Digital Sustainability and the Elephant in the Room

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, Paul Marden is joined by James Hobbs, Head of Technology at aer studios and a member of the Umbraco Community Sustainability Team.

“Sustainable websites are typically lightweight, they’re fast, they’re optimised for getting the right things in front of the user as quickly as possible.”

James Hobbs is a people-focused technologist with over 15 years experience working in a range of senior software engineering roles with a particular focus on digital sustainability.
He is Head of Technology at creative technology studio, aer studios, leading the technology team delivering outstanding work for clients including Dogs Trust, BBC, Historic Royal Palaces, and many others. Prior to joining aer studios, James was Head of Engineering at digital agency Great State, where he led a multi-award-winning software engineering team working with clients including the Royal Navy, Ministry of Defence, Honda Europe, the Scouts, and others.

He also has many years experience building and running high-traffic, global e-commerce systems while working at Dyson, where he headed up the global digital technical team.

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Digital Sustainability Background 
  • Why Digital Sustainability Matters
  • Tools and Techniques for Measuring Digital Sustainability
  • Improving Digital Sustainability
  • Green Hosting and Supply Chain Considerations
  • Communicating Sustainability Efforts

Skip the Queue Didital Sustainability

The interview

Your host, Paul Marden

Our guest, James Hobbs


Paul Marden: James, welcome to skip the queue. Lovely to have you.

James Hobbs: Thanks for having me. 

Paul Marden: So we always start with some icebreaker questions. So it would be unfair if I didn’t inflict the same pain on you. 

James Hobbs: Go for it. 

Paul Marden: Let’s start with a nice one, I think. What actor would you want to play you in a film about your life? 

James Hobbs: I mean, instinctively, I’d say someone like Jack Black. Just think he’s really funny. A lot more funny than me. I’m not sure how much of a resemblance there is. He’s got a much better beard than I do someone. Yeah. If there’s gonna be an adaptation, I’d like it to be funny. 

Paul Marden: I like the idea of that one. I think I’d struggle with that one. I’d struggle to pick. Yeah, you know, it’s gotta be an archetypal geek that would play me in the story of my life. I’m not sure who that would be. 

James Hobbs: Not John Cena or something like that. 

Paul Marden: So the next one, I’d say this one I found really hard, actually. What was your dream job when you were growing up? 

James Hobbs: Oh, okay. So I can answer that one easily because my parents still take the Mickey out of me for it. So when I was quite young, I told them very kind of certified. When I grow up, I want to be part time mechanic, part time librarian. 

Paul Marden: Well, that’s an interesting job, shed. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, it’s really random, I think, because I like, I love books. I love reading. Did back then, still do now. I also like dismantling things. I was never very good at putting them back together and then continuing to work. But, yeah, that was my aspiration when I was a kid. 

Paul Marden: I remember going to careers advisors and just some of the tosh, they would tell you. So everybody was told they could be an undertaker and you got your typical finance jobs. But I really. I desperately wanted to be a pilot. And I was told by the optician I couldn’t because of eyesight, which was nonsense. But actually, I couldn’t have done the job because I have a zero sense of direction. So later in life, when I trained for my private pilot’s license, I got hopelessly lost a couple of times. The RAF are very helpful, though, when that happens. 

James Hobbs: They come up, fly alongside you and tell you to get out of their airspace. 

Paul Marden: They don’t like people invading the Heathrow airspace. And I was dangerously close to it at the time. 

James Hobbs: Nice. 

Paul Marden: That’s another story, though. But no, they sent me from my work experience to work in the local council finance department which I don’t think could be more different than being a pilot if you actually tried. 

James Hobbs: I mean, it’s not the most glamorous, I mean, it’s important, but, you know, it’s not quite Top Gun, is it? 

Paul Marden: No, no. Exactly. There you go. Tom Cruise. That can. He can play me in the film of my life. James. So we want to talk a little bit about digital sustainability. So I thought it’d be quite nice for you to tell the listeners a little bit about your background in digital and more specifically the stuff that you’ve been doing more recently in digital sustainability. 

