The clock is ticking for PEF

December 11, 2017 by Bo Weidema

Last week I attended a meeting on the EU commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) arranged by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. The PEF initiative was presented as providing a level playing field for competition on environmental claims, countering the current situation that many (allegedly 95% of all environmental claims) are misleading.

The PEF pilot phase is now coming to and end, and the Commission representative presented the result as a success story: “We now have a machine that works!” although it was acknowledged that the data to drive the system is still insufficient. The PEF “machine” was likened to a watch that shows the time in simple terms, while the (LCA) clockwork inside is intricate and complex.

In spite of the attempt to present the PEF as a success story, there was much criticism from the more than 100 representatives from Danish industries and NGOs that were present. Some were concerned about the increased costs, pointing out that the money would be better spent on making improvements than on documenting status quo to the consumers. Others questioned whether LCA is at all relevant for consumer information, and it was suggested that new technology is now making LCA information for this purpose out-dated (see also my blog-post on distributed ledger technology).

The PEF system relies on the development of a “Product Category Rule” (PCR) for each product group. These PCRs are developed on a voluntary basis, paid by the majority of the industries that produce the products in each product group, providing a golden business for consultants. During the pilot phase it has turned out that this results in different rules for different products, so that only products within the same product group can be compared (as with the existing eco-labels).

An example from the audience was raised, about the gifts that a speaker often receive as thanks for giving an otherwise unpaid talk: Would a bottle of French wine or a box of locally produced chocolate (with cocoa beans from Africa) be the best choice? Since these two products belong to different product groups, they will have different rules for their PEFs and should therefore not be compared.

This simple example illustrates one of the largest problems of the idea of Product Category Rules, namely that they do not further improvements in environmental performance across product categories. NGOs and scientific advisors have pointed out that even within product categories it is now questionable if the PEF LCA calculation rules further environmental improvements. We have lobbied for constraining the industry consensus on the PCRs to the original Commission Guideline (see also my interpretation guide to this) and the requirements of the ISO LCA standards that focus on environmental improvements, but are now mocked with not understanding that compromise on scientific validity is necessary to reach industry consensus.

Personally, I concluded that if the concern is unfair competition, PEF is not the answer, but rather a part of the problem. A more simple solution would be to enforce the existing legislation on misleading claims, a solution that has worked well in Denmark so far.

In my view, there is not much point in having an expensive watch – even with the simplest user interface – if it shows the wrong time.


October 30, 2017 by Bo Weidema

Since the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were published 2 years ago, much has been said on the difficulty in implementing them into business practice. Part of the difficulty comes from the wordings, which often appear better suited for governmental use than specifically for use in a business context. But the main difficulty comes from the sheer number of goals (17) and accompanying targets (169) and indicators (so far 230). While this should provide something for everyone, it also implies an obvious risk of cherry-picking and sub-optimised decision-making. These problems have been pointed out very eloquently by other bloggers, e.g. Nienke Palstra & Ruth Fuller from Bond.

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission have done a great job in pointing out the positive market opportunities that the SDGs open up for first-movers, and the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) have teamed up in an action platform to provide best practices for corporate reporting on the SDGs, with a first analysis report published last month and a “Practical Guide for Defining Priorities and Reporting” announced for January 2018.

So what can we add from an LCA perspective that has not already been said and is not already being done? Well, what is missing in the approaches mentioned above, and which LCA has always been focused on providing, is an overall framework can avoid shifting of responsibilities and avoid sub-optimised decision-making.

Therefore, we now launch the SDG club, a new crowd-funded project to place each of the indicators for 169 targets of the 17 SDGs into a comprehensive, quantified and operational impact pathway framework, linking forward to sustainable wellbeing (utility) as a comprehensive summary (endpoint) indicator for all social, ecosystem and economic impacts. At the same time, we will link each of the indicators for 169 targets back to company specific activities and product life cycles, using a global multi-regional input-output database with environmental and socio-economic extensions. Due to the use of a single endpoint, this framework will allow to differentiate major from minor impact pathways, to quantify trade-offs and synergies, and to compare business decisions, performance and improvement options, also across industry sectors. With this project, we wish to provide an actionable and rational method for businesses and governments to integrate the SDGs into decision making and monitoring.

