Footprint

Consumers are bombarded with pleas to [reduce, shrink, cut, offset] our [carbon, environmental, energy, water] footprint. Footprint is such a great word for so many reasons; it’s easy to see why it’s become a staple in the CR lexicon. But the word also comes with some unintended baggage, and depending on what you’re trying to communicate, it can come up short.


How
footprint falls
flat

It sends a
confusing message

It sends a
confusing message

Footprint implies surface area, which works for ecological impact. But it doesn’t quite work when describing greenhouse gas emissions, which are measured in three dimensions. So even though footprint is an instinctively visual term, it can send confusing visual cues.

It doesn't inspire
collective action

It doesn't inspire
collective action

Footprint feels so personal and individual, that if you decide to do nothing to reduce your environmental footprint, it doesn’t feel like your efforts will get noticed. And if you decide to make changes, you have to operate on faith that you’re making a difference.

It's
discouraging

It's
discouraging

While you can do your utmost to shrink your footprint smaller and smaller, the word implies you’ll always have one. Cue the sad trombone: Wah, waaah.


Why
we use it
anyway

It's Sensory

It's Sensory

Just the term footprint turns something invisible, like carbon emissions, into something you can visualize and touch—like a footprint in the sand.

It's Humanizing

It's Humanizing

Footprint takes sciencey, abstract ideas and makes them feel relatable—even personal. Everyone has feet. And our feet are our point of contact with the Earth.

It seems concrete and
measurable

It seems concrete and
measurable

Total carbon emissions and cumulative environmental impact can be tough to wrap your head around. Footprint gives them definition and brings them to human scale.

It seems so simple

It seems so simple

On an individual level, footprint can inspire small behavior changes and help make the case that every little bit counts.


What to do
instead

Express the
true size of
the problem

Express the
true size of
the problem

Instead of talking about a footprint, you could talk about reach. Or pressure, presence, sprawl. Going beyond standard CR words can help create a clearer picture and make a stronger emotional connection with the people you want to influence.

Give people a
vision

Give people a
vision

Rather than dwelling on the negative by asking people to shrink their footprint, motivate them by giving them something to build. Words like abundant, resilient, restore, regenerate are gaining popularity because they evoke an encouraging vision of our ultimate goal.

Convey an
accurate
visual

Convey an
accurate
visual

Just using better descriptions can help change behaviors. Comparison and metaphor—carbon landscape, a thick blanket of carbon emissions, a carbon cloud—can give readers a stronger mental model and make your message stick.

Inspire people
to join
together

Inspire people
to join
together

Tell stories about how our actions build on each other, so people understand that reducing their footprint makes a difference. Give people ways to connect, like through social media, so they can experience their collective impact in real time.


The backstory

Canadian ecologist William Rees coined the term ecological footprint in 1992. Looking for an easy way to describe the human demand on Earth’s ecosystems, Rees was inspired by a computer technician who praised his new computer’s “small footprint on the desk.

Footprint has been such a successful term that it’s been adopted beyond its original use to describe lots of different types of environmental impacts, including the commonly used carbon footprint to describe carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Some have even used the term as a springboard and coined the term handprint, which speaks to the positive impact of an individual or organization.

Submit your own and learn how AHA can help

Got a word that doesn’t work, but can’t think of another way to say what you mean? Leave us a comment and we just might add it to a future release. Problem solved!