James Hobbs: Okay, I’ll give you the most succinct property history I can. So I guess my background 15, 16 years ago started off as a developer, not a very good one. And since then I’ve worked for a range of different sorts of organisations. So everything from a local council, national charity, global manufacturing company, and then two digital agencies. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been more in leadership positions, obviously have to stay close to the technology.

And in more recent years, one of the big passions of mine, I suppose, or something I’m really interested is the sustainability side of digital, because I think it’s interesting and that we can make a massive impact, which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point. But my current role is I’m Head of Technology at a creative technology studio called aer studios, who also share my enthusiasm for sustainability. So I’m excited to do some work there. 

Paul Marden: Yeah. And my background stalking of you told me that air does some work in the attraction sector as well, doesn’t it? So you work with a few attractions? 

James Hobbs: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, we’ve got a few. 

Paul Marden: So there’s some form here. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, I would say so. 

Paul Marden: Cool. One of the things that I know that you’ve been working with is so we’re both. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Umbraco community, and Umbraco is a Content Management System that a few attractions use not many, but some tend to be larger organisations that use Umbraco typically. But we’ve both spent time in the Umbraco community going to lots of events and talking to a lot of people. But one of the contributions you’ve made over the recent period is joining the Umbraco Sustainability Team. What is it? What does it do and who’s involved in it? 

James Hobbs: Okay, so the Umbraco has this concept of community teams, which I think is a, Umbraco is a very unique organisation anyway. You know this because you’re part of community as well, but they have a very strong connection and link with the community of developers. And not just developers, anyone who has anything to do with Umbraco and works with it. And the sustainability team is one of the several community teams that exist. The idea is that it brings together people from Umbraco’s HQ and people from the community who have a shared passion in something relevant to Umbraco to help steer it, share knowledge, and ultimately achieve a goal. And for the sustainability community team, the goal is to, I guess it’s multifaceted. Firstly to make Umbraco as a product more sustainable, which is brilliant. 

Secondly, to raise awareness of what organisations or individuals need to do to be able to improve the sustainability posture of whatever they’re up to, which is brilliant as well. So there’s a very Umbraco focused side to it, but there’s also a wider kind of awareness raising, educational side of it too, because this is a very, its a quite a new, say, it’s a relatively new thing I think. Digital sustainability as a concept completely hasn’t really existed for that long, unfortunately. But now it does. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, exactly. And theres been some impact as well that the team has had on the product and the direction of the product isn’t there. 

James Hobbs: Yeah. So and again, this is, there’s several of us in this community team and I want to make it really clear that like a lot of work’s gone on. It’s not just me doing it. So we’ve managed to achieved a few things. So first of all, the Umbraco website, they launched a new website a little while ago. Its sustainability posture wasn’t great. So we’ve worked with them, people that internally built that to improve it, and that’s made a massive difference. 

Paul Marden: Excellent. 

James Hobbs: It’s gone from being dirtier than a large majority of websites to being cleaner than most, which is great. We’ve pulled together some documentation for covering all sorts of areas from front end, back end development, content editing and so on, to educate people on how to build more sustainable websites. And some of the team members as well have built an Umbraco package, an open source package that you can install into Umbraco, and it will advise you in terms of the pages that you’re making, whether they are good from a carbon footprint point of view or not. And we’ll give you a rating, which is superb because it brings that whole thing in much closer to the end users who’ll be making the pages. So that was a really nice piece of work. And on top of that, we do appear on things like this. Do webinars and talk at conferences and stuff. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, and I think Andy Eva-Dale from Tangent is one of the members of the team. And honestly it was Andy who totally opened my eyes to this whole subject when I first started seeing him talk about it and giving some stats, and we’ll talk a little more about those later on. There’s definitely an impact that the team is having and it’s really weird, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t want to geek out too much about Umbraco and the community, but there is something quite special about this commercial organisation that has open source software that gets given away for free, that collaborates with the community to build a product which is easy to use, pretty cool, really effective, but also sustainable as well. There’s not many organisations that work in that way. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, it’s unique and I love it. I think it’s great. It just shows you it’s possible to run a business and make money, but also have a really engaged community of passionate people and work together. I think it’s brilliant. 

