What's Your Organization's Handprint?

Your carbon footprint - and your organization's - gives the metric for all the ways you add to greenhouse gases. It's not a pretty picture for anyone, let alone a large company.
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The Big Picture

The VP of a worldwide coffee company was telling me about all the good changes they have made throughout their supply chain and manufacturing practices.

There was only one thing that made the company's sustainability practices look bad in the public eye: the little cups in which their machines brewed the coffee are made of plastic - a plastic that can't be recycled. And they sold 10 billion of these cups a year.

Still, there where many positives. The company:

  • sourced only fair trade coffee,
  • was shrinking their water consumption,
  • dropped suppliers who treated workers poorly,
  • and used lots of solar power.

And, he added, their R&D team was working on finding a new material that, ideally, could handle both the high temperature of brewing coffee and yet be easily recycled or biodegradable.

But that upgrade was three years off at best.

Even so, I told him, his company overall had a positive story to tell about becoming more sustainable, and a high likelihood that arc would continue into the future.

Footprint versus Handprint

It comes down to the difference between an ecological footprint and a handprint.

Your carbon footprint - and your organization's - gives the metric for all the ways you add to greenhouse gases. It's not a pretty picture for anyone, let alone a large company. An ecological footprint expands beyond carbon to assess your entire supply chain to include other greenhouse gases, emissions of particulates, and a host of other impacts. The methodology for this is life cycle analysis.

Your handprint, on the other hand, starts with your footprint as a baseline, but then focuses on all the ways you are lowering that number. As your handprint grows your footprint shrinks.

The handprint gives you a positive value, not a negative. This is motivation to find ways to make it bigger. And it's a positive story to tell the world.


The handprint concept comes from Gregory Norris, who teaches how to compute such sustainability measures at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's part of their Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise, or SHINE. SHINE helps companies accelerate along these lines - and develop their handprint as they go.

A while back I heard Norris explain the handprint concept to the Dalai Lama at a meeting on Ethics, Interdependence and the Environment. The Dalai Lama seemed fascinated.

And more recently while interviewing him for my new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World, he saw such transparency as one of the remedies that can help us counter the ways human activity degrades the global systems that support life on the planet.

The Dalai Lama told me he urgently wants to reach Millennials, whom he calls "the people of the 21st century." Today's young people, along with future generations yet to come, will face more and more environmental crises, and so will be far more motivated than today's decision-makers to value sustainable practices - and the companies who adopt them.

And understanding their handprint can help any company start telling that story now.

Additional Resources

This post was first published on LinkedIn.

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