Why reducing your Carbon Footprint is the place to start

28th February 2011

The carbon footprint is the leading edge of the wave of sustainability. So FSN writer Lesley Meall dips a toe in the water, and finds out how small and medium sized businesses can use it to make their operations and their supply chain more carbon neutral.

We almost all like to think we are doing more of the right things and less of the wrong things in our attempts to live and work in a more sustainable way; but there is no universally agreed definition of what sustainability is, and myriad views on how it can be measured and achieved (on which more, later); so the carbon footprint has become the ‘measure’ by which many individuals, organisations, and government regulators judge performance and progress. 

‘We call the carbon footprint the leading edge of the wave,’ says Todd Cort, CEO of Two Tomorrows (North America), a global organisation that helps businesses become more sustainable, and measure and report on their achievements. Two Tomorrows has found that once organisations start to consider their carbon consumption, and measure and manage their carbon footprint, this tends to draw them into taking other sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. 

It’s not that other CSR issues such as poverty are any less significant, but we the carbon footprint is an easy concept to understand, and implementing and justifying the steps required to measure and reduce one are a much simpler undertaking, and the cost benefit analysis and return on investment (ROI) rarely disappoint. ‘There is an equivalence between carbon emissions levels and energy costs,’ says Cort; when you cut one you generally cut the other too, and it’s relatively easy to measure the carbon dioxide equivalent – though some organisations can cut their carbon footprint without even bothering to measure it. 

‘It’s very easy for small and medium organisations to set off down the road to carbon neutrality,’ he says, and initiatives can range from installing window film (to reduce heat loss), to turning off all the computers overnight and at the weekend. Some computer monitors use twice as much power as the personal computer itself, so if staff turn off their screens before going to meetings or popping out for lunch, and turn equipment such as faxes and printers off overnight, and during weekends and holidays, instead of leaving the on standby, the savings soon add up. 

Just switching one photocopier off at the end of the day can save enough energy overnight to make up to 1600 photocopies. Lighting also merits attention. It typically accounts for up to 25 per cent of the electricity businesses uses, so switching off unnecessary lights, replacing failing lights with energy-saving bulbs, and installing motion sensor lighting, can all cut your electricity bill and your carbon (CO2) consumption – even if the proportional impact of the latter carbon footprint is going to be less for service companies than higher C02 emitters such as manufacturers. 

For small and medium enterprises that want to learn more about the possibilities, the website of the Carbon Trust is a good place to begin. In addition to providing a selection of useful tools and offering consultancy services, it features case study material on a range of organisations, showing the various approaches they have taken to carbon management and reduction, and the associated benefits. Some businesses visiting the site may even find that they can access 0% loans to help them finance their efforts. 

The ease with which the energy savings can be converted into a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) means that there are lots of tools available to help, and many of them are free. CarbonFootprint.com, CarbonNeutral.com, and many more, also offer carbon footprint calculators, CO2 health checks, tracking, and offsetting, plus advice on using your CO2 management’ to boost your green credentials with suppliers and customers (on which more, later), while Loreus.com provides a suite of dedicated carbon management tools. 

Various providers of accounting and enterprise resource planning systems have also modified their systems to make it easier to gather and report on aspects of sustainability, and in particular, carbon management, as FSN covered here. However, some organisations, and in particular those affected by the UK’s ‘cap and trade’ scheme, the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), may need something more focussed, such as the ‘all-in-one’ enterprise carbon management system recently launched by the Irish company ManageC02

‘We’ve spent a number of years developing the software, ensuring not only that the reporting complies with international standards and government reporting regulations, including the CRC energy efficiency scheme,’ says Adrian Fleming, managing director of ManageCO2. But given the potential complexity of managing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint reporting, particularly for large, or complex and diverse companies, he adds: ‘We’ve also made sure that it is simple and easy for businesses to use’. 

ManageCO2 (it’s the product name too) can report on carbon production at a very granular level. It uses wireless energy monitoring to very accurately identify high areas of oil, gas and electricity usage, such as lighting or the machinery, across multiple facilities such as a data centre or a production line, and across multiple buildings and sites. The cloud-based system then tracks and reports on the associated energy consumption and carbon footprint every 15 minutes – and can instantly calculate and validate the ROI for areas of energy reduction. 