Paul Marden: Look, let’s just take a step back from geeking out about Umbraco. Then I want to set the scene. Longtime listeners will know that Rubber Cheese run a visitor attraction website survey. We’ve done it for two years in a row. This year we simplified the survey down to make space for some more questions. And one of the key questions we’ve talked about is Sustainability. We are still just over the halfway point of the survey period, so there are still lots of responses coming in. But based on the data that we’ve got so far, we know that 72% of attractions in the current survey have got a sustainability policy, but only 12% of attractions have ever tested the CO2 emissions of their website. And we’ll come to in a minute why we think the measurement and focusing on CO2 emissions in digital is important. 

But whilst very few are actually testing their site, nearly half of all of the respondents so far have attempted something to reduce the CO2 emissions of their website. So there’s clearly action going on, but it’s not necessarily driving in a coherent direction because there’s no clear benchmarking and target setting and retesting. So I think what I’d like to cover today is for us to understand that a little bit more, get under the skin of it a little bit, and then talk a little bit about how we can actually reduce the CO2 emissions, how can we actually make things different and why we might want to do it.

Because it’s more than just kind of the ethical, we all should be doing something. There were some real business benefits to it as well. My next question, without stating the bleeding obvious. Okay, why do you think digital sustainability matters? I mean, the obvious answer is just because it does. But it’s important, isn’t it, as a contributor to global warming? 

James Hobbs: Yeah. So, I mean, there’s lots of statistics knocking around, one of which I think it shows you the scale of the impact of the digital industry is. I think the total carbon footprint emissions of the digital industry is greater than global air traffic. And if you go and look on something like Flightradar or Skyscanner or whatever, and look at how many planes are in the air at any given moment in time, that’s a pretty sobering statistic. There’s lots of other ones as well, in terms of the amount of electricity that’s being used, and water compared to even small countries like New Zealand. So we are generating a hell of a lot of carbon directly and indirectly, by doing all the things that we do. 

And every time you hold up your phone and you load up Instagram or TikTok or download something, there’s a massive disconnect cognitively, because it’s just there and it just works and it doesn’t feel like it’s using up electricity and so on, but it is. There’s a whole massive supply chain behind all of the lovely things we like to do on our devices that is hungry for electricity and generates pollution and that kind of thing. 

Paul Marden: Yeah. So my background was at British Airways and I was there for ten years. It really wasn’t that hard to spot the fact that environmentally, that we have a challenging problem. Because when you stood on the end of Heathrow Runway, you can see what’s coming out the back end of a 747 as it takes off. But I don’t think I ever quite understood the impact of what I do now and how that’s contributing more to CO2 emissions than what I was doing previously, which. Yeah, I just don’t think there’s an awareness of that more broadly. 

James Hobbs: No, yeah, I’d agree. And it’s complicated. 

Paul Marden: In what way? 

James Hobbs: I guess it’s complicated to quantify the carbon impact of the type of work that we do in the digital industry, because I guess there’s what we’re shipping to end users, which is one thing. But most modern websites and applications and stuff are built on a big tower of cloud services providers, and all of their equipment has to be manufactured which has a carbon impact. And rare earth metals need to be mined out of the grid. All of that stuff. There’s a big supply chain backing all this stuff and we can influence some of that directly, but a large chunk of it we can’t. So it makes choosing your suppliers quite important. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. So if you’re going down the road, if you accept the premise that, this is a big contributor and making small gains on any of the stuff that is of interest to us and marketers who are owning websites attractions, I think for me, probably the first step is testing and trying to figure out where you are. Do you think that’s a useful first step? Is that important as far as you’re concerned, James? 

