Welcome to “SustainableUX in conversation”, where we reconnect with previous SustainableUX speakers, find out what they are up to, and ask them to share their latest climate work and inspiration.
Tim Frick should be a familiar name if you’ve attended a SustainableUX conference or read a book on the topic. Tim spoke at our first conference (“Designing for Sustainability“) and again in 2017 ( “The Sustainable Agency“). Between those two events he wrote the defining book of this field, Designing for Sustainability (O’Reilly Media). (humblebrag disclosure – I contributed a short bit).
Tim has done much to raise awareness of sustainability in the digital and agency space. He’s the founder & president of Mightybytes, a Certified B Corp founded to help purpose-driven companies succeed in the digital marketplace. Mightybytes is the force behind the popular website sustainability tool Ecograder.
Our email conversation below took place at the end of October 2021.
Sustainableux: Hi Tim, how are you today?
TF: I’m doing well. Thanks for having this conversation with me. I really appreciate your work and the community you have built around SustainableUX.
You’ve been working on sustainability broadly, and digital sustainability specifically, for a few years now. What brought you to this work?
TF: I’ve always been a passionate environmentalist. I grew up in a small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan and was raised with a deep respect and reverence for the natural world. Taking a hike or a long bike ride through the woods motivates me, gives me energy, inspires and rejuvenates me. It’s where I get my best thinking done.
Conversely, mass ecological destruction, species extinction, and climate change have galvanized my approach to, well, everything in life. These issues directly impact people, usually our most vulnerable communities first. As an entrepreneur, I can use my business as an instrument for change. It is the best way for me to create a positive social and environmental impact.
Though the company has been around since 1998, Mightybytes first became a Certified B Corp in 2011. At that time, we were the 9th Certified B Corp in the state of Illinois, where the business is headquartered. Certified B Corps adhere to the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. We use the power of business to build a regenerative, equitable, and more inclusive economy. We’re redefining success in business.
The B Impact Assessment, which is used to certify B Corps, is a great tool for designing a better business that adheres to the standards mentioned above. It helps you think differently about what you can accomplish as an organization.
For years, owning a small agency that designs digital products and services for clients and my environmental aspirations seemed mutually exclusive. Sure, we swapped out all our lightbulbs with more environmentally-friendly options, added recycling bins, and did the basics like any other conscientious business might. But these principles weren’t built into the company’s business model. They were just things we did.
However, around the time we became a B Corp, I also started seeing reports and news stories about the internet’s massive environmental impact. That was my “Aha!” moment. We could do something about this!
So we redesigned our entire process to prioritize sustainability, identifying areas where we might improve efficiency, increase the use of renewable energy, and, generally, design more inclusive products. We also quickly realized that there were no educational tools to help people understand these concepts. So we created them: Ecograder, Sustainable Web Design, a TEDx Talk, and my book Designing for Sustainability as well as dozens of blog posts and podcasts all over the internet.
Now, the company truly has an impactful business model:
- The clients we do business with are aligned with our B Corp values.
- Our hosting accounts are powered by renewable energy.
- The communities in which we reside and conduct business with benefit from our educational content. In turn, some become our clients.
- The people we hire want to work at a mission-driven company, like a B Corp.
- Last year, we made significant progress toward achieving net zero.
- Plus, we prioritize accessibility, privacy/security, and other impact-focused practices in our day-to-day work.
- Finally, we have a Code of Ethics that was specifically created for a digital-native company.
So, are we winning? Has digital design practice evolved its stance on climate change much?
TF: We are definitely not winning. It has been very rewarding these past couple of years to see broader interest in sustainable digital design. However, sustainability and circular or regenerative principles should be required coursework at every design school in the world. That’s not happening broadly enough.
Plus, while our agency occasionally gets prospects who specifically reference sustainability, most clients still don’t know what we’re talking about or why sustainable web design needs to be a priority. So there’s a huge amount of education required in the business development and onboarding processes, which is time-consuming and can be costly. In an industry where clients are often looking for the lowest price, elements like accessibility and sustainability can fall through the cracks. This is especially true when projects are awarded through RFPs. That’s just a broken process overall.
Finding a reliable source of income is a key driver for any agency. Tom Greenwood wrote an excellent chapter in his book, Sustainable Web Design about how difficult selling this work can be. If you’re an agency that can’t sell sustainable web design services, you won’t have a sustainable business. Simple as that. More education needs to happen across the business ecosystem.
All this said, the progress is encouraging. It just needs to happen faster. Climate change is here now.
Let’s catch up on what you are working on now. You’re part of the Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) manifesto. How did that come about? Who is it for? And how can SustainableUX readers help?
TF: My thoughts on Corporate Digital Responsibility evolved from the ever-changing nature of sustainability. People are always at the heart of this work. You can’t address the climate crisis, for example, without addressing climate justice.
In terms of digital design, what good is a zero emissions website if its creation somehow supports poverty or slave labor? What if it poses a privacy or security risk or otherwise exploits user data? What if the product itself promotes ethically questionable practices? What if its content is inaccessible for up to one billion people worldwide who identify as having some sort of disability? Depending on the content, that could be life-threatening to some.
These issues are intersectional and they all must be addressed in tandem with one another. CDR is about merging the environmental and social/societal implications of digital products, services, and practices with good business governance practices. This is especially critical given the pace at which disruptive emerging technologies are going mainstream.
The CDR Manifesto came about as part of our research. We found collaborators, mostly in Europe and the UK, and began scheduling calls and sharing ideas on the core concepts. We just released a first draft publicly and are actively soliciting feedback.
SustainableUX readers can support this by signing the manifesto and sharing it with their networks.
