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How to measure your business’s carbon footprint

Being a good steward for the environment starts with asking questions. So if you’re a small business owner asking yourself, “How do I lower my business’s carbon footprint?” you’re already on the right track.

But first, you need to know what that footprint is.

What is a carbon footprint?

Oxford Languages defines “carbon footprint” as “the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.”

Today, consumption of fossil fuels “accounts for most of the CO2 emissions of the major energy consuming sectors.” That includes commercial, industrial, residential, transportation, and electric power, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Businesses can do their part to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint. To do that, it’s important to consider your business’s impact on the planet from all angles.

Energy usage and your business’s carbon footprint

Your business’s carbon footprint is the sum of many parts, but energy consumption is probably the biggest influencing factor.

Mike Jones, president of SEEDidaho (a sustainable, environmental engineering and design firm), has assigned CO2 levels to companies in the past, as part of his energy audits. He says that measuring your carbon footprint from an energy perspective can be tricky, because it changes based on time and place.

“It depends on your geographical area,” he says, using the example of a business in Idaho, compared to one in West Virginia. “Say I’m in West Virginia, where my electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant. If my business has no solar panels on its roof, I’m tied to a higher CO2 level,” he says.

But if that same business were located in Idaho, Jones says it would have a lower CO2 level per kilowatt hour. “Here in Idaho, we have a lot of hydroelectric power,” says Jones. And while hydroelectric dams have their own impact on the environment, many have a low global carbon footprint.

Consumer-based renewable energy sources such as on-site solar or wind can help lower your footprint. “At my house, I’ve got five kilowatts of solar panels,” says Jones. As a result, his CO2 level is reduced. “Energy-wise, I get to claim a lower carbon footprint than my neighbor,” Jones says.

Other factors to consider in your business’s carbon footprint

Energy usage isn’t the only piece of the puzzle when it comes to measuring your business’s carbon footprint. Here are some other factors you might want to add into the equation:

  • Transportation:  A service-based business where employees work from home will have a very small CO2 footprint, transportation-wise. That footprint will be higher for companies where employees must travel to an office or jobsite. As you calculate your company’s carbon footprint, be sure to consider how your employees travel, how often, and how far. Don’t forget those business trips. Product-based businesses can ask themselves similar questions, but in regard to their materials and supplies, as well as their finished products.
  • Production:  The industrial sector accounts for 1,312 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the EIA. Businesses that produce a product should research the chemical components and waste associated with production. You might also consider any carbon emissions created earlier on in your supply chain. Some service-based businesses—particularly ones that involve machinery—will also want to look at how their services impact the environment.
  • Operations: This includes your energy-specific carbon footprint. Details to consider include your business’s lighting , HVAC, water, gas, office supplies, equipment, packaging and shipping materials, snacks, cleaning, and waste. If your employees work remotely, consider the “perks” you offer—specifically free swag that requires packaging and shipping to each home address.
  • Events: Any event your business hosts has a carbon footprint. That footprint may be big or small, depending on the number of attendees, how far they’ve traveled, the amenities they’ve used, and more. Consider the size of your event space, the energy required to make it comfortable, and even smaller details like gift bags and handouts.
Factors that impact your carbon footprint

How to measure your business’s carbon footprint

Measuring your business’s carbon footprint starts with gathering a year’s worth of data, including

  • Electricity: kilowatt hours
  • Heat: cubic feet of natural gas, gallons of oil, or gallons of propane
  • Transportation: average miles per gallon and total miles driven per fuel type
  • Shipping: number of shipments, average weight of shipments, average distance of shipments, and method of shipping

Business invoices, like your gas, water, and electric bills, can help you gather the necessary information. From there, use a carbon footprint calculator like this one to find out how many tonnes of CO2 are emitted.

How to measure your carbon footprint

It’s important to note this is only an estimate. As previously stated, your geographical location plays a part in your business’s carbon footprint, among other fine details. A professional service can help you complete a full CO2 audit of your business.

As you begin to consider all the pieces that make up your business’s carbon footprint, you may find it’s easy to get into the weeds. Even environmental-friendly upgrades like solar panels on your business’s roof and electric vehicles for deliveries aren’t carbon-negative. Not when you consider how they were made or how they’ll be destroyed, once they’re no longer working. But Jones says when it comes to calculating your business’s carbon footprint, getting into the weeds is a good thing.

“I think that to be the most effective carbon steward of all, it helps to look at the entire picture, start to finish,” he says. “Go as far into the weeds as your mind can handle. Every little bit of effort helps.”

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