Introducing Handprints: A Net-Positive Approach to Sustainability

Faculty Insight

Gregory A. Norris

Adjunct Lecturer on Life Cycle Assessment, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Instructor Gregory Norris shares his concept of “handprints,” an optimistic philosophy for addressing the challenge of sustainability. The approach aims to engage people not only in reducing their footprints, but also in creating a net-positive impact on the environment. 
Norris is the instructor of Life Cycle and Supply Chain Sustainability Assessment, codirector of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for Net-Positive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard School for Public Health, and chief scientist at the International Living Future Institute.

Let’s take a deep breath and think about the big picture for a moment. Specifically, let’s think about how our presence here in the world affects the environment. If you’re like me and most other people, that invitation doesn’t sound very inviting.

After all, we’ve already heard that our impact is negative. Surely any detailed consideration of our influence will just make us feel depressed or guilty.

But what if we could step outside on a sunny morning with a sense of gratitude that our presence here in the world is actually healing the environment?

Wouldn’t it be rewarding to track our positive contributions—and see that in a given year our efforts helped reduce pollution or increase the amount of fresh water in the ground?

What if we could make this true?

We can. Together, we will. Let’s explore how.

Greg Norris introduces his concept of handprints, a new frame of mind for approaching the challenge of sustainability.

Understanding Our Footprints

First, to get the full picture, it is important to be mindful of our “footprints.”

Our carbon footprint helps us remain conscientious about the greenhouse gases associated with our day-to-day activities—including commuting by car or bus, powering the buildings we occupy, or growing and cooking the food we eat.

Our water footprint measures not only the water we use and consume daily, but also the water used to produce the products we buy.

Making a Positive Impact with Handprints

Your footprint is real and important. But it is not the only way that you affect the environment. Let’s think now about our “handprints.”

You may drive to work and use a computer all day—both activities increasing your footprint. But let’s say that you’re part of a project team that is creating an innovative new product—maybe the world’s most energy efficient power supply or transmission. That new transmission could save somebody else thousands of gallons of fuel, avoiding millions of tons of greenhouse gases.

A contribution that causes positive change in the world—including reductions to your own or somebody else’s footprint—is a “handprint.” (Think of helping hands, creative handiwork, or a healing touch.)

We can think of the difference between handprints and footprints in these simple terms: Footprints are the negative consequences of all that it takes to sustain a person or an organization for a year—the total planetary “cost” of your presence.

Handprints represent the benefits of your presence: they’re the positive changes that you bring into the world during this same year. If footprints are what we unavoidably take, handprints are what we intentionally give.

Creating Handprints in Your Daily Life

You can create handprints at work. Maybe you place new recycling bins in clever places around the office, increasing the amount of paper, plastic, glass, or metal that gets recycled by your colleagues. Maybe you switch all the printers to double-sided printing. Or you install LED lights to replace less efficient bulbs. These are all handprints that reduce the footprints of your company.

You can reduce your footprint at home and in your neighborhood with many of these same actions. You could start a carpool in your neighborhood or build a bike rack for the local library to encourage more people to bike. You might team up with friends to start a community garden or a tool-sharing club.

The possibilities are endless because our creativity is unlimited. The key is to begin.

But before you act, reflect. Take the time to breathe in deeply and realize, “Wow. I can actually do this. I can be a healer of the environment. We can.” And feel grateful that this is true.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash.

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