Progress on digital sustainability at the Co-op

Over 18 months ago, we wrote about how we planned to commit to designing more responsibly at Co-op. Since that point we’ve established a small group of informal ‘sustainability champions’ including Alistair, Marianne, Rachel, Jack and Preetha. This group have been working with support from sustainability specialists like Stephen and Cathryn at Co-op, as well as external experts including Chris, Gerry, and Graeme.

Whilst the team exploring it has been designer-heavy at times, we’ve considered the wider implications for our wider data and technology teams too. That means we’re talking more about digital sustainability more the specifically designing responsibly now.

What we prioritised

Our early conversations surfaced a lot of potential opportunities, as well as things that could block us doing them and many unknowns that need more investigation. We spent a long time just figuring out where to even start.

screenshot of a Miro board with post it notes on. Sections are titled Opportunities, barriers, Co-op wide and Digital, with ideas organised across these different axes.

We did several workshops alongside sustainability experts that helped identify some distinct needs that we felt we could meet as a group. These were things that we found holding us back from working more sustainably in our teams personally, as well as what we had seen or heard other organisations doing. We decided to:

  • create a written artefact to act as a reference point for what we wanted to achieve
  • collect data to benchmark our current position
  • create awareness and increase literacy of digital sustainability at Co-op

Each of these aims took a slightly different approach over the last 12 months:

Creating a written thing

We initially explored creating a ‘strategy’ for digital sustainability. As we talked, and learned from others, we continually returned to our aim of seeing actual change in how teams work, and questioned whether a strategy was the right approach.

The aspiration was to create something that:

  • could be a point of reference for teams to use, to enable them to start making changes in their own work
  • made our commitment public, so we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable to it
  • acted as a conversation starter with people who have not considered the topic
  • enabled us to collect feedback about what does and doesn’t make sense to teams as they read and try to use it

Our accessibility policy is a good example of something that has achieved similar goals. It is widely adopted across Co-op design teams, acting as a minimum expectation for our work. The policy is promoted and updated by our accessibility champions, who collectively run training to raise awareness and improve practice in the design and engineering team and beyond.

Inspired by the policy format, Marianne brought her content design expertise to creating a draft document that communicated potential opportunities for change. Whilst still a working draft (that isn’t public yet), the document now covers:

  • Why we have a digital sustainability policy  
  • Things we can do to increase digital sustainability and reduce energy demand
    • Ways of working
    • Design, engineering and development practice
    • Supply chain
      • Hosting
      • Equipment
      • Data and storage
  • What we are already doing
  • Responsibility for digital sustainability
  • Awareness of the digital sustainability policy 
  • Help with sustainability 
  • How we will measure the success of the digital sustainability policy
  • Information and resources on digital sustainability

Benchmarking our websites

One thing that stalled progress early on was that we didn’t have any benchmark for how sustainable our current digital products or technology infrastructure was. It is still a work in progress, but we do now have a better idea of what data we do or don’t have, and who manages access to that data.

Co-op has multiple customer and colleague facing websites that total an average over 28 million hits per month, spread across a wide range of individual pages. Using Website carbon calculator we measured the carbon intensity for key pages across different businesses.

We calculated that 28 million hits on Co-op websites roughly equates to 75 tons CO2 equivalent a year.

More detailed performance data helped explain why different pages had different scores. There was a very strong correlation between standard performance metrics (page weight and speed) and the carbon intensity of each page.

At the time we collected this data: emitted 0.22g of CO2 equivalent every visit. The total page payload was 1.99mb, the largest Contentful paint took 1.6s

Whereas emitted 0.55g of CO2 equivalent. The total page payload was 2.84mb, the largest Contentful paint took 5.5s.

In part this demonstrates the close link between sustainability and performance, as well as accessibility, usability, and cost etc. Sustainability is not just a moral obligation that works against our other priorities, done well it supports many of the other good practices we aim for.

Meme of 7 spidermen pointing at each other. They are labelled Sustainability, accessibility, cost, data governance, performance, inclusivity and usability.

Benchmarking our internal data storage and file sharing

Based on research and other advice, we knew our internal data storage and sharing tools would have a significant contribution to our digital footprint. At Co-op this mostly means Office 365. That includes SharePoint, Exchange (emails) and Onedrive. Fortunately we found that our ‘Domain Principal for Collaboration Services’ – the person who knows everything about our Office 365 usage had already deployed the Emissions Impact Dashboard for Microsoft 365.

This, combined with other data we already knew as an organisation told us the following:

  • We currently have over 195 terabytes of data held in Microsoft servers
  • The energy to run our allocation of Office 365 servers has generated over 294 kg of CO2 equivalent in the last 12 months
  • The manufacture and shipping of those servers has generated over 46.5 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in the last 12 month

There are already plans to reduce the data we store by reducing the amount of time we retain data that people have deleted. Because its data people think is already deleted they likely won’t even notice the change, but it will have a significant impact on our storage needs.

Whilst imperfect, the combination of these two data sets enabled us to make what had previously been abstract conversation into more tangible impact. When you’re talking in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent based on your own data, it’s harder to ignore.

We still plan to explore the following tools to build out what we know using:

Alognside this we’ve also started conversations with the providers of other tools e.g. Miro to find out what they know around the energy intensity of their tools, and the data that we as an organisation store with them.

Raising awareness

This was probably the one we were least pro-active about. Whilst there’s been a committed small group of people that we’ve tried to galvanise, its not spread much beyond that core team. We have an open slack channel on all things #sustainability and a dedicated #sustainability-champions one. We’ve held community of practice style sessions where we’ve either developed and reviewed the policy or invited external speakers to share their knowledge and work.

Trying to free up people’s time can also be a challenge and we prioritised progressing things, and seeing change happen, over boosting attendance for now. There may come a time where the opposite approach is needed to continue seeing the desired change.

Work that is already happening

Much of this work has been pulling together existing threads of change that is already happening. For example, the surge in energy costs over the past 12 months meant it became a priority for teams to identify opportunities to save energy, and more of these had a worthwhile payback because now the potential cost of energy was greater than the time it would cost us to make the changes. For example:

By the end of 2023 all Co-op self-serve tills in stores will be powered down centrally overnight and then switched back on an hour before opening time. This is projected to save over 1.5 million kwh (290 tons CO2 equivalent) and over £500,000.

Decommissioning a large SharePoint site that was no longer in use is projected to save approximately 40,000 kwh and over £15,000 annually.

The engineering team for ‘Shared Digital Services’ have explored how they can make better use of their AWS infrastructure that supports their products. Initial experiments show a saving of £23 a day, or over £5000 by December 2023, they have not calculated the expected energy saving yet.

None of these examples have directly come from the creation of the policy but serve as reference points for the opportunities that exist across our teams when we pro-actively seek out ways to be more energy efficient and use our design and development skills to make changes.

What’s next

Sharing this work with our Digital, Technology and Data leadership team generated good conversation, questions and generally showed appetite from them for more, but the real change needs to happen within teams.

We had some feedback around whether a ‘policy’ was the right way to position the document we had created, but the response was overall positive. We’re hoping to move continue developing it and ultimately publish as some form of ‘guidelines’. Watch this space.

In the meantime, the main aim is to actually see change happen, teams taking initiative to reduce the energy consumption of their ways of working and the products they design, build and manage. We suspect this will be partly driven by the policy or guidelines that are sponsored by leadership, but equally (if not more so) through individual’s personal motivation. To boost this, we delivered a session as part of our internal Digital, Technology and Data team conference in June, and have planned community of practice sessions to help spread the word.

Alistair Ruff, Principal Designer

Marianne Knowles, Principal Designer

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