The Future of Product Sustainability

In early October 2013,  I attended the first Product Environmental Footprint World Summit. The event, hosted by Thema1, took place in a small village outside Berlin and it brought together about 140 experts from industry, consulting companies, governments and NGOs. The small number of people and the focus on a specific methodology – how to benchmark the sustainability of products and organisations – reminded me of my experience in the early days of the development of ISO Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) standards. When we worked on those standards in the mid-nineties there was a small group of technical experts interested in see this relatively new methodology become the method for measuring environmental performance of products. We came from all over the world and we agreed on the need for a standard but we did not necessarily agree on the specifics of what should be included in it.

At the Berlin meeting the echo of the LCA standards development was strong. The main product environmental footprint (PEF) methodology being discussed was developed by the European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Centre and it was largely a child of the ISO LCA standards – stronger and more confident – but clearly related.  The most significant differences between the most recent update to the ISO LCA standards (ISO 14040/14044) and the PEF are improvements in how data quality is measured and a more prescriptive approach to choosing impact categories. And similar to those early days in ISO there was a lot of discussion of alternate approaches. Representatives from The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), the Product Sustainability Forum (PSF) and PE-International talked about a hot spot approach to measuring and improving sustainability performance. Their approach is informed by available life cycle data and studies but the method is focused more directly on how to improve the products being evaluated.  In my view the hot spot approach is more amenable to measuring product sustainability across a broader range of issues (e.g., social performance aspects and looking at benefits as well as impacts) and it helps decision-makers – both the makers and the purchasers of products – focus on the most important performance aspects.  If the EC’s PEF methodology is the child of the LCA standards the hot spot approach is the grandchild, and like a lot of the members of a third generation, it not only benefits from all the work done by  previous generations, it improves on it.

For my part, I had the opportunity to present my thoughts on how future generations might evaluate product sustainability.  In the attached presentation What’s Next in Product Transparency and Sustainable Material, I speculate that in the near future we might see a more sophisticated version of current measurement approaches that merges information on costs, performance, life cycle impacts, other environmental issues as well as the social impacts and benefits of products and the companies that make them. The presentation is, in part, a reaction to methods that claim to measure sustainability but are actually focused on a limited set of environmental impacts.  If you have any thoughts on these musings please send me an email.

One last similarity of the PEF World Summit to the ISO LCA meetings was a feeling in the back of my mind that a broader approach to measuring product sustainability could be completely overwhelmed by a single issue – climate change. Indeed, if the scenarios currently being contemplated by climate scientists come to pass, how to more effectively measure the sustainability of products will be the least of our problems.