I established Clarifying Complex Ideas to help organizations with thorny strategic problems — many of which are grounded in communications challenges. I provide content strategy and help them develop and articulate an often-nascent sustainability strategy in a way that resonates and engages their key stakeholders.

As a consulting agency, clients typically hire me to create: websites; customer-facing videos; sales training; and even help documentation. As a strategist, I also recommend content audits to purge the redundant, outdated, and trivial content that often pervades organizations and adversely affects the user experience (UX).

The Problem: Digital Content Has Physical Impacts

Around 2015, I started connecting the dots between my sustainability and content:

  • Bits and bytes are just energy
  • Energy has a carbon cost 
  • The content that we create generates measurable greenhouse gas emissions 

According to a report published by the nonprofit research organization the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), each gigabyte (GB) of data requires 5.12 kWh of energy, (1) and generates approximately five pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

Do we need more?

Content professionals are constantly creating. A frequently quoted statistic says that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, based on research reported in 2013. (2) Individuals and corporations are placing even more attention on website aesthetics, standalone apps, and video content uploaded to YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

Our corporate objectives, performance reviews, and bonuses are driven by more: we must create content to create value. But there is value in simplifying. During the pandemic, I discovered the work of Gerry McGovern. It was a revelation to see someone else giving it attention. “You need to change habits,” he says. (3) “Your questions must be ‘What can I remove? What can I improve?’ Not, ‘What can I add? What can I create?’”

The Solution: Creating Content Responsibly 

If the addition of new content or removal of old has a measurable emissions impact, then this must be taken into account with every project.

This has become an important talking point with my clients, and relevant to every project. How can we meet customers’ needs with accessible, usable, and sustainable content? Does the stock art hero image that accounts for 90% of their above-the-fold real estate improve the user’s experience, or does it simply add page weight and corresponding emissions? Do we need yet another vanity video? And, frankly, do I want to take on projects that don’t have positive impacts?

Creating content responsibly

If the addition of new content or removal of old has a measurable emissions impact, then this must be taken into account with every project.

This has become an important talking point with my clients, and relevant to every project. How can we meet customers’ needs with accessible, usable, and sustainable content? Does the stock art hero image that accounts for 90% of their above-the-fold real estate improve the user’s experience, or does it simply add page weight and corresponding emissions? Do we need yet another vanity video? And, frankly, do I want to take on projects that don’t have positive impacts?

Examples of the problem: Websites

Inbound marketing company Hubspot reports that the average home page weight was close to 2 MB in 2020. The 90th percentile of web pages is greater than 7 MB per page. Yet that’s an average of all web pages, from personal websites to large corporate splash pages. You can find out the page weight for any organization by running them through the Pingdom calculator that measures page weight, load times, and performance. I took a random sampling of banks, corporations, nonprofits, and retailers. All of the home page weights were significantly heavier than the reported average.

The Outcome: More Thoughtful Content Creation from Clients

I work with my clients to run the numbers and demonstrate the impact for what they’re creating.

Page weight reduction

One of my clients had a very image-intensive home page. It was heavier than average at 5.9 MB for their home page, loaded with stock art of healthcare providers doing generic things. These pictures were large, data-heavy, and didn’t give any indication of what the company sold other than “healthcare stuff.” 

We cut the page weight by half, eliminating unnecessary images, and converting the others to new photos that actually showed products in action. It was still image-intensive and looked like what you’d expect from a website.

But now the weight was only 2.45 MB. Now, at more than a million visitors to that page per year

1,000,000 hits x 2.45 MB = 2,450,000 MB (2,450 GB) savings

2,450 GB x 5.12 kWh = 12,544 kWh of energy for the home page alone

9.7 tons CO2

Equivalent to removing 2 cars from the road for a year.

New page creation

Another client wanted a landing page for a product campaign. They wanted this page to house large images, multiple videos, product animations, and other heavy-weight elements. They expected to get half a million hits in the first year.

The first draft from the design team weighed a whopping 8 MB — much heavier than the Hubspot average.

500,000 hits x 8 MB = 4,000,000 MB (4,000 GB) added page weight

4,000 GB x 5.12 kWh = 20,480 added kWh of data

9.8 tons CO2

Equivalent to adding 2 cars to the road for a year.

These examples show that careful and thoughtful content creation and curation can have a direct impact on emissions.

The Future: Sharing the Message

I’m sharing this information through a combination of direct client work, public speaking, and publications. Larger organizations create the most content, and I believe that I have the most leverage by convincing them that known best practices for content also have sustainability benefits. Plain language, effective content design, accessibility, low page weight for fast downloads, and content governance can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Once these ideas have taken hold in larger organizations, I can shift my attention to the ever-increasing market of individual content creators. From TikTok to YouTube, there are numerous opportunities to influence data-intense content development.

Tips and Insights: Digital Isn’t Harmless

If my clients and audiences remember only one thing, I want it to be an understanding that there is a cost to digital content creation. While I’m not saying that we need to eliminate all content — or that video is “bad” because it’s more energy-intensive — I am advocating for the thoughtful creation of new content and the positive impact of content governance. Let’s work together to ensure that the content that we create meets the needs of both users and the planet.


  1. https://www.aceee.org/files/proceedings/2012/data/papers/0193-000409.pdf
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130522085217.htm
  3. https://gerrymcgovern.com/books/transform-a-rebels-guide-for-digital-transformation/

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