James Hobbs: I think it’s important because with any sort of improvement, whether it’s related to sustainability or not, I think quantifying where you are at the start and having a benchmark allows you to see whether you’re going in the right direction or not. And improvement doesn’t always go in one direction the whole time. There might be a two steps forward, one step back, depending on what you’re doing. But I think without measuring where you are, and ideally regularly measuring your progress, it’s hard to say what impact you’ve had and you might be going in the wrong direction and bumping up the wrong tree or whatever. So I think it’s important. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, it’s super important. And is it something that marketers themselves can do, or is this something that only a sustainability consultant can do, or is there somewhere in between? Is it the techy geeks that run the website that do this? Or is it a little bit of all of those things? 

James Hobbs: Well, that’s a really good question. So I think this is still quite a new kind of industry. There are some tools out there that you can use to help you quantify the carbon impact of what you’ve got out there in the wild now. So the big one that most people talk about is websitecarbon.com, which is the website carbon calculator that was built by, I think a combination of an agency and some other organisations come up with an algorithm. It’s obviously not going to be 100% accurate because every single website app, it’s slightly different and so on. But as a consistent benchmark for where you are and a starting point for improvement, tools like that are really good. Ecograder is another one. Those offer non technical routes to using them. 

So for the website carbon calculator, you just plunk a website address in hit go and it’ll run off and tell yo. That’s not very scalable if you’ve got a 10,000 page website, or if you’ve got a large digital estate, there are also API level services that are provided that might make that easier to automate. But again, you then need someone who knows how to do that sort of thing, which raises the barrier to entry. I think what I would like to see is more and more vendors building carbon dashboards into their products and services so that the rest of us don’t have to run around and build this stuff from scratch. Azure, for example, Microsoft’s cloud platform, has a carbon dashboard that is scoped to your resources. That’s really interesting and useful to see. 

The stuff I mentioned about what we’re doing with Umbraco and building a sustainability package, we’re hoping to get that built into the core product. And again, the idea being that if you’re a content editor or a marketer, you shouldn’t have to know how to wire up APIs and do all this stuff, you should be able to see at a glance. Okay, well, that page I’ve just built actually is a little bit on the heavy side. Maybe I need to look at that. So I think the way to democratize it is to make it easier to do the right thing. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. So these tools are giving you, they’re giving you a grading. Yeah. So some of them are like A to F. I think it is for Website Carbon, Ecograder gives you a score out of 100,  think it is. Are there any advantages to one or the other? Or is it a good idea for people to use both of them and see the differences that the two different tools can give you? 

James Hobbs: I think it will come down to, well, for me anyway, I think using a tool in the first place is a step forward from what the vast majority of people are doing currently, which are not even thinking about it. So in many ways it doesn’t really matter. I think it will depend on what people find easier to use. I think when people start to integrate this sort of sustainability measurements into their build pipelines, for example, release pipelines. That’s where you will need to maybe think more carefully about the kind of data that you’re interested in and what criteria you want to look at. Because, for example, at the moment, a lot of organisations who write software, hopefully their developers, will be writing some unit tests. And if the tests fail, then you don’t deploy the website that should fail the build. 

I think it would be good to move to a world where if your sustainability posture regresses and gets worse than similar things. There are other tools outside of those websites that we’ve been talking about, though. So there’s an organisation called the Green Web Foundation, a nonprofit who do a lot of work in this space. And they’ve created a couple of tools. One’s called CO2.js, which you can integrate directly into your website that can actually be a bit more accurate than the carbon stuff. And they’ve also built a tool called the Grid Intensity CLI. And without going into loads of horrible detail, what that is, essentially it knows when the electricity grid is at its most, what’s the right word? At its most pollutant. When it’s generating the most carbon. 

So you can use that to figure out when to run background jobs or do lots of processing. You can do it when the grid is at its most renewable. So there’s things like that as well. There’s lots of options out there. You can go deep as you want. 

