email marketing platform that you use, you can literally just send a test email to 'Beacon for email' and it gives you a breakdown of the emissions.
[00:21:15] And it's just trying to... Yeah, I still haven't built it, but I need to.
[00:21:19] James Gill: No it's, honestly, it's so interesting because obviously this is a topic extremely near and dear to our hearts and something we're continuing to try and figure out as best we can as well. And I think one of the things we've struggled with along the way has been getting, you know, as a team of engineers and problem solvers ourselves. When you've got someone who's written a book and everyone going off of that number, but it's still... the number almost makes you ask more questions than it answers. Well, what are the levers we can pull to reduce that? And, how do we know whether we're doing a good or a bad job and what should we pay attention to and what shouldn't we within even just this slim tiny vertical of marketing email, for instance. Or personal email. And I think it's such a rabbit hole of questions that start being asked. And I think one of the challenges we've found is sometimes you want more answers than than the world can give you because there's so much variability in things.
[00:22:18] And, and I'm, I'm intrigued by how you found that trying to satisfy that engineering brain of yours to get to something concrete enough that you feel good about.
[00:22:29] Chris Butterworth: I mean, it has been an interesting thing. It's, it's more for me, it's finding a way of having some form of benchmark, isn't it? Like, to know where you're going and to know that you're having an impact. You need to know where you are right now.
[00:22:41] You know, so that's why I like to focus on too, a lot. A lot is so that you can kind of say, 'Right at this point in this time, on this day, I am right here.
[00:22:54] I've created or generated this amount of emissions because of my digital usage over the past X amount.
[00:23:03] I know where I stand. I know what I can do next. Let's do it.'
[00:23:06] Let's see how much of an impact it really creates, you know? In terms of coming to a concrete number, there are some community driven efforts.
[00:23:35] James Gill: Pretty cool. We'll make sure we link to that as well in the show notes by the way, because it's pretty awesome. People have been working on tools like that, what it can enable, I think is just fascinating.
[00:23:44] Chris Butterworth: Yeah that will be what is used in kind of Beacon 2.0 and 'Beacon for email' as well, so that there is that consistency and there is that consistency and that standardization because I think that's what's missing.
[00:23:56] James Gill: Yeah, absolutely. We'll put a lot of these links in the notes because I can sense myself wanting to go and check all these sites out. So hopefully if anyone's listening they will also feel that. I, like we're almost at time Chris, but maybe one more question would be, what do you see the future looking like for, for your industry?
[00:24:14] Maybe if you could answer that in like, 30 seconds
[00:24:16] Chris Butterworth: 30 second answer. That is, that's a challenge and a half
[00:24:20] James Gill: I'm joking. I know that requires a little bit more contemplation, but yeah. Any, any trend lines, anything you see becoming bigger and bigger over the next, I don't know, dare I say years? I feel like things move so quickly.
[00:24:34] Chris Butterworth: I can only see it getting bigger. I can only see more and more people talking about it the same way that they talk about. Greenwashing the same way that we talk about just Marketing in general, the way that we talk about climate change. You know, I think digital will always be a part of that now.
[00:24:47] Because digital is such an umbrella term that, you know, it's massive. It's huge. It creates more emissions than aviation. And it's expected to grow. I think it was even reported on the BBC, but in 2020 it was responsible for 3.7% of all global carbon emissions.
[00:25:07] The aviation industry was two.
[00:25:10] And it's expected to grow. We're expected by 2030, it's expected to be 14%. That's just humongous. Where is that coming from? And you know, there's lots of fringe movements around it that I see is, is helping. When we look at e-waste and reducing that, you're know, the right to repair movement.
[00:25:28] Things like Fairphone, where you can literally just buy parts. Microsoft have released a laptop where you can literally repair it yourself as well. This, it's all going to just, it's all just going to happen really, really quickly. It's going to slowly build momentum and then it's just going to explode.
[00:25:43] James Gill: Yeah, hopefully so, because you don't see many people putting their phones away too much and not using the internet so much. The trend lines are only going one way in terms of that consumption. So, you know, I think there's a lot on all of us to be thinking about this as the creators and builders of those products and services going forward. ,
[00:26:02] Chris Butterworth: I'm not, I'm not sure whether there's gonna be any form of education piece, because obviously one of the things that I do a lot is education and training. Whether that's through webinars or hands-on training to teach people how to be more sustainable digitally, and I don't know.
[00:26:18] But a lot of that is focus is aimed at organisations, it's aimed at businesses. It's not aimed at people, it's aimed at organisations where, you know, you might behave one way at work and then as soon as you get home, you behave completely differently. And then it's undoing all of the work that you've done.
[00:26:34] James Gill: Yeah. Hopefully there can be more, maybe more on the consumption side to address, try and alleviate some of the natural growth, with people being more conscious and more responsible with their choices.
[00:26:46] Chris Butterworth: Yeah.
[00:26:47] James Gill: I I'm definitely going over time here, Chris., I apologise
[00:26:51] Chris Butterworth: No, it's quite alright. Don't worry.
[00:26:53] James Gill: And we haven't even had a song from me yet. No, one of the things we always like to try and do on the podcast though is leave people with some handy resources or any kind of advice. I know there's a bunch of places you could recommend people check out.
[00:27:05] Maybe just a, a few of those would be amazing. If you could let us know and we can pop those into show notes as well.
[00:27:12] Chris Butterworth: Yeah, I mean, shameless plug, but the Aline website, you know, aline.to is probably, it's a good stand starting point really, because then you'll read some of the thoughts behind it. And, you know, we've got a bit of a content hub, a bit of a glossary as well to help define some of the terms.
[00:27:25] There's also sustainablewebdesign.org. There's Digital Beacon, there's the Green Web Foundation. There's Branch Magazine. If you wanna go that a little bit deeper, there's Climate Action Tech. Oh, I could just start reeling all of these off, but...
[00:27:39] James Gill: are all great. That, that, do very nicely. Maybe normally we maybe get one link, but Chris I'm sure you'll be talking more about this. So, yeah, thank you. I feel like that is very nicely wrapping up a wonderfully informative, inspirational, entertaining show. Chris, thank you so much.
[00:27:57] Chris Butterworth: Thank you for having
[00:27:57] James Gill: Thank you for being here and thank you to anyone listening, really appreciate you tuning in.
[00:28:02] Please do make sure you tell others about the podcast if you found it valuable. Hopefully, letting more and more people know about this and Chris mentioning about the importance of more of us being responsible with the decisions we're making in our lives. Whether as consumers or as, as makers, as creators, as builders of companies.
[00:28:21] So hopefully you've enjoyed the show. Look forward to bringing you many more episodes in the future. If you've enjoyed it as well, of course, please let us know via a rating of some sort or a comment on the podcast player of your choice. And we'll catch you next time. So thank you again, Chris, and speak soon.
[00:28:39] Chris Butterworth: Thank you.