Though some of the ROI from better carbon management are a little softer. ‘Carbon emissions now constitute a key discriminator in the selection of contracts and service providers, with tenders now routinely requesting such information,’ says Alan Waller, a consultant at Greenstone Carbon Management. ‘The communication of the carbon message through the development of compelling new sales angles around carbon and cost benefit cases will increasingly be instrumental in securing ongoing business growth,’ he suggests. 

Many businesses are already exploiting the ‘significant new business opportunities’ offered by the development and provision of new low carbon products and services, and Waller predicts that more will follow. ‘The value of the intangible benefits of carbon reporting has the potential to eclipse that of cashable savings though enhancement of reputation, positive marketing and the ability to differentiate existing and new products in the market place,’ he says. 

But according to Dailey Tipton, global leader of sales and marketing with the sustainability consultancy First Carbon Solutions, if you do want to set off down this particular road, it’s important to start by doing a thorough cost benefit analysis.

‘When ME Heuk approached us about developing a carbon neutral product line, we started out by doing a feasibility study, to determine whether the initiative was technically and financially feasible.’ 

If this is the sort of initiative your organisation is considering, the case study of the project involving First Carbon Solutions and M E Heuk merits a quick read (here), as it gives you an overview of some of the many processes involved. The study considered the entire lifecycle of the product, including its manufacture, throughout the supply chain, and came up with a range of costs for buying the carbon offsets that were required to bring the carbon footprint of the products in the range to net zero. 

Smaller businesses that want to follow in their footsteps will find support increasingly available from all sorts of sources. The Carbon Trust Footprinting Company (set up by the Carbon Trust), for example, has created Footprint Expert. This toolkit offers a guide to ‘footprinting’, calculators to model emissions for common events, a framework help with the development of product carbon footprint models, reference data such as country-specific emissions factors for common processes and commodities, plus a registry of certified product carbon footprints. 

But one of the most extensive sources of aggregated data is the environmental impact specialist Trucost. Over the past decade it has collected, standardised and validated global data on corporate environmental impacts, including not just carbon, but water, waste and air pollution, across companies, their supply chains and their investment portfolios. ‘We take a quantitative approach,’ explains Neil McIndoe, Trucost director of partnerships, ‘and we don’t just measure quantities, we put a cost to this, so that businesses can get a clear idea of the impact of their behaviour.’ 

So in 2010, when the enterprise software developer Unit4 launched its environmental performance management solution Sustain4, it used the Trucost database and model, to enable companies to make their measurement and reporting more meaningful, by providing both a benchmark and context. ‘Because Sustain4 knows the typical environmental impacts of a “business like yours”, it uses basic data – sector, turnover, geography, operations, employees etc – to provide an environmental impact assessment,’ explains Anwen Robinson, managing director of Unit4. 

With the help of the Trucost data, Sustain4 users can assess, manage and potentially improve their corporate environmental performance across more than 700 areas of environmental impact – from carbon and other greenhouse gas production to water usage – based on impact assessments from thousands of global organisations across 464 industries. So users can swiftly benchmark themselves against other organisations in their sector as well as capture, analyse and track their ongoing performance across their entire supply chain. 

To avoid ‘greenwashing’ of carbon emissions, looking at the broader supply chain should be a vital part of any initiative to measure and manage carbon emissions, but it is no small undertaking. As more specialist products and services, data aggregation tools, and carbon measuring and management software emerges, and more organisations use them to measure and rate their operations and their products, it will become easier. But beyond the restricted and relatively simple focus on carbon, there are wider issues to address, if the associated reporting is to be meaningful and comparable. 

‘There are recognised standards such as the Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol,’ says McIndoe, which provides a standard and guidance for organisations that are preparing a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, to cover not just CO2, but all six of the greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol (which also includes methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride. And this will shortly be joined by the supplementary Product Accounting and Reporting Standard and the Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard. 

These have been developed by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and you can learn more about them on the website of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol initiative (using the link above). As Björn Stigson, WBCSD president explains: ‘These two new standards give businesses the tools they need to understand emissions across the entire life cycle of their products and through their value chains, and manage them accordingly.’ 

The new standards are expected to be finalised by early 2011 and published in the spring of 2011 – and although they been created with the very best of intention, they will join a Tsunami of other ‘sustainability’ and corporate social responsibility reporting standards either already available or under development. Add these to the various standards for assuring these (with their all too subtle differences) and it isn’t hard to see why something that seems as straightforward as the carbon footprint (for products, businesses and even the extended supply chain) is the leading edge of the wave – and why it may remain so for the foreseeable future.