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Lending a Hand to Sustainability

Handprint thinking, a concept developed about a decade ago, is meant to complement ecological footprints and frame human actions in terms of how much good they can do to promote sustainability.

Over the past 30 years, the concept of ecological footprints has gained traction as a metric for understanding individual and collective impacts on the environment. The term originated in the early 1990s and has grown so commonplace that entities ranging from professional sports leagues to financial institutions use it to understand their resource use. A carbon footprint, for example, characterizes an individual’s or organization’s carbon emissions.

However, to overcome daunting global sustainability challenges, it is not enough to know that our actions generate negative impacts, argue Guillaume et al. in a new study; recognizing humanity’s positive contributions is also key to creating a sustainable future. Enter the environmental handprint.

Handprint thinking—initially established about a decade ago—is intend to promote affirmative environmental action and complement the notion of footprints. Whereas ecological footprints can cause counterproductive stress and paralysis, a positive approach reveals opportunities for improvement and clarity on how to act, the authors suggest.

In the study, the authors lay a foundation for evaluating environmental handprints. They establish three core principles of handprint thinking and identify critical questions to address when conducting a handprint assessment. The three principles include encouraging activities with positive impacts, connecting handprint analyses to footprint reductions while adding value to them, and identifying actions to take.

The authors provide a case study examining the annual food water footprint of an average individual in Finland. This average person eats more meat products than national recommendations suggest and often lunches at a workplace cafeteria. In this context, the authors explored opportunities for action—and trade-offs of choices—by this person, factors influencing the person’s capacity to act, and pathways to influence others.

In the example, the authors find that average Finns can reduce their food water footprint by 51% to 69%, depending on the stringency of their efforts. Even modest attempts to avoid overeating, reduce meat consumption, and limit food waste can yield substantial gains.

The handprint concept empowers individuals by giving them authority to reduce their environmental footprint. Through their analysis, the authors contribute theory to bolster handprint thinking and practical implications for implementing it in future research and real-world settings.

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