19 December 2022, Blog by Tiina Pursula of Stora Enso
When it comes to talking about the climate change, it can be easy to focus on the negatives. After all, the effects of the climate crisis negatively impact each one of us and humanity as a whole. But at Stora Enso, we’re also firmly focused on the positives, working day in and day out to innovate new and more sustainable products, collaborating with partners and customers to fast-track development, and driving the push for better solutions and tools to measure the real impacts that the products we all use have on our planet.
One of the most familiar ways of measuring those impacts is the carbon footprint, which, as you probably know, is the combination of the negative impacts, greenhouse gas emissions that a product, package, person or action creates. But what about the positive impacts? Well, there’s a way to measure them, too, and it’s called the carbon handprint.
What’s a carbon handprint?
To really explain the carbon handprint, it’s best to start with the footprint. When we talk about the carbon footprint, we mean the value chain emissions of a certain product to deliver whatever it’s functionality may be. The carbon handprint is the emissions saved or avoided through certain product.
When we think about products, they exist for a certain purpose. If we think about food packaging, for example, the purpose is to deliver safe nutrition to people to support their wellbeing and to reduce food waste.
So if we look at the footprint of food packaging, we’re looking at the emissions it creates when it’s made. But when we think about the carbon emissions, when delivering the purpose, the packaging can also deliver emission reductions. That’s the handprint.
Looking with a broader lens
The concept of handprint is relatively new, but it’s important. When looking at sustainability, it’s becoming more and more important to look at broader systems. If we only focus on the footprint, we really miss the big picture of why a product exists in the first place and if it has the potential to deliver emission reductions in other areas. If the emissions a product can reduce are actually bigger than the footprint, that product is good for climate.
Let’s look at another example: beverage packaging. Now let’s pretend to compare a 1-liter juice carton to another packaging format option that delivers the same juice – a plastic bottle. The beverage carton based on a recent comparative life-cycle assessment study has a lower carbon footprint than the plastic bottle. The positive difference when choosing carton over plastic is the handprint.
Cartons like the ones we at Stora Enso make use high share of renewable energy, and are efficiently designed overall. Fiber-based solutions often have a lower footprint and higher handprint than options like glass and plastic. In addition to beverage packaging, we have assessed products like the folding box board used to pack dry foods, cosmetics, chocolates and more. These products, too, had high handprints in the studies we’ve been part of. That makes them great alternatives to plastic.
Pioneering handprint calculation
Handprint is still a pretty new concept that’s only been around for 5-10 years, so there’s no real widely-accepted global standard for how to calculate it. The concept itself is fairly simple. But actually measuring it is a bit more complicated.
The simplest example is comparing CO2 emissions, like in our juice carton example above. But there are other ways to measure the handprint, too. If you think about circularity and resource use, for example, the thinking is the same, so measuring the amount of resources are put into making and delivering one product compared to another. The product that’s more circular and less resource-intensive has a bigger handprint.
We at Stora Enso are working to pioneer work around handprint measurement, collaborating with universities, research institutes and our customers to help develop these methods. Right now, handprint calculation is most advanced on the climate and carbon side, but it gets more complicated – and also more interesting – when you look at calculating things like circularity and social impacts.
One concept in the lifecycle assessment (LCA), which is also the basic methodology that’s applied when calculating handprint, is that there are different impact categories in different sustainability areas, so things like climate or water emissions and resource use. And those impact categories can’t be compared against each other because they’re so different. That means it’s impossible – at least for now – to calculate any kind of net handprint that takes into account overall impact.
We are working together with some of the world’s leading universities and research institutes, including VTT (The Technical Research Centre), LUT (Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), to develop and pilot new methodology around measuring handprint. It takes a lot of work with many different stakeholders to push this important work forward, but at Stora Enso, as we’ve always been committed to working side-by-side with other players to develop the products, methods and innovations that support what we call the eco-evolution and drive the changes the world needs now.
In the future it’s really important to evolve the methodology around measuring handprint so that we really gain a better understanding of both the positive and negative impact that products have over the entire value chain. This is a key trend in sustainability overall – that everything should be viewed through a more systematic and holistic lens that encompasses entire value chains, encouraging better collaboration throughout and ultimately delivering better products and processes that are better for us all.