A Sneak Peek at the New Rules for Supply Chain Footprinting

The art and science of carbon footprinting is about to take a step forward: The long-awaited launch of guidance for managing network and product lifecycle impacts is just around the corner.

If that's news to you -- and you have anything to do with managing a business with a significant supply chain -- here's your chance to get up to speed.

First, a little background. Carbon footprinting took off in 2001, when the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) established the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard. This standard outlined a practical way to quantify the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from materials and energy use in business operations.

It did this by offering an accounting framework with three GHG emissions "scopes:" Scope 1 is a sum of emissions from fuel, refrigerants, industrial gases, and other materials combusted or used at sites the company owns or controls; Scope 2 adds up emissions linked to electricity used by those facilities; and Scope 3 encompasses all other emissions in the business value chain.

Measurement of the "internal," or "operational," emissions of scopes 1 and 2 has always been straightforward, and thus those standards have been rapidly adopted. Today, a significant majority of the Global 500 companies report on operational emissions.

Scope 3, however, has incited many debates over interpretation. Originally referring to emissions from supply chains, including products, waste, distribution, and travel, Scope 3 outlined a much larger and more complex set of issues than those that characterize emissions from internal operations.

While Scope 3 has always been recognized as important, and indeed reporting has been growing, companies have been clamoring for more detailed guidance. Many companies have focused on addressing more easily measured Scope 3 activities, such as business travel and employee commuting. Also, business networks, such as the Clean Cargo Working Group and the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, have begun developing shared approaches for issues very focused on their industries.

But there has not been a common language for measuring Scope 3 impacts in detail across industries. That's about to change.

By summer 2011, WRI and WBCSD will finalize the Scope 3 standard and the related Product standard. This will be the result of a three-year project involving more than 1,500 diverse stakeholders from governments, research institutions, businesses, and civil society, all contributing to various discussions and drafts. BSR and many of its member companies have been represented in a technical working group.

Unofficially, this has been even longer in the making. A year after the 2001 launch of the first edition of the Corporate standard, a working group explored ways to flesh out Scope 3 with lifecycle assessment tools, finding that significant time and effort would be needed to produce an effective framework.

What led us to this final chapter? Brian Glazebrook, a senior manager of social responsibility at Cisco Systems who has been involved with Scope 3 efforts from the start, says that lifecycle and supply chain information is becoming more commoditized and therefore less expensive, while at the same time there is more demand for transparency. We have crossed a threshold that is making Scope 3 management undeniably more attractive to companies, and the case to do more will only become stronger.

Next Page: A Q&A on the Scope 3 standard with Pankaj Bhatia, director of the GHG Protocol at WRI