Paul Marden: Amazing. One thing that you just mentioned that I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” I’ve never thought of that before, is the idea that you can drop a URL into Website Carbon or Ecograder and it will give you the score of that page. But actually, if you’ve got lots of pages on your website, you need to be testing across multiple pages. That should never occur to me before. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, because I think a lot of people plunk the homepage in and go, “Cool. It’s A.” I guess it’s effort versus reward thing. No one’s going, well, hopefully no one’s going to spend time manually entering 10,000 website URL’s into a tool like that. Not least because it would probably take the tool down. There are probably better ways of doing it than that. And also, homepages are typically quite different to the rest of a website. It serves a different purpose. So I think testing a representative portion of your digital services is probably the way to go. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been wondering recently whether buyers should be thinking about this as something that’s part of the requirements of a new website. So if you’re going out to tender and buying a new website, oftentimes you and I will both see requests for proposal that have accessibility requirements in them. But I genuinely don’t remember a time that I’ve ever seen an RFP say, “You must achieve grade C or above on website carbon across the majority of the pages on the site.” And I think when buyers start to do that you’ll begin to see agencies doing more of this sort of stuff. I think baking it into contracts will make a big difference. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, yeah and it’s that kind of selective pressure, isn’t it? Clients start requiring this stuff, then agencies will have to step up. And it’s unfortunate that might well be the catalyst but actually I don’t care what the catalyst is as long as we’re going in the right direction. Its the main thing really, which is lessening our impact. Yeah absolutely. But yeah that whole supply chain thing is huge. That’s one way we can make a big impact is by mandating certain things.

And there’s actually a certification, a green software engineering certification. It’s offered for free that developers or technical architects can go through to educate them a bit on green software engineering techniques and things like that. And that’s the kind of thing that hopefully in the future, companies who are putting RFPs out might say, “We want your engineering team to be aware of green computing techniques and so on and be able to prove it.” 

Paul Marden: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised as well that it gets legislated for as well. So in the same way as you know, public sector bodies have got to meet certain accessibility requirements. I would not be surprised if we enter a world soon where there’s a statutory obligation for these things to be done in a sustainable way as well. 

James Hobbs: Yeah. 

Paul Marden: So getting your act together now is a really good thing to do because there’s going to be less work later on when you’ve got no choice but to do it. 

James Hobbs: Exactly. Get ahead of the game now. 

Paul Marden: So we’ve made the case, people have bought into it, they’re going to go and do some testing and they realise that they’ve got a smelly, polluting, rich website. What can they do next? How can your average Head of Marketing, Head of Digital influence their website to get better? 

James Hobbs: Yeah. Okay, so this is where I think there’s a really nice angle here. We did talk about this earlier on, but there is a fairly close link between the things that will make doing the things that will make your website, your digital services more sustainable and kind of KPI’s and metrics that will probably make it more commercially successful as well, depending on what you’re doing, with a bunch of caveats that I won’t go into. So, for example, sustainable websites are typically lightweight, they’re fast, they’re optimised for getting the right things in front of the user as quickly as possible, which can include everything from content delivery networks to optimising images to a whole host of stuff. Doing all of those things will also typically positively impact your search engine optimisation, positively impact your conversion. 

Because if you look at Google’s guidance, Lighthouse guidance, the different things it looks at and so on, it’s very clear that fast, relevant websites are what get prioritised and what Google’s looking for. Fast, relevant websites that are served from locations close to the user are also likely to be sustainable. So there is a link there. And what that means is there’s a built in business case for doing the sustainability stuff. 

So if you’ve got a hard nosed suite of executives who couldn’t care less about the planet, not that I’m saying that’s what everyone’s like, but, you know, the commercial world that we live in, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell this stuff in by saying, “You know what as well, like we can do an MVP or a pilot and we’re confident that we might be able to improve conversion by 0.1%, 0.5%”, whatever it might be.” It’s also typically a good way to save money by being smarter about what you’re computing and where and when and using some of those tools that I’ve talked about, you can save yourself potentially a bunch of money as a business, which again, is a commercial win. 

