Following a brief introduction about the need for businesses to respond to climate change, this paper considers the development of the phrase ‘carbon footprint’. Widely used definitions are considered before the authors offer their own interpretation of how the term should be used. The paper focuses on the contribution small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) make to the economy and their level of influence in stimulating change within organisations. The experience of an outreach team from the Engineering Department of a UK university is used which draws on the experience of delivering regional economic growth projects funded principally through the European Regional Development Fund. Case studies are used including the development of bespoke carbon
footprints for SMEs from an initiative delivered by the outreach team. Limitations of current carbon footprints are identified based on this higher education-industry knowledge exchange mechanism around three main themes of scope, the assessment method and conversion factors. Evidence and discussions are presented that conclude with the presentation of some solutions based on the work undertaken with SMEs and a discussion on the merits of the two principally used methodologies: life-cycle analysis and economic input–output assessment.