Many SustainableUX readers will be familiar with Ecograder, the free website service you launched at Mightybytes. I hear updates are in the works?
TF: Yes, Ecograder is pushing nine years old now…ancient for software! To date, Ecograder has crawled tens of millions of URLs, providing users with easy to understand reports on how they might improve the performance, efficiency, and sustainability of their digital products and services. We initially created it as an educational tool to help people understand digital sustainability principles and take action. And it’s done that.
Research and discovery we ran earlier this year showed that there is a growing appetite for more robust tools to address digital sustainability issues. Designers and developers want access to these tools while sustainability professionals and organizational leaders want tangible, actionable data in small, easily digestible pieces.
We plan to update the free version of Ecograder to include a much broader set of educational resources. When we launched in 2013, our own blog and a few other straggler posts were the only things on the internet. Now, new resources appear every day.
We will also make it more actionable. What’s the carbon impact of the images on your page, for example? What would happen if you reduced those file sizes by 50%? Things like that.
Finally, we have a longer term product roadmap that includes a pro version, possibly a WordPress plugin, and better data parity with Wholegrain Digital’s Website Carbon tool.
TF: To date, they haven’t. And that’s a problem. If you use a handful of tools to understand your digital emissions and they all give you different answers, how do you know which one is most accurate? This can undermine an organization’s rationale to prioritize digital decarbonization and improved performance. .
We didn’t initially include carbon accounting in Ecograder because at launch there wasn’t consensus on a specific methodology for calculating digital carbon emissions. I added a chapter to Designing for Sustainability on this topic specifically because it was so challenging. However, shortly after my book was published in 2016, a study by Anders Andrae provided an estimation. Wholegrain Digital used this study to create Website Carbon.
Since then, multiple studies and academic research papers have attempted to address this. Over the course of the past year, I have collaborated with people from Wholegrain Digital, Medina Works, and EcoPing.Earth to review the academic literature on this topic. Our goal is to create a unified, open source formula in a central location that anyone can use to calculate digital emissions. The next versions of both Ecograder and Website Carbon will be based on this formula, which should also provide parity on emissions calculations between the two tools.
However, it is important to note that the scientific community hasn’t yet reached consensus on how best to calculate digital emissions. It all depends on how you define the system boundaries. With the climate crisis raging, we feel that it is better to release a methodology and revise it as new data becomes available versus not releasing it at all.
Ecograder has been running for a few years now. Any stories to share?
TF: We get emails all the time from people all over the world asking about Ecograder, Sustainable Web Design, etc. Many let us know how useful they found those resources. To date, however, very few have followed up with us about changed practices or policies.
That’s mostly on us. Unfortunately, we didn’t build Ecograder for reporting. There is no dashboard, either for admins or users, in the current version. This makes it difficult to measure progress. It was initially meant to serve as a simple educational tool. We have created a few aggregate reports in the past, but those were cumbersome and difficult to pull together.
That will change with the new version. We’re also exploring other reporting options for data parity between Ecograder and Website Carbon as well.
We hear a lot from younger designers & developers entering the workforce, looking for opportunities to contribute more to the climate fight. What one thing would you encourage them to try that might get them traction in the workplace for climate initiatives?
TF: We all have a responsibility to incorporate tangible climate action into our daily lives. Individuals, however, can only accomplish so much. The biggest opportunities lie in ushering organizations, especially businesses, into adopting more circular practices, reducing emissions, and so on. These are creative problem-solving issues, which designers are usually trained for.
In-house designers can use human-centered design (HCD) principles to more quickly elevate these practices and create shared consensus on the best path forward with organizational stakeholders. In most traditional organizations, designers are usually relegated to somewhere within the communications department.
However, impactful change happens across departments and with multiple, diverse stakeholders at the table. Designers and developers looking to create organizational change should form interdepartmental alliances and strategic partnerships. This can accelerate adoption of new ideas or practices within the organization.
I’ve always loved IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Design Guide, for instance. Why not host a multi-stakeholder workshop to familiarize people with those principles and how they might apply to the organization? Once you’re good enough at facilitation, it becomes easy to pull in various stakeholders and build consensus and action plans for everything from where you source your coffee to why there isn’t more diversity on your board.
One topic we hear a lot about in climate work is burnout. People are staring climate change in the face and it can be exhausting. How do you approach your climate work and look after your mental wellbeing at the same time?
TF: It can be overwhelming, that’s for sure. Every big, wicked problem gets solved “one bite at a time”, as they say. I can only control what’s in my sphere of influence.
It is important to look at the resolution with which you’re trying to solve a problem. Sometimes, you need to think in systems and look at the big picture. Other times you need to zoom in and focus on a minute detail, like the carbon impact of a digital image, for instance. All of the work, however, needs to be in the service of a single, unifying purpose. The climate crisis is the existential crisis of our time. If we don’t solve this one, it’s game over.
That’s one of many reasons why I love being a part of the B Corp community. Each of the 4,000+ businesses in that community are contributing to a bigger picture in their own unique way. Each individual within those companies contributes in their own unique way to the success of those companies. Together, we are redesigning the economy so it works for people and the planet. That’s inspiring.
However, there are also only 4,000+ Certified B Corps on the planet out of millions of businesses worldwide. The speed at which companies adopt these practices needs to accelerate.
Regarding Climate Ride, while I’m no longer on the board there, their transformative events give me the inspiration I need to “get back on the horse” when I’m frustrated. I try to do one per year when I can. See paragraph one at the top of this interview. 🙂
Climate Ride is an amazing community of changemakers that has donated millions of dollars to organizations fighting climate change, doing active transportation advocacy, and advancing conservation, sustainability, and environmental justice. I encourage anyone to support them.
Tim, thank you for your time!