Companies from the food industry and all other industries that want to market their products (goods and services) as environmentally friendly within the European Union, will have to consider measuring the environmental performance of any of their products throughout its life cycle. Without an up-to-date and dependable Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or other sustainability assessment methods, it is almost impossible to make optimal decisions for improving a product’s environmental performance. Therefore and due to consumer protection, the European Commission proposed the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) methods as a common way of measuring environmental performance.
In December 2021, the European Commission released a revised version of a set of recommendations for using environmental footprint methods published in 2013. This is intended to help companies assess their environmental performance using verifiable, comparable and trustworthy data. Companies carrying out PEF are responsible for collecting primary data which needs to be company and site-specific. Such data is also relevant to other entities, like NGOs, public authorities, and business partners. Therefore, the availability of high quality life cycle data needs to be increased by making known relevant databases. The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) has been in charge of the technical and scientific development to guarantee that it is reliable and unbiased.
The PEF methodology
The PEF is measuring a variety of environmental aspects linked to the production and use of a product. It is a standardized method and examines, for example, how much energy and resources are used in the production process and how much waste and pollution it generates in order to be able to assess the environmental sustainability of a product. It is the result of a collaborative effort between the European Commission, industry and other stakeholders, and was developed to provide a common framework to measure and compare the environmental performance of products. The PEF is based on the LCA method, which is a comprehensive way of assessing the environmental impact of a product over its entire lifecycle. It considers the impacts resulting from the extraction of raw materials, the manufacturing and use of the product, and its disposal and recycling. The PEF aims to enable organisations to identify environmental hot spots and opportunities for improvement, thereby reducing their environmental impact. By providing a standardized framework for comparing the environmental performance of different products, the PEF could also help companies make better informed decisions when improving their products. The PEF is not only suitable for measuring such aspects, but also for communicating the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifecycle. Therefore, it aims to help consumers differentiate between products in these areas.Using the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology will become mandatory in the EU by the end of 2024 for companies that aim to market their products as environmentally friendly.
A brief overview of some advantages and disadvantages of the PEF method
- PEF provides information about a product's impact on the environment
- PEF is a comprehensive life cycle assessment tool that assesses all stages of a product’s life, from raw material extraction to end-of-life management
- PEF can be used to compare the relative environmental performance of different products
- PEF can help to identify the most impactful areas to focus on for improvement
- PEF can help inform product development decisions and provide a basis for benchmarking a product’s environmental performance
- PEF is a complex tool which can be costly and time-consuming to implement, requiring expertise and resources for data collection and analysis
- PEF does not take into account indirect and systemic impacts, such as those related to land use, biodiversity, or social impacts
- PEF is conditionally suitable for food products and beverages due to trade-offs between productivity and sustainability
- PEF may not be able to capture the local environmental impact of a product, as it does not take into account regional differences in environmental regulations and standards
- PEF might be confused with a person’s ecological footprint or with other sustainability assessment methods
- Due to its complexity, PEF results can be difficult to interpret in a meaningful way.
Authors: Friedrich Leitgeb & Richard Petrasek
 The PEF looks at the following environmental impact categories: climate change, ozone depletion, water use, energy use, land use, ecosystem quality, air quality, soil contamination, noise pollution, waste generated, and resource depletion.