The European Union aims to measure the environmental impact generated by both products and organizations themselves and therefore, in late 2021, it published a recommendation focused both on focused both on measuring the environmental footprint and on communicating the environmental performance of products and organizations throughout their life cycle.

With this idea in mind, I’m starting a mini-series of posts related to the environmental footprint to explain what it is, how it is measured and, of course, how it is communicated.

Keep in mind that although what we currently have is still a recommendation, it is common in these cases that it will end up becoming the most used and accepted methodology by governments and institutions. From there, it will naturally evolve into a legal obligation (sooner or later, according to how the issue develops).

Hence, I think it’s very interesting to share these ideas with you so that you can be prepared for whatever may come.

As is usual in many of my posts, I’d like to start by reviewing some basic ideas that sometimes escape us either due to lack of knowledge or because this is one of your first visits to this website.

First of all, let’s refresh our memory on what the life cycle is.

Many definitions can be found just a couple of clicks away, but so that you don’t get lost in the net let’s refer to what is considered in these recommendations: “consecutive and interrelated stages of a product system, from the acquisition of the raw material or its generation out of natural resources to the final disposal”.

It may sound a bit confusing when read like this, but if I give you a concrete example, I’m sure you’ll understand it better.

If we compare the life cycle of products or organisations with that of human beings, from now on it won’t be enough to think of a life cycle based on being born, growing up, building one’s life and dying.

We’ll have to go one step beyond and think about the egg and sperm that gave life to a human being (which would be akin to the acquisition of raw materials in the case of the company) and how this being is buried or incinerated or whatever after their death (which would be equivalent to the final disposal of the waste of the product or service).

In other words, we have to take eeeeeeeeeeeeverything into account (I would write down more “e’s” but that’d be a tad annoying) from the dawn of time:

  • Our raw materials: what they are, where they come from, how they are produced or obtained, how they reach us,…
  • What our treatment or manufacturing processes are like (and everything that comes in and out of each process).
  • How distribution is carried out (means, distances, vehicles…) taking into account the whole value chain.
  • The use our customers (or the final customer, depending on each case) make of our product or service.
  • The final destination of our product or service at the end of its service life.

Most importantly, all the environmental impacts associated with each stage must be taken into account. It’s not enough to focus only on one aspect or process.

What I’ve just told you is what is known as a “life cycle approach” and from now you should get acquainted with it, because it’s going to be the standard.

I know that right now you’re trying to picture all the work, headaches and complications this is going to cause you, but don’t worry, I’m here to help you and explain all this rambling in the simplest possible way.

So… why now?

Well, it’s not really “now”… Actually this all stems from a previous work from 2013 (yes, you read that right, a full decade ago) by the European Union which, through a pilot phase that lasted until 2018, developed specific and sectoral rules and standards for the environmental footprint of products and organisations.

Over time these methods have been updated from a technical standpoint and it was concluded that the environmental footprint is a fantastic tool to enable the development of policies and legislation in the EU, as well as to define what sustainable products are.

On top of this you can add the following: the European Green Dealthe Circular Economy Action Plan the EU,the Taxonomy Regulation to facilitate sustainable investment, the Sustainable Consumption Pledge and all that climate change is bringing along with it and… ta-daaaaan! We now have a wonderful tool at our disposal to approach all these issues with a common perspective that facilitates decision-making.

Overview of the Recommendation on the use of Environmental Footprint methods

In this post I won’t dive into the more than 400 pages of the document, the turn for that will come in other posts, but I do want to give you a general outline of the recommendation:

  • The objective is to promote the use of methodologies for calculating the environmental footprint of organizations and products.
  • It’s targeted both at EU Member States themselves and at private and public organizations (keep this in mind!).
  • Regarding the Member States, it’s recommended that they use this method in those voluntary policies that involve measuring or communicating the environmental performance of organizations and products and that they begin to make efforts to broaden the availability of something that’s much needed by us technicians who work in this field (and something which is scarce): quality data! They are also asked to provide assistance and tools to SMEs to be able to measure, improve and communicate the environmental performance of products and organizations. Finally, they are invited to report annually to the Commission on what has been done in relation to all of this, including data on products and organizations that have followed the initiative, what incentives have been given, what problems have been encountered, etc.
  • Companies are encouraged to use these methods from now on and to help review the public databases and improve them with their input. It is also suggested to consider helping companies, especially SMEs, with all of this. Well, I already do it, so that’s one point for me!
  • Please note: if the studies are going to be communicated to third parties, it’s important that they’re verified. We’ll talk about this in other posts, but keep in mind that if you’re going to communicate you’ll almost always need to verify (kudos to auditing companies because an increase in workload is predicted 😉).
  • To wrap things up, some relevant acronyms (learn them, you’re going to be seeing these a lot).
    • PEF = Product Environmental Footprint
    • OEF = Organization Environmental Footprint
    • PEFCRs = Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules
    • OEFSRs = Organisation Environmental Footprint Sector Rules

That’s all for now, I hope you liked this introduction. I’ll elaborate on this topic in upcoming posts.

If you don’t want to miss any details on this matter, I recommend you to subscribe to my newsletter. Every two months (I don’t want to fill your inbox with unread emails) you’ll get a direct link to the latest publications, a summary of what has happened in envirall during the month and the main trends in sustainability for companies and businesses.

And as always, for anything, you can contact me.