PEF: a game changer in LCA

The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) approach is a game-changing standard in LCA, with effects and ramifications that we are only just beginning to understand. That’s why PRé is devoting an article series to PEF, discussing it one aspect at a time. Today: how did PEF come about? And what are some of the lessons we have learned so far?

A community splintered by debates

For 25 years, the LCA community has been working on developing a good understanding of how to model the life cycle of a product and perform an impact assessment. Although the many debates among experts resulted in great insights and concepts, there has never been real consensus or simplification.

ISO standards, the backbone of the community and the robust basis for the debates, allow for too many ways of modelling and understanding the world; they leave too much room for interpretation. This was most notable in Environmental Product regulations: the ISO 14040/44 standards left too much room for personal decisions, which is why the ISO 14025 standard was introduced. This standard introduced a procedure to create product category rules (PCRs) based on a stakeholder consultation process. The standard was a success, and now there are over 40 Programme Operators that issue PCRs – often for the same or overlapping product categories. A consequence of this ‘success’ is that there is little coordination, which led to confusion, double work and lack of confidence with the consumers.

Towards a commonly accepted methodology

In 2008 and 2009, Thema1, organiser of the PEF World Forum, and PRé organised several roundtables for Programme Operators to try to get to a common base. This roundtable inspired the UK government to align the PAS and the GHG protocol. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a document that proposed a common base for all PCRs. The lack of consistency and confusion regarding EPDs was recognised by the EU to be a significant stumbling block for the creation of a common market for sustainable products.

The EU’s response was to start the Single Market for Green Products initiative to develop a very comprehensive approach for creating product and organisation environmental footprints (PEF and OEF). This was done by the European Commission DG Environment (EC DG ENV), borrowing much from the EPA guide mentioned above. PRé was commissioned by DG ENV to support the pilot testing of the development of the PEF and OEF methodologies in 2011, the outcome of which was used for further improvement of the methodologies.

Some lessons learned

A second pilot phase followed the first, and there is much we learned from them. Below, we list some of the lessons we learned, to be described in more depth in later editions of this series:

  • It doesn’t work to print numbers on a product to represent its climate change impact, ozone depletion potential, etc. People do not understand the numbers – they have no reference. Is 283 gram of CO2 equivalents a problem? Is that high or low? And is it better to have more of that or less?
  • The starting point of all analysis should be communication. Information needs to have a reference point: is this product average, better than average or worse? An example of where this works well is energy labelling, where people understand that a fridge with an A label is preferable over a fridge with an F label.
  • The benchmarks of product groups cannot be set by the EC. Instead, they should be set the companies that produce these products, in collaboration. This is why the current 27 pilots were only allowed to start if they represented companies that together have a market share of 50% or more of the EU market in that product group.
  • Trade does not stop at borders. In contrast to many EPD schemes, developed on a national basis and often not translated into internationally accepted languages, the EC clearly invites companies from other regions to take part. The pilot on solar cells, for instance, contains Chinese, US-based and European companies. The pilot on IT equipment is led by Japanese industries.
  • Credibility can only be maintained through strict data requirements. Unlike the requirements of most EPD schemes, PEF data requirements are very strict indeed. The EC has also contracted verification services to verify both data and results.
  • The costs for any approach should be low to also allow SMEs and companies from developing countries to participate. Considerable efforts are being made to ensure that generating PEF results will work with a relatively simple cookbook; just enter some primary data and activity data that fulfils the requirements and, at least that is the idea, you will get your PEF compatible results.
  • Data should be free, and the EC will make a significant amount of data available free of charge.
  • The old way of debating methodology among experts does not work – the pilots need to reach consensus. An example is the cattle model working group: the pilots on meat, dairy, leather, animal feed and pet food all had to model the life cycle of cattle up to the slaughterhouse, and the EC invited these pilots to develop consensus to prevent them from each developing their own model. It nearly worked, although in the end, the EC had to make the final verdict. It is another sign we are entering into a new era, though. If there is a conflict or stalemate, it’s not the methodology experts, but industry itself that will cut through the clutter.

This article is the first in a series of articles that will discuss a number of key aspects of and developments within the PEF methodology, and explain how the EC environmental footprint initiative will be a game-changer in the LCA community. At PRé, we will be supporting this initiative and developing solutions for it.

Learn more about PEF

If you want to learn more about our role in the PEF initiative, please contact us. See other episodes of this series:

Mark Goedkoop


When I established PRé in 1990 I ran a design consultancy, then I decided to do ecodesign. But, how do I tell the good from the bad? And how can I measure ‘eco’? So I started on a journey together with a few pioneers in the emerging LCA scene and gave up designing. I realized then that these same questions need to be answered by any company embarking on the route to more sustainable products and services, preferably in a scientific, honest, and businesslike way. Providing good transparent tools, data, and methodologies to empower organizations to make the transition to sustainability, that is my drive.

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