Planting trees to help offset our carbon footprint

We’ve always believed that doing business should be about more than exponential growth and that profit and sustainability must go hand in hand. Minimizing our environmental footprint is an essential element to our business goals as we work to be better neighbors and stewards of the earth. With this in mind, starting in 2020, our small business has been offsetting the emissions of our online services by planting trees.

The idea of planting trees was largely inspired by Emily at Fantasy Name Generators. Starting in June 2019, she has been planting trees in an effort to reach carbon neutrality for her popular and ever growing website.

Most, if not all of the online services that we use on a daily basis (and that we have control over) to run our business are being offset through the planting of trees. Some of these are for our own internal use and others are to facilitate collaboration with our clients and to process payments. Some of the services being offset by the planting of trees include:

  • Our websites
  • File transfer service (where we receive and send files instead of using email)
  • Website development servers (where we build and test the websites we create and maintain)
  • Project management software (where we keep track of our projects and all the little odds and ends)
  • Online invoicing and payments (where we bill and invoice our clients and take payments)
  • Questionnaires and surveys (where we collect information about client projects)
  • Email services (how we communicate with our clients and run our business)

So, how are we calculating this?

The short version:

We’re planting 1 tree for every 5 GBs of bandwidth we use.

For those who enjoy seeing the full methodology, continue reading to see how we’re calculating our footprint.

Calculating a carbon footprint from bandwidth

There are a number of factors that are involved when trying to determine the environmental impact of the Internet when browsing a website, writing an email, or sending a file. Not only does the source of the electricity used to run the servers come into play, but the distance, devices and route of the information sent through the Internet is also a factor. While there aren’t any exact figures for every situation, there are estimates that can prove insightful into the actual environmental impact of the Internet and the resources needed to run our online services.

One thing to note here is that using bandwidth as a calculation factor really only takes one element of many into consideration. All of our online services are still using power, even if users aren’t actively using them. Since we don’t run our own physical servers in person at our office, in most cases we don’t know what their electrical usage is. However, since we do have access to the bandwidth used we have decided to use that as the basis for our calculations.

In simple terms, bandwidth is the measure of data that’s being sent and received from a server or device, like the one you’re using now. Things like viewing a largely text based page (a Wikipedia page for example) will likely use much less bandwidth than watching a high-definition video. For context, a 1 MB image is similar in size to 150,000 words of plain text!

The data we used

To help form our calculations, we used the following information:

In a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, it was estimated that in 2015, it took 0.06 kWh of electricity to transfer 1 GB of data.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020 in the U.S., out of all the fuel sources used for creating electricity, the burning of coal (a common choice for powering data centers) produced the most CO2 emissions, averaging 2.23 pounds per kWh. In this case, we’re intentionally using the fuel source that has the highest CO2 emissions to base our calculations on.

Putting together those two estimations gives us 0.1338 pounds of CO2 per 1 GB of data transferred.

The amount of CO2 that a tree can capture during it’s life varies based on factors such as the species of tree, it’s growth rate and overall lifetime, but a study conducted by the European Environment Agency estimates that a mature tree can absorb up to 22 kilograms (approximately 48.51 pounds) of CO2 from the atmosphere per year.

Comparing what the data suggests to our overall goals

When we started calculating how many trees we should plant in 2020, we used data for our estimates from studies done in the early 2000s as they were readily available and often referenced. In 2022, we decided to see if new information was available to update our calculations. That led us to the information we’ve outlined here. The new data we found suggests that we wouldn’t need to plant nearly as many tress as we have been. Original estimates suggested that we plant about 1 tree per 7 GB of bandwidth used, and the new estimates now suggest about 1 tree per 362 GB!

While it’s encouraging to see that the efficiency of transferring data has likely increased, we feel that now isn’t the time to let up, but that it’s actually the time to double down. With that in mind, we’ve decided to stick with our original calculations with the hope that our final numbers are an overcompensation, if that’s possible. Doing so maximizes our positive impact.

The final numbers

We’ve settled on planting 1 tree for every 5 GB of bandwidth our online services use. That means that for every 5 GB of data, we’re estimating an output of around 0.669 pounds of CO2, which should take a mature tree well under 1 year to capture.

We’ve decided to plant trees through a few different organizations based in the United States and across the world. This not only spreads out the positive benefits, but also helps different kinds of communities and populations that are facing deforestation, extreme air pollution and economic hardships. Right now, these organizations include, Eden Reforestation Projects and One Tree Planted.

Since 2020 we’ve planted 2,530 trees!

We know this method is far from perfect. After all this is a retroactive approach, done after the fact, but it is an important step in trying to replenish what we’ve used. In addition to these offsetting measures, we’re also proactively working to minimize our impact by using energy efficient equipment, using green features and solutions, and conserving resources in the first place.

By showing our methodology, we hope to inspire other individuals and businesses of any size to look into offsetting their own carbon footprint.

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