The role of the representative product in the PEF approach

The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) approach is a game-changing initiative in LCA, with effects and ramifications that we are only just beginning to understand. Today in PRé’s PEF series: What is a European representative product? And how do these products play a crucial role in the development of specific rules for product environmental footprinting of the various product groups?

What are the product category rules and why are they made?

Before the PEF initiative started, LCA has been used in various ways to assess the environmental impact of product life cycles. LCA studies often take all life cycle activities into account because LCA practitioners don’t know the relevant impact drivers ahead of time. Even if they try to identify where to focus data collection efforts by relying on literature about assessments of products from the same product group, they may miss the mark. To try to standardise the way products of the same product group are assessed, the product category rules (PCRs) were developed. They are the first attempt at this kind of standardisation. PCRs are often developed voluntarily by a producer or a limited group of stakeholders, which means the resulting PCR may be representative for that single product – not for other producers or for the entire product group.

Introducing the representative product – PEFCRs

As a response to the issue of limited applicability, the European Commission introduced an Environmental Footprint (EF) Pilot Phase project to develop PEFCRs (product environmental footprint category rules) –PCRs following the rules of the PEF guide. For PEFCRs, the rule was established that at least 50% of the market has to be involved in their development.

To be able to create such a PEFCR, the PEF pilot phase introduced the concept of ‘representative product’. To determine what to include in the PEFCR of a product group, the European Commission required a screening LCA study of the representative product.”. This enables a better understanding of the environmental impacts within a product group and guarantees a fair comparison between products. The representative product is, in my opinion, the solution we have been looking for.

The European Commission provides two options for defining the representative product: a real product sold on the EU market or a virtual product, which doesn’t exist in reality. This virtual product should be modelled on the average EU market share of all existing technologies and materials of the product group in question. The virtual product approach does carry the risk that technologies with relatively small market shares are overlooked. This is why it is so important to do a sensitivity analysis once the representative product is determined. The key purpose of a sensitivity analysis is to identify the data and assumptions that have the biggest influence on a result. Most PEF pilot projects chose the virtual representative product approach, and I am particularly fan of it myself.

The answer to product Environmental Footprint standardisation

After the representative product has been determined, a PEF screening LCA study is done to form the basis of the PEFCR. The study assesses the representative product and various scenarios to:

  • Identify environmental hotspots. The PEFCR will include a list of most relevant life cycle stages and processes. Practitioners will know where to focus their data collection efforts and companies will know where to focus their improvement opportunities.
  • Identify relevant impact categories. The default EF impact assessment method in the EF pilot phase includes a total of 16 impact categories. By identifying a small number of particularly relevant impact themes, companies will find it easier both to interpret LCA results and to act upon those impacts.
  • Facilitate the comparison between products that fall within the same product group. Until now, comparison between products could only be done within a single study. Thanks to the standardisation made possible by a representative product based on all technologies in the PEF screening study, it becomes much easier to compare products of the same group.
  • Facilitate the development of benchmarks. The European Commission is testing the development of benchmarks. For these, I believe that the average European product is the right reference to use.

I am really excited about this development and I believe that this is the solution for standardising and simplifying LCA practice while maintaining its high quality. Some pilot projects are keen about this approach and intend to use it going further.

For detailed information on how of a representative product is defined, see the Guidance for the implementation of the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) during the Environmental Footprint (EF) pilot phase.

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:

Marisa Vieira

Director of Solutions

The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive."

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