Deep dive: Scope 3 emissions

Updated: 
December 14, 2023
Article

Learn about what’s likely to be the largest share of your emissions.

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If your business has started to think about its environmental impact, you’ve probably heard the term “scope emissions.” Our scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions explainer post offers a good overview, but in this post, we go deeper into all the things contributing to scope 3.

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More on scope 3

Scope 3 emissions are likely to be the largest share of your carbon emissions—typically 80–90%. But what are scope 3 emissions? Essentially, all the carbon emissions indirectly generated by a business: business travel, employee commutes, waste disposal, purchased goods and services, the goods you produce, end-of-life disposal of your products, transportation, distribution, and more.  

Take, for example, a clothing brand. Its scope 3 emissions come from an array of places—vehicles that transport clothing to retailers, energy used in manufacturing (if at facilities not owned by the company, otherwise, these would be scope 1), energy used to grow raw material, energy used by consumers to wash and dry the clothing, and the greenhouse gas emissions generated as the materials decay in a landfill, the list goes on.  

Given all that, you can see why scope 3 emissions could make your head spin, especially if you want to responsibly cut or offset your emissions. If it feels overwhelming, pause and take a deep breath. Using a business carbon footprint calculator for measuring—and then cutting—your scope 3 emissions is a process that you can tackle step-by-step. Before you measure, take an inventory.

Take stock of your scope 3 emissions

To get a holistic view of your total emissions sources, look both upstream and downstream, in other words, everything it takes to make and consume your product. On a whiteboard or digital brainstorming tool, visually map all the upstream and downstream activities that go into what you do, including:

Upstream emissions-producing activities (everything to produce your product)

  • Goods and services you purchase
  • Capital goods (like buildings, machinery, tools to make your product)
  • How materials are transported and distributed to your manufacturing facility
  • Waste generated in day-to-day operations
  • Business travel
  • Employee commutes
  • Leased assets

Downstream emissions-producing activities (everything to consume your product)

  • How your product gets to your customers via transportation and distribution
  • Processing of sold products
  • Use of sold products
  • Disposal or recycling of sold products
  • Franchises
  • Investments

Some other questions to get you started:

  • How many facilities does my company lease (office space, retail space, manufacturing facilities, franchises, etc.)?
  • Does my company own its manufacturing facility and materials or do we purchase manufactured goods from another company?
  • How are our goods and services delivered to customers?
  • Is there energy consumption involved in the use of our products or services? Can we opt for renewable energy?
  • When a customer is done with our product, how do they dispose of it? Can it be recycled or reused; do we offer a take-back program, or does it go into a landfill?
  • Do our employees travel for work? If so, how often and what modes of travel do they use?
  • Do your employees commute into an office? If so, do they take public transportation, private cars, or active modes like biking and walking?
Ebook: Choosing the best carbon accounting methods

Start with what you can easily access

After you identify your business’ emissions sources, take the next step toward calculating your indirect greenhouse gas emissions and talk to the departments responsible for each area. Again, the key here is not to get overwhelmed. Start with one topic or area where you can access emissions data or where you’ll have some team support. We’ve found that many businesses start their scope 3 emissions profile with employee travel because it’s often easy to pull mileage from a third-party agent or operations coordinator.  

Go one step deeper

Getting a complete picture of your total emissions takes time, especially depending on how complex your business is. Because scope 1 and 2 emissions from suppliers, manufacturers, processors, and distributors contribute to your scope 3 emissions, you’ll want to ask them about their emissions accounting. Some industries—manufacturing, for example—have strict disclosure requirements in developed countries and might have this emissions data already available.

What’s next?

Once you have a good inventory of your scope 3 categories and can start reliably measuring, it’s time to take action towards emissions reduction. Sustain.Life can help with even more step-by-step, actionable guidance and other ways to easily calculate and track your emissions.

Learn about the other emissions scopes

Deep dive: Scope 1 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 2 emissions

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Author
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
Reviewer
Constanze Duke
Constanze Duke is a director of sustainability at Sustain.Life and leads the company’s technical practice. She began working in sustainability in 2007 and has worked through sustainability’s dramatic evolution into a multi-faceted discipline.
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The takeaway

• Scope 3 emissions are likely to be 80–90% of your emissions.

• They include both upstream emissions-producing activities (everything to produce your product) and downstream emissions-producing activities (everything to consume your product).