Skip to main content

Introducing handprinting: the good you do minus your footprint

Dassault Systemes, Eaton Corp., Johnson & Johnson and others have developed a method for calculating the good an organization does through influencing its supply chain and more.

“Don’t let the good that you do be constrained by the harm you’re now causing,” said Dr. Greg Norris of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment when I first heard him speak.

He was discussing his work on "handprinting," or accounting for positive social and environmental actions to help drive a company or individual to be net-positive. This was an idea that hugely resonated with me: I had just preceded Norris’ talk with one of my own in which I discussed how Dassault Systèmes’ potential influence over product design and development in some of our key industries — aerospace, automotive, industrial equipment  — dwarfs our own operational impacts. Although we’d recently won recognition for sustainability, I don’t put a lot of stock in that, as companies such as ours lack a credible way to measure and talk about our sustainable innovation capabilities. 

Norris and I subsequently met, and Dassault Systèmes became one of the founding members of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE), a consortium that Norris co-directs out of the Harvard Center. Along with several other cross-sector sustainability leaders such as Eaton Corp. and Johnson & Johnson, we’re collaborating to build a handprinting methodology to account for the “credits” side of our individual and corporate environmental ledgers — not just the debits, as footprinting calculates.

The limitations of footprinting

My company, Dassault Systèmes, has a carbon footprint of about 40,000 tons per year. That’s pretty small compared to companies of equivalent size, with about $3 billion in revenue and 12,000 employees, that manufacture physical products. As a software company whose manufacturing process involves employing smart engineers to turn caffeine and electricity into lines of code, we don’t have a lot of physical impacts — they’re mostly purchased energy (scope 2 emissions) and business travel (scope 3).

And yet, if you look at the role we play in the design, engineering, simulation, manufacturing and data management of products in key industries such as aerospace and automotive, and consider our influence on their impacts, you arrive at a very different conclusion: that we influence something around 5 percent to 10 percent of the carbon footprint of the world. That is an incredible leverage opportunity to significantly move the needle. If we build tools to increase the sustainable design of these products, in which carbon scope would our investments show up?

The answer is that, at the moment, they wouldn’t show up. Your influence on your suppliers’ and customers’ own footprints isn’t even part of your greenhouse gas inventory (only the share that relates to your product manufacture is a scope 3 GHG measure). Say you help a vendor change a process that reduces their overall shipping impacts, or share a best-practice that allows your customers to cut their warehousing lighting emissions; these positive actions — which certainly should be incentivized — are not accounted for anywhere currently, but are part of your effect on the world. Furthermore, while footprint-reducing activities such as eliminating excess packaging count towards reducing your enterprise footprint, more out-of-the-box actions, such as planting trees to reduce worldwide carbon, do not. This is why we need to move beyond measuring — and managing — only footprint: don’t let the good that you can do be constrained by the harm that you’re causing.

A general overview of handprinting

So how do we build a methodology that does account for positive actions? Before starting, it’s important to select the scope of the handprinting study. Is it a single initiative or project, a product or product line, or a whole business unit? Eventually, the goal of many companies will be to produce a company-level handprint, so that they can compare this to their footprint: handprint minus footprint, if greater than zero, means that a company is net-positive on that metric.

The first key handprinting concept that I find most instructive is the idea of “business as usual” (BAU). In order to measure the benefit of a positive action, we’ll have to decide what would have happened without the action — what would have been business as usual. Let’s take one example from above, a company sharing a warehouse lighting best-practice with their customers. Here, BAU is pretty clear: the old lighting practice, compared to the new. The difference is thus the delta between the total impacts using the old practice, and those using the new practice.

But there are some cases where the difference isn’t so clear. Let’s take the other example cited above, where you help your vendor change a business process that reduces its overall shipping impacts. If it replaces a paper-based system with automated software, we must ask what would it have done without your intervention: would it have continued in its old, paper-based system? Would it have selected a different automated system that had inferior efficiency capabilities — still a positive handprint, but less positive than if the comparison is to the old system with no efficiencies? Would it have selected a different system with better efficiency capabilities, actually resulting in a negative handprint for your recommendation? For those of you who are baseball fans, it’s analogous to scoring an error — you have to make your best assessment at what would have happened without the actor’s intervention.

Once the “before” comparison is determined as BAU, another question to answer is: along what indicators do we measure the change? According to Norris, you should use the same indicators as those you use to measure your environmental footprint: carbon, eco-toxicity, human health impacts, safety, employee well-being, etc. There are many already-established ways of measuring each scenario, ranging from simple estimation to full life-cycle assessment. (It’s worth underscoring here that handprinting can and should be applied to social metrics as well as environmental, although the latter is my area of practice.)

Finally, what about multi-actor scenarios? For example, when my company helps Boeing virtually prototype its fuel-efficient planes or Ford sustainably manufacture its lighter F-150, what sort of handprint claims can we make? In the methodology, we make a distinction between enabling a handprint — a road enables an electric vehicle to drive on it, but just as equally enables a lumbering SUV — and inducing a handprint, as you would if you convinced someone to become a vegetarian (as your persuasive argument induced her to become a vegetarian). Although in both cases the actual actor — the Prius owner or the new vegetarian — can claim a handprint, only in the vegetarian friend’s case can you also claim a handprint yourself.

In reality, enablement to inducement is more of a spectrum. In my company’s case, whether we can claim Boeing’s or Ford’s handprint on these projects as part of our own is dependent on how actively we helped them develop their innovations. If they simply used our software, then we’re happy to have helped them increase their handprint only (we’d be the road), but if we helped run some of the studies for them or helped train them to better use our software for sustainability, then we claim the handprint as well.

So these are the basics of calculating a handprint — it’s really a pretty simple concept, although as you’ve probably already noticed, its implementation can be fiendishly complex. How do you navigate these devilish details to create a legitimate handprinting study?

How you can use handprints

You don’t need fancy software, or even our as-yet not standardized methodology, to start calculating your handprints. Take a look at your own positive actions — your last sustainability report is a great place to look. Starting small, consider the positive effects of two or three of your actions, initiatives, innovations or major decisions. Decide what changed — that is, what BAU to compare to — and estimate how much of an improvement you made on a metric relevant to each action.

Now, how can you scrupulously estimate the full-scale effect of these actions — over time, by sales (if it’s a product), across all sites? Once you’ve arrived at an estimated handprint, you can compare this to your footprint to see where you should be investing more effort — in reducing footprint or increasing handprint. The value of each is equivalent.

Towards a net-positive enterprise

Once the scale of your handprinting study reaches all of your positive actions, you can compare the total handprint to your company footprint. If total handprint exceeds total footprint, you can claim to be net-positive on that indicator.

The goal for Dassault Systèmes is to finish building the handprinting methodology with our fellow SHINE consortium members, then apply it to our products. Then, we hope to use handprinting to guide us toward taking actions that ensure we are a net-positive company on several material indicators; that is, that the world is indeed better off with us than without us. In the end, isn’t this belief the core of why we sustainability professionals do what we do?

More on this topic