So I think whilst the ethical side of it is really important, and, you know, none of us want to be boiling to death in 50 years time because we’ve ruined the planet. Making small changes in digital can have a massive impact because the amount of people that are using them. And I think it’s easier to sell in because of the commercial. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m guessing there’s stuff that you can do at key stages in the design and development of a site. So what are the things that people should be thinking about during the design of the site that could make it more sustainable? 

James Hobbs: So, okay, so that’s a really good question. So this is a huge topic. So I can give you some examples of the kind of things you should be thinking about. So. And I guess we could divide them up into two sections. So when we’re designing a website. There’s how it looks and how the user experience work. There’s also the technical design. As with anything, the further, the earlier you start thinking about this kind of stuff, the easier it is. Crowbarring in. It’s a bit like accessibility, you know this, try and crowbar it in the last week of the project, it’s not going to work. So from a design point of view, and some of this stuff is difficult to quantify its impact in detail, but things like not having massive 4k full bleed videos at the top of your webpage. 

So being very careful and intelligent use of things like that, because they are large, they have to be transferred from wherever you’re serving them from to the user. There’s a big energy cost associated with that, not using loads and loads of external dependencies on your web pages. And that could be anything from fonts to JavaScript libraries to the vast myriad of tools that are being used. The more things you’re throwing down the pipe to your end user, especially if your hosting infrastructure is not set up in a distributed way, the more energy intensive that thing is. You can even go as far as looking at the colour choices that you’re using. So certain darker themes are typically less energy intensive. Yeah, because of how OLED screens and modern screens work. Again, very hard to quantify. 

And then we go down the rabbit hole of yeah, but where does the electricity that charges my phone come from? And you try and quantify all that stuff, it gets very head explodey. But there are things you can do in that sense. Some of them are easier to quantify than others. The weight of the page is a very easy thing to measure. If you keep that low, it will be easier to cache, it will load quicker for users, it will better for SEO, and faster pages tend to have better conversion. 

James Hobbs: And that works whether you’re selling things from an e commerce point of view or you’re trying to register interest, whatever it might be, from a technical angle, I think one of the most impactful things you can do, beyond making sure that your code is optimised and is running at the right times, at the right place, is simply to consider using a Content Delivery Network. And for your listeners who aren’t familiar with a content delivery network, a CDN is something that all of us have interacted with at one point or another, probably without realising in the traditional way of serving or having a website, you’ve got some service somewhere, in a data centre somewhere. When someone types your website address in, it goes and fetches that information from the web server and back comes a web page in the simplest sense. 

Now, if your website servers live in Amsterdam and your users on the West Coast of America, that’s a big old trip for that information to come back and forth. And it’s got to go through lots of different hops, uses up lots of energy. A content delivery network is basically lots and lots of servers dotted all over the planet, in all of the major cities and things like that can keep a copy of your website. So that if someone from the West Coast of America says, “Oh, I’m really interested in looking at this website,” types the address in, they get the copy from a server that might be 10, 20, 50 miles away from them, instead of several thousand across an ocean. 

So it loads quicker for the user, which is great from a user experience, SEO, all that stuff I talked about, but it’s also great from an energy point of view, because it’s coming from somewhere nearby and it’s not having to bounce around the planet. That’s one thing that you could do that will make a massive and immediate impact commercially and from a sustainability point of view. 

Paul Marden: So you get those kind of performance improvement for the people all the way around the world accessing the site, but it’s going to take load off of the server itself, so you might need less powerful servers running. One of the big issues that attraction websites have got is that it’s such a cyclical market. The people that, you know,

James Hobbs: Spiky.

Paul Marden: Exactly when the Christmas meet Santa train is released at an attraction, or the traffic to the website is going to peak. If you can keep some of that traffic off of the web server by using that Content Delivery Network instead, you’re going to be able to withstand those really peak times on the website without having to spend lots and lots of money on improving the resilience of the service. So it really is a win win win, isn’t it? 

James Hobbs: I think so. And also it can help potentially avoid things like the dreaded queue where you log on to a website that’s busy and it sticks you in a queue and you’re 41,317th queue or whatever. Exactly like you say. If you can leverage this tech to take the load off your back-end systems and I, you’ll be delivering a better user experience. 

