How to calculate your business’s carbon footprint

October 20, 2021
Article

Before you reduce, you need to measure.

Every company that generates any amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has a calculable carbon footprint. And if you’re committed to minimizing your impact on the environment, you must account for your emissions.

The first step? Measure the amount of GHG emissions your company and its employees produce so you can create a thoughtful strategy to reduce your impact.  

Start measuring your emissions in minutes

Start tracking and managing your carbon footprint.

Request a demo
Sustain.Life Leaf Logo


Why should you calculate your carbon footprint?

We’ve entered an era where companies big and small are making public environmental commitments. Alongside those commitments, you’ve probably heard the terms carbon neutral, net-zero, and climate positive a lot, and your company might be tempted to jump on the climate commitment bandwagon. But before you make unattainable promises and inadvertently start greenwashing, you have to take an important first step that all these companies have in common: measure your emissions.  

The adage, “what gets measured gets managed,” rings especially true when it comes to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because before you mitigate and reduce, you need to measure. It’s like saying you want to lose weight without stepping on a scale first. You can exercise and eat better—which feel great—but getting an initial benchmark, then tracking give you a better sense of what’s working.

“People don’t expect brands to become perfect stewards overnight, but they want to learn about what you’re doing to improve sustainability now.”


When it comes to sustainability, measurement and tracking help break grandiose sustainability goals into smaller, manageable steps. You’ll also be able to identify strategies and interim goals to support those big ambitions. And if your stakeholders—including employees, shareholders, and customers—expect you to make a commitment to the environment and take action, you need to measure your carbon footprint to show progress.

What to consider when calculating your carbon footprint

DIRECT AND INDIRECT EMISSIONS

At the highest level, you can break down your emissions into two things: the activities your business controls (direct emissions) and activities that support your business operation but are outside your control (indirect emissions). Direct emissions include things like energy and fuel used in your buildings. Indirect emissions include all upstream and downstream activities—everything from employee commutes and the software you use to the emissions associated with your supply chain and getting a product to your customers. Unless you own significant real estate, your indirect emissions, which are the most complex to identify and calculate, typically comprise the bulk of your emissions profile.

CO2e

Carbon—measured in metrics tons of carbon dioxide (MT CO2)—has become the standardized unit of measure for climate change-centric sustainability goals and targets. It’s not the only metric that matters, though—water consumption, waste management, and other factors are also important. However, there’s an equal conversion for these activities: carbon emissions equivalent (CO2e or CO2-eq). It allows for universal measurement and captures all GHG like methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. For example, one metric ton of methane has a warming effect at least 25 times that of CO2 and would therefore amount to 25 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Using MT CO2e, you can quantify your business’s actions across any number of areas—vehicle emissions, purchased electricity, business travel, employee commutes, and more using emissions factors.

What are emissions factors?

A greenhouse gas emission factor represents the rate at which a source (e.g., a building) emits a specific gas per unit of activity (e.g., grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour). While businesses can calculate these on their own, it can be incredibly complicated. The good news? Sustainability software typically allows companies to input data—say a utility bill—and using emissions factors, will tell them the amount of carbon emissions associated with their electricity use.

Sustain.Life has a database of 3,000 global emissions factors sourced from over a dozen government datasets, including the U.S. EPA, Canadian National GHG Inventory, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, DEFRA, ADEME, IPCC, IEA, the Australia National Greenhouse Accounts factors, German Umweltbundesamt, and more.


Measuring your CO2e makes it possible to see where your business has the greatest environmental impact, and subsequently highlights where significant reduction opportunities lie.

EMISSIONS SCOPES

Now that you have a better handle on the unit of measure—MT CO2e—and direct and indirect emissions, you should get familiar with emissions scopes (scopes 1, 2, and 3), which you can think of as the standard framework that helps businesses bucket their emissions into categories. Emissions scopes might seem confusing at first but stick with us. They allow you to identify how much CO2e you emit based on everything it takes for your business to operate.  

Think of emissions scopes as emissions accounting boundaries that help create an accurate calculation of your carbon footprint. Take a t-shirt manufacturer, for example. It might first account for the fuel or electricity used at the factory it owns where it makes its t-shirts (scope 1 and 2). That’s a great start. But to fully capture the impact of its operations, the manufacturer needs to include the activities across its value chain—both upstream (before the raw materials make it to the factory) and downstream (what happens to its products after they leave the factory). These are the more nebulous scope 3 emissions. With the t-shirt manufacturer example, scope 3 emissions could include emissions from processing the fibers used to make the shirts, the transit miles to deliver the material to the factory and then deliver the shirts to retail stores or customers, plus landfill emissions after the shirt gets discarded.  

Take the time to set clear guardrails, and you’ll get a clearer picture of everything you need to examine. Boundaries also help you account for factors you might otherwise overlook, like office equipment used by remote employees.

At this point, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath. Don’t let that feeling dissuade you from getting started, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. According to Google, “People don’t expect brands to become perfect stewards overnight, but they want to learn about what you’re doing to improve sustainability now.” Plus, we have a platform to help you calculate and track your emissions.

Where a carbon footprint calculator comes in

Big companies have admitted they’re still using spreadsheets to track their carbon dioxide emissions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Sustain.Life wanted to help democratize and make sustainability easier for everyone. Sustain.Life’s tools and calculators remove the guesswork and surface the data inputs you’ll need to calculate your carbon footprint.

Companies and consultancies alike can input their data or their client’s—think operational data for buildings, vehicles, people, products, purchases, waste, water, and more—and quickly set an emissions benchmark to work from.

Example of a carbon footprint calculator


What’s next: Reduce your carbon footprint

After establishing benchmarks, calculating, and tracking your CO2 emissions, your most significant emissions-creating activities—typically from non-renewable energy and transportation—will come into focus.

Sustain.Life can help your company create an emissions reduction and mitigation strategy. While everyone’s plan will look different, Sustain.Life has over 100 step-by-step guides across areas like energy use, waste, water, software, office supplies, climate risk, environmental justice, and more to help you create behavioral change to improve your carbon footprint. Some companies might first focus on cutting their fossil fuel consumption, while others might choose to buy energy-efficient office equipment or utilize more recycled materials in their products.

And for the emissions you’re unable to mitigate in the near term, you can purchase a range of verified offsets directly on Sustain.Life. These allow your company to get started meeting your sustainability and carbon neutral goals. Remember, though, only purchasing carbon offsets isn’t a sound sustainability strategy. Instead, take action to reduce your impact, then offset truly unavoidable emissions.

More from Sustain.Life
Author
Sustain.Life Team
Tags
The takeaway

• Measurement and tracking help break big sustainability goals into smaller, manageable steps.

• The standard measure used to calculate your carbon footprint is metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MT CO2e).

• Sustain.Life’s carbon footprint calculators help you track your emissions.