Environment

Promoting greener goods: the Product Environmental Footprint

02/01/2019

The European Union’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is a methodology to calculate the overall environmental impact of products. It aims to enable the provision of reliable and comparable information on products, and therefore to foster a single market in the EU for green goods. Work on the standard dates back to 2011, when then-existing methodologies were analysed. In 2013, the PEF methodology was published, and a new round of work began to test the methodologies in practice. The PEF pilots have now been completed, covering a range of goods from beer to batteries and from paint to power supplies. Imola Bedo of the European Commission’s Environmental Footprint Team discusses some of the lessons learned and how PEF can be taken forward.

The PEF pilot was completed earlier this year. What key lessons have been learned from the pilot? 

Imola Bedo: PEF works. It delivers environmental information that is more reproducible, comparable and verifiable than any other method that covers the lifecycle of a product – from the extraction of raw materials to the end of life of the product.

Thanks to the hard work of the volunteers and colleagues, features were developed that are a benefit for users.

For example, the materiality principle helps to ensure product information is relevant and it delivers simplification and cost reduction. This principle encourages a focus on the processes, impacts and lifecycle stages (including manufacturing and use) that are most relevant from an environmental perspective. The effort in getting good quality information is focused on these key aspects. We have found that even for more complex products that involve thousands of processes, about 10-20 of those processes are responsible for about 80% of the impacts. 

Another achievement is the development of a benchmark for final products, which encapsulates the performance of the average product on the market. This allows us to understand whether a product is better or worse than the average. 

Furthermore, during the pilot phase we agreed on common approaches for many cross-cutting issues, such as packaging, electricity, transport and other processes. 

For which products does PEF work best, and why?

Imola Bedo: We’ve found that PEF works for all products for which it has been tested. There are of course products that are more challenging. For example, electronics often use components such as printed circuit boards, for which the exact composition is not known. This makes the analysis more difficult, but not impossible. In some areas, where lifecycle assessment hasn’t been used much, there is room for improvement. An example is agriculture, for which we will focus on defining a more refined model in the coming years.

What are the next steps? How soon can we see PEF being applied widely?

Imola Bedo: The Commission is now looking at different options for applying PEF in existing or new policies, for example in the EU Ecolabel, Green Public Procurement or in supporting environmental claims. A series of consultations was run in late 2018 on these potential options, targeting businesses and their associations, investors and financial institutions, public administrations, NGOs and method/initiative owners.

PEF is proving to be a useful tool for emerging policies. In sustainable finance, its use is being explored as a basis for defining which activities can be considered environmentally sustainable (taxonomy) and as a basis for defining a carbon index. The PEF is referenced also in the Strategic Action Plan on Batteries as a tool to help EU battery manufacturing to have the lowest environmental footprint possible. 

While discussing future policies, we will enable the development of new product-specific calculation rules. A call for volunteers should be published in early 2019.

What role is envisaged for PEF in building the circular economy?

Imola Bedo: The Circular Economy Action Plan referred to PEF as a potential tool for consumer information. PEF can help consumers take purchasing decisions based on environmental considerations. Together with pilot participants we have tested a wide range of ways to communicate PEF profiles to consumers. It is clear that there is appetite for this information – but to be effective, the messages need to be clear, simple, reliable and not hidden in a jungle of environmental claims. 

PEF has wider potential to support the circular economy. It is a common language on environmental performance that can trigger collaboration along value chains; and it is a tool that can help optimise product design from an environmental point of view. 

Are EU countries also implementing their PEF initiatives? Which are most interesting and worth diffusing/replicating wider?

Imola Bedo: France is a forerunner in the area of communicating lifecycle environmental performance to consumers. Their initiative (Affichage environnemental des produits et des services) is older than the PEF initiative and we are learning a lot from each other. 

One of the objectives of developing PEF was to avoid having 28 different systems for measuring lifecycle environmental performance. Italy is the first Member State to create a voluntary initiative that relies on PEF, called “Made Green in Italy”. The initiative went live this year. We are following this development with interest.

In the coming years we will also follow the take-up of product-specific calculation rules (Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules – PEFCRs) by businesses.

 

Further information: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eussd/smgp/ef_pilots.htm