Assuming you have not been living under a rock for the past few years, you have most likely heard the term “carbon footprint.” It’s one of those terms that people throw around in an attempt to sound “greener.” But if you’re like me, you may wonder what the word actually means. Is it like carbon paper? Am I actually making a big black footprint somewhere? If I step lightly will it lessen my impact? Okay, I’m kind of joking, I know enough about it to know my carbon footprint doesn’t actually involve my feet, but if not our feet, what parts of us do impact our carbon footprints?

So what is a carbon footprint?

Merriam Webster defines carbon footprint as “the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period.” Awesome. That makes it 100% clear, right?

But what does that mean?

The Guardian’s Green Living Blog provides a better explanation. They say, “When talking about climate change, footprint is a metaphor for the total impact that something has. And carbon is…shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

The term carbon footprint, therefore, is…shorthand to describe the best estimate that we can get of the full climate change impact of something. That something could be anything – an activity, an item, a lifestyle, a company, a country or even the whole world.”

It is important to note that although emission totals are generally reported in carbon dioxide (CO2), there are several other greenhouse gasses that contribute to the overall impact (methane, nitrous oxide, refrigerant gases, etc.). Because these other gasses are generally released in much smaller amounts, and in order to simplify the reporting process, they are converted into CO2 equivalents, or CO2e’s.

How can I measure mine or my company’s carbon footprint?

This is really where things get tricky because the carbon footprint of any product, good, or thing is so vast it becomes very difficult to measure. Many companies only account for a portion of the actual footprint. “A magazine publisher might claim to have measured its carbon footprint but in doing so looked only at its office and cars while ignoring the much greater emissions caused by the printing house that produces the magazines themselves.” The carbon footprint of every product includes not only direct emissions from the manufacturing and transportation processes, but also includes several indirect emissions, such as those caused by the extraction and processing of oil, a key component in plastic.

What I mean is this, say you go to the grocery store; you have a gallon of 2% milk in each hand. One gallon is the typical store brand and the other is from a local dairy farm. You know that in the ads for the store you are at they say that they strive to be low emission and to minimize their carbon footprint. The local company is family owned and doesn’t do very much advertising but you know they bring the milk to the store from right up the street. So which do you buy, store brand or local? It’s a difficult problem because measuring total impact is nearly impossible.

As for measuring yours or your company’s carbon footprint, the easiest way would be just to work backwards and be as all inclusive as you can. Remember to think not only about your direct influence, but your indirect influence as well. Although you could be lead down innumerable paths, this should help you to get a basic idea of your impact. And once you get good at thinking this way, it may help you make better (less carbon emission heavy) choices in your life!