The Sustainability Initiative was created two years ago. Finally we're seeing some initial successes: steps are now being taken with regard to energy sourcing for the servers and green investment strategies by the endowment after the WMF Board of Trustees voted on these issues earlier this year. But the Wikimedia movement is still far from being environmentally sustainable.
The Sustainability Initiative was started in 2015 with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of the Wikimedia movement. It was started by Aubrey and me after Greenpeace USA published a report on green hosting, in which Wikipedia scored particularly badly.
Apart from switching our servers to renewable energy, which could set a significant example for the entire internet, it became clear that the Sustainability Initiative had to address other areas, such as the energy used to run the Foundation's offices in San Francisco, and the Wikimedia endowment – it makes no sense to run the servers on renewable energy while at the same time investing in carbon-intensive industries.
The Sustainability Initiative had a slow start. The main challenge seemed to be that reducing our environmental impact is not directly connected to the idea of free knowledge. This is probably why it's been difficult to convince Foundation staff to prioritize the matter. Also, US electricity consumers typically have less flexibility than others in choosing their electricity provider.
So how do you convince such a large organization like Wikimedia to change course? As so often, the solution lies with the volunteer Wikimedia communities. To demonstrate that the Sustainability Initiative has broad community support, we asked Wikipedians from across the globe (in 12 languages) to add their usernames to the list of supporters – and many followed our request. Our conversations – both with WMF staff and experts from Greenpeace – indicated that the first steps had to come from the WMF Board of Trustees, so that any staff efforts could align with a greater corporate directive, rather than being projects outside the annual plan.
Successes and setbacks
After more than 250 community members had expressed their support for the Initiative, the Board adopted a sustainability commitment in February 2017. While the commitment stays behind what we proposed based on similar policies at other organizations, it's a step in the right direction, and helped to finally get the Initiative moving:
- Servers: In the week leading up to Wikimania 2017 in Montreal, WMF CTO Victoria Coleman and CFO Jaime Villagomez sent out letters to its big colocation providers Equinix and CyrusOne, asking them to follow up on their own previous commitments by providing information about the possibilities regarding renewable energy for Wikipedia's servers at their hosting centers in Texas and Virginia.
- WMF offices: Not directly triggered by the Sustainability Initiative but in line with its goals, the Foundation chose a "certified green" building for its new San Francisco offices.
- Endowment: Just after Wikimania 2017 in Montreal, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that the endowment is currently being invested in funds that are rated for sustainability. A new investment policy will be adopted in the spring of 2018, and WMF chief advancement officer Lisa Seitz-Gruwell expects the new policy to contain similar language.
- Travel: It turns out that the most significant step to making the Wikimedia movement more sustainable would be to cancel Wikimania: The carbon footprint of the many long-distance flights is far greater than that of the servers – not only, but especially in the case of Cape Town 2018. Yet, one solution – encouraging remote participation by streaming as many sessions as possible online – would not appeal to those for whom physical meetups are critical.