Until recently, the term environmental footprint didn’t register on most people’s radars. Now organizations and their publics are increasingly paying attention to environmental footprints. Many large businesses are looking at the environmental requirements of vendors as part of the purchasing process. Tools like EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, are natural outcroppings of this new activity.
Organizations need to know and improve their environmental footprint. Not only is it the right thing to do, sizing up their footprint and reducing it helps prepare them to respond to customers and potential future regulations.
Measuring an environmental footprint can be a daunting task. Here are four key questions to think about, considering your organization’s scope, maturity, and intended use of the information.
1. What are you trying to accomplish with your calculation?
First ask yourself why you’re trying to calculate your organization’s environmental footprint and what you will do with the information. Is your goal to use this information internally to develop risk management plans for strategic resources? Will you be examining the key impacts that are of most importance to your organization? Or will you be using the data to set future targets to reduce your overall impact? Maybe it’s all of the above.
By first understanding how you’d like to use your data, you’ll be in a better position to evaluate your needs and avoid spending a great deal of resources obtaining information that may not be valuable to you or your stakeholders.
2. Who will you share this information with?
Consider your public’s interests. There may be some obvious drivers like customer inquiries or pending regulations, but internally, each department will have a different view of what information matters most to them. For example, senior management may be more interested in overall impact, whereas site or facility management may be concerned about local issues, such as resource consumption.
You will also need to structure your assessment in a way that will communicate effectively to an external audience. Consider what kinds of data points are most valuable to measure and are actionable in your organization’s larger environmental initiative.
3. What parts of your environmental footprint are most critical, and when will you need this information?
While it’s tempting to try to capture your entire environmental footprint in one effort, that may not be the most important analysis to conduct for your organization. There will be certain elements that you’re best able to influence and/or which have the most impact. Start with those areas rather than trying to tackle everything at once. For example, if you have the ability to influence the design of your products, focus on the use of recycled materials, energy-efficiency and even greener product packaging, wherever possible.
Also consider timing, particularly as it relates to your internal budget, planning and facilities upgrade cycles, ROI requirements and capital investment requirements. Will having a better idea of your environmental footprint better help you influence decision-making in areas like capital investment in energy efficiency? Or will it allow you to take advantage of temporary tax credits?
4. How will you calculate your environmental footprint?
I started by measuring my organization’s carbon footprint within our existing Environmental Management System (EMS) process. If your organization has an ISO 14001 compliant EMS, you probably already conduct an annual comprehensive review of your organization’s overall environmental impact. Start with the significant environmental aspects identified as part of this process in calculating your environmental footprint. If your company does not have a formal EMS, it may still be helpful to undertake an assessment of your operations, products, and services to determine your universe of potential environmental impacts. From this larger list, you can determine which impacts are significant, including which areas you can actually influence, and probability and severity of impact, and start to narrow your focus to those aspects of your footprint that need immediate attention.
You may also be able to start by tracking environmental questions in requests for quotations (RFQs) received from customers or by holding customer advisory councils on sustainability issues to get direct feedback from customers on their priorities. Internal environmental compliance teams are likely already tracking future regulations and can provide input on what environmental metrics may be important to track in the future, including emerging topics like carbon and water footprints.
Organizations must first clearly determine their objective, audience, and timing before embarking on any data gathering and analysis. Then, look internally for existing resources that may provide valuable insight into your carbon footprint. By taking this strategic, methodical approach, you can put your best foot forward in assessing your organization’s environmental footprint. Then comes the really fun part – using that information to change the organization and shrink your footprint one step at a time.
Mary Jacques is a senior engineer with Lenovo’s Global Environmental Affairs team, responsible for environmental programs and compliance for the Americas region. Mary also serves on the boards of the Washington Materials Management and Financing Authority (WMMFA), Information Technology Industry Council Environmental Leadership Council (ITI ELC), and Electronic Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC). Lenovo is a global PC manufacturer that is committed to environmental leadership in all business activities, from operations to product design and recycling solutions.