Paul Marden: One of the measures that I know a lot of the algorithms that are assessing CO2 emissions look at is the type of hosting that you use. So they talk about green hosting. What is green hosting? And is all green hosting the same? 

James Hobbs: No. So yeah, again, this is a big topic. So I guess hosting generally runs the spectrum all the way from kind of one boutique sort of providers who can set up VMS or private servers or whatever all the way through to the big goliaths of the Internet, the AWS and Azure and so on and everything in between. So green hosting is broadly hosting that is carbon neutral, powered by renewables, that sort of thing. So in theory shouldn’t be pumping more pollutants into our atmosphere than it’s saving. So if we look at the big cloud providers initially, so they’ve all made some commitments in terms of improving their sustainability posture. And this is really good because when one does it, the other one has to do it too. And obviously there’s Google Cloud platform as well and they’re doing similar sorts of things. 

But it’s almost this, I like the competitive angle of this because all it means is the sustainability posture of all of them will get better quicker. So it’s good. So for example, I’ll try and do this off the top of my head, you should check yourselves. But Azure and AWS and Google all have some pages that talk about their commitments and primarily they’re focused on carbon neutrality and using renewable electricity. AWS have done a good job of that. So in certain AWS regions the year before last, they were completely 100% renewable powered, which is brilliant. 

Paul Marden: Really. 

James Hobbs: Yes. Not everywhere. Azure are going down a similar path and they’ve made the same commitment in terms of the year when they’re going to hit renewable powered everything. They’ve also made commitments to water positivity. Enormous amounts of water are used during the operation of data centers and there are a lot of these data centres. So they’ve made commitments I think by 2035 or 2040 please double check to be net water positive, which is great. And the other thing that people don’t think about, and this is I guess the supply chain thing I was talking about earlier, all those servers got rare metals in them. They’ve got all kinds of stuff in them that’s been dug out of the ground, often in areas where there’s a lot going on from a human point of view. 

So Amazon, AWS, Google, et cetera, they’re looking at that angle too. How can they keep servers in commission for longer so they don’t need to be replaced as often? Where are they getting their materials from, et cetera, all that kind of stuff, because they’re not just a computing company know they’re invested in the hardware and getting this stuff out of the ground and manufacturing it and all the rest of it’s a very big operation. So that’s something we can’t influence beyond pressuring them as consumers, but it is something that they’re doing something about, which is great. 

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. And if we go back to that point I made earlier on, buyers are in control of this. If they are choosing to include that in their contracts to buy new web services, that it needs to be green by offsetting or green by using 100% renewable power, then that drives change, doesn’t it? Procurement managers drive change through that kind of thing. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, absolutely. And just one final point on the greenhosting the Green Web Foundation, who I mentioned earlier, the nonprofit who work in this space, they maintain a list of green web hosts. So hosts that are known to be green that you can use without having to worry too much. So it’s worth looking at that as well. And it’s a kind of impartial list. 

Paul Marden: Excellent. Do you think this is a story that attraction should be telling? So they’re going to be, we’re hoping that people are going to become energised by this and they’re going to want to go on a digital sustainability journey. Do you think that, is that something that they could be shouting about? 

James Hobbs: I think so, if done in the right way. Obviously, you’ve got to be careful of the sort of, we planted some trees and now everything’s fine, because I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. But I think talking about it in the right way, which is we know we’re not perfect, but we’re doing something about it, and this is our plan, and being transparent about it, I think, is a good thing. I think it will also foster competition between different attractions, and everyone’s a winner, really, because it will make everyone more sustainable. 

Paul Marden: Yeah. 

James Hobbs: And yeah, I don’t see why you shouldn’t talk about it. I think it’s something that’s important. And to your point earlier about consumers being able to influence some of this stuff, I really, truly hope that the generation of youngsters that are coming up now are going to be more hyper aware of this sort of thing, and they’re going to care a lot more because it’s likely to affect them more than it will us. So I would like to think that they will be selecting products, services, attractions, whatever it might be that can demonstrate that they’re actually doing something to lessen the impact of their operations. 