This new project builds on and extends the impact assessment method developed by 2.-0 LCA consultants for social footprinting, which has been successfully tested for feasibility in global supply chain contexts. For example, a recent whitepaper from Nestlé appraised our method with these words:

The great benefit of the Social Footprint method lies in the use of widely available background information from databases to assess social impacts top-down. As opposed to many other approaches, this means that some initial data is available for practically any specific case study, drastically reducing the overall cost

We invite everyone to join the SDG club and thereby contribute to streamline and coordinate action and increase efficiency in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Photo credits: UN Photo/Cia Pak, 22 September 2015, United Nations, New York, Photo # 643590, licence creative commons 2.0.

See also a previous blogpost on sustainability indicators.

10 years with iLUC research

September 30, 2017 by Jannick H. Schmidt

This year we celebrate more than 10 years of focussed research on Land Use Change (LUC) and indirect Land Use Change (iLUC). We do this with a free webinar on iLUC modelling for up to 100 people on November 15th.

Our first publications that included land use effect were about rapeseed and palm oil, and were part of my Ph.D. thesis: Life cycle assessment of rapeseed oil and palm oil from 2007. Ten years later, we are still developing the models and improving the framework for modelling indirect land use changes in life cycle assessment (eg. Schmidt et al. 2015; De Rosa et al. 2017).

Our own efforts have been largely channelled through the iLUC initiative, aka the iLUC Club. We began this project in 2011 and today the iLUC initiative has more than 20 universities and companies as members. We are grateful for their continued support to this important work on towards consistent methodology and modelling of iLUC in life cycle assessment.

We still have a few places for the webinar if you are interested:


De Rosa M, Odgaard M V, Staunstrup J K, Knudsen M T, Hermansen J E (2017). Identifying Land Use and Land-Use Changes (LULUC): A Global LULUC Matrix. Environ. Sci. Technol. 51(14):7954–7962

Schmidt J H, Weidema B P, Brandão M (2015). A framework for modelling indirect land use changes in life cycle assessment. Journal of Cleaner Production 99:230‑238

Circular responsibility

August 7, 2017 by Bo Weidema

At the core of the circular economy concept we find the closing of material cycles through recycling of by-products and wastes (what some people call the “End-of-Life”, see also my earlier blog-post). Recycling is also a topic that has been investigated widely in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), but here it has turned out to be one of the most difficult areas in which to ensure correct information and to avoid greenwashing. Many seek to use recycling as an argument for avoiding responsibility for environmental impacts. So I thought it might be time to summarize some of the problems we have encountered in our LCA practice, and in this way also inform the circular economy discussion on how to tackle the allocation of responsibility and credits for recycling.

In a situation where all the material for recycling is fully utilised:

  • We have seen unfortunate examples where producers seek to wipe off part of their environmental impacts on a high-value by-product, using allocation methods in violation of the ISO standards on LCA, instead of taking responsibility for how their by-products are being treated. An example is where the meat industry seeks to make their meat products look better by allocating part of the meat production impacts to the leather industry – an industry that cannot influence the meat production because there is less supply of hides than what is needed to meet the demand (a situation that is observable from marginal purchasers of leather products needing to accept synthetic alternatives). Instead, meat producers with an ISO-compliant life cycle approach take responsibility for their hides, and to choose the least environmentally impacting processing route, thus stimulating improvements in the leather industry – improvements that are much more difficult for the leather industry when left alone and even burdened on top with “responsibilities” for agricultural activities over which they have no influence.
  • We have seen examples where producers seek to take credit for the imaginary benefits of recycling a fully utilised waste material that would anyway have been recycled, compare their recycled products to virgin products, and spending their efforts on competing for the already fully utilised waste material. Instead, producers that follow an ISO-compliant life cycle approach take credit for the actual expected benefits that their recycling activities provide as services to the producers of the waste, and spend their efforts on competing for making the largest benefits from the recycling activity itself.

In a situation where the material for recycling is not fully utilised, i.e. where surplus materials are being disposed of in e.g. a landfill or stockpile, the options and incentives for greenwashing are smaller because here the users of the surplus materials indeed should take credit for removing materials from the landfill or stockpile, thus reducing environmental impacts. The largest errors we see are when suppliers of the surplus materials seek to take credit for the recycling benefits of that part of the material that is being utilised, when in fact the extent of this recycling is determined by the demand for the surplus material and therefore cannot be influenced by the material suppliers.

So, in conclusion, true circular responsibility is when producers take responsibility for how their by-products and wastes are treated, and avoid taking credit for non-existing recycling benefits.