I’ve got two relatively young children, and I can already see them asking questions and being interested in this kind of stuff in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was a kid, just didn’t think about it. I can’t change that. But what we can do is try and improve the world that were going to be leaving to the youngs.

Paul Marden: Yeah, absolutely. So, one last question for you. Is there anything. Is there anything happening in this space that you think is really cool and interesting to think about? 

James Hobbs: That’s a good question. I mean, like, I hope this isn’t a non answer. The thing that is exciting me most is that more and more people are talking about this stuff. More and more people are asking questions about this stuff and I’ve done a lot of talks and webinars and things on this topic and the thing that really makes me feel positive and excited about it is that nearly all of them afterwards, people come up to you, they message you and say, “I just didn’t realise.” The fact that we’re able to raise awareness is brilliant because we can start to build up a bit of momentum. I think the thing that. I think I mentioned it earlier, products and services, building this sort of stuff into their platforms in terms of helping users use their services more efficiently, I think that’s the area that I’m most excited about, because otherwise it’s people kind of hacking stuff together. I think it should be a first class part of any solution, really is like, carbon impact of what I’m doing. That’s what I’m probably most keen to see more of. 

Paul Marden: James, thank you. One last thing. We always ask our guests for a book recommendation and you’ve already said you’re an avid reader, so no pressure, but I’m quite excited to hear about this one. 

James Hobbs: Well, there’s two and I thought I’d just make the decision when you asked me the question about which one to recommend. So I’m going to go with my legitimately favourite book, which is the Player of Games by Iain M Banks. It’s part of the culture series of novels and I’m a bit upset because Elon Musk has been talking about it. I feel like he’s tarnished it slightly. A magnificent series of novels. I remember finishing the 10th one and sadly, the author died a while ago and I genuinely felt slightly bereft that there weren’t going to be any more of them. It’s a brilliant book. It’s exciting. Yeah, it’s exciting. It’s so creative and inventive. It makes you think differently about things. It’s definitely not one for children. 

You know, there’s a lot of violence and all kinds of other things in there. But it’s a fascinating book. All of his books are fascinating. My favourite author. So if you’re going to, if you think about getting into his books and specifically the culture novels, that’s a great point to jump in at. It’s accessible and it’s absolutely brilliant. I love it. 

Paul Marden: That’s quite the recommendation. So, listeners, if you want to get into this culture series of books, then when we post the show notice on X, get over there and retweet the message and say, “I want James’s book.” And the first person to do that will get that sent to them. James, this has been brilliant. There’s a couple of takeaways I want people to go and think about, one from me, which is go and test your site and then jump into the Rubber Cheese Website Survey.

Go to rubbercheese.com/survey, tell us all about your attractions website and one of those questions will be about have you tested the CO2 emissions of your site and have you done anything about it? The more we understand what the sector is doing, then the more we can understand how we can all help and improve things. James, you had one idea of a place where people could go and find out more about this sort of stuff. 

James Hobbs: Yeah, I mean, there’s some organisations that I mentioned. So the Green Web Foundation is one that’s got lots of interesting material on there, both tools that they’ve made, but also they fund research in this space, which is really important. It should be treated like a specific discipline. I suppose they’re doing some great stuff there. There’s the Green Software Foundation, which confusingly similar name, doing some good work in this space. There’s also lots of interesting groups on Discord forums that are out there.

I guess my main message would be we’re all learning more about this field. No one has all the answers, but there are organisations out there that you can come and speak to that can help you understand where you are currently. And I definitely encourage you guys to fill in the surveys, Paul said, because the more information that we’ve got, you know, the better we can understand where things are. 

Paul Marden: James, this has been a lot of fun and really interesting. Thank you ever so much. Thank you for joining the podcast. 

James Hobbs: Thanks for having me on. Thanks a lot. 


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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