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Product Environmental Footprint Policy: Are We There Yet?

pax, sara, bluehorse associatesUnfortunately I didn’t get to go to Berlin this year. The annual (and sometimes semi-annual) Product Environmental Footprinting (PEF) World Forum conferences in Berlin focusing on carbon footprinting, environmental measurement, and consumer communications for sustainability have been interesting events to attend over the years to learn about what people are talking about in the industry, what’s happening on the legislative side, and to meet up with colleagues and partners who practice in the field. I skipped the past couple of events primarily because I felt that they were spending too much time focusing on consumer communications (on which I, of course, have strong opinions, but that’s for another column) and much less on practical application. This year, however, things started to look a little more interesting. This year, the forum focused on bringing together all the different environmental measurement leaders – consortiums, trade associations, regional and national agencies, etc – to talk about consolidation in an effort to reduce confusion, mistrust, and unwanted competitive feelings among agencies. And I thought this might be worth hearing about.

Who’s in the room?

The fates conspired to keep me away from the PEF conference, and therefore I kept up with the proceedings through tweets, LinkedIn excerpts, and most usefully, the videos of the presentations posted on You Tube. Fortunately, with all these options available, I was able to feel updated on the latest news regarding the EU pilot and the efforts at consolidation. Not so fortunately, it reminded me of an ironic joke that I’ve referred to in the past – the one about how many people do you need to consult to decide on the paint color of the room; if it’s 9 or more the color will undoubtedly end up being beige. Well, imagine a “Steering Committee” (i.e. a committee that is supposed to decide on operational tactics and “steer”) which is designed to include representatives of 28 EU member countries, 7 EU candidate countries, 12 industry trade associations, 27 volunteer companies  involved in the pilot phase, and various and other sundry representatives, and consider how this group of people will make a decision on the standard for environmental footprints for products.  This is the announced makeup of the Steering Committee of the EU’s Environmental Footprint pilot, one of the main reasons  why industry players were convened in Berlin. Add to this representatives from environmental agencies from the US, UK, France, German, Japan and so on and consider how confident you are that this group can come up with meaningful, long-ranging, change-making regulations for how the world does business. This key EU pilot program has just launched and has a timeline to finish by the end of 2016. In 2017, the pilot will be peer-reviewed and discussed, and then they will consider how the results of the pilot can influence policy changes in Europe. And we know that businesses will only truly integrate sustainability at every level of operations when there is a real risk of breaking the law (or as one futurist put it a few years ago, when Florida disappears under water).

Instead of taking on profitable innovation, our business leaders are awaiting risk and fines. I am overwhelmingly depressed by the realities of this “Steering Committee” and the timeline of this pilot. How can the world face the problems like wasteful operational practices and issues that climate change is already causing such as food shortages, droughts, floods, fires, corruption, emigration, political upheaval, and prolonged economic uncertainty, at that molasses-like rate of change? Perhaps, it is possible that in the larger scheme of the world, four years isn’t that much and that, even at this snail’s pace, we could end up with concrete results that will inspire real change in global industry. But can we truly wait that long to find out?

Start Small, Save Big

My editor always cautions me to end my opinion-editorials (aka rants) on a high note, but sometimes I have difficulty thinking of a positive angle. This time, even more so. I guess my only advice to businesses in the face of this reality is to think small, small enough to make a real difference in your team, your brands and your business . Bite off small pieces and chew them thoughtfully and carefully, tackling them one at a time. Make changes at levels that you can document, witness, testify to, and that you can profit from. Change light bulbs, increase recycling efforts, examine operating procedures to find efficiencies that save money, lower emissions and reduce waste, collaborate where appropriate, and don’t just rely on the possibility that regional, national, and international agencies that will catch up – hopefully – eventually.

The one positive that I can confirm from the EU pilot is that companies who have already started some  environmental measurement on their own, reported saving 40% or more on the costs of implementing new sustainability programs once they were mandated by their clients or governments. So, start small, start now, and save money.

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry, featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting and reporting, product portfolio assessments, product carbon footprinting, and lifecycle analysis. Carbonostics received a 4.5 star rating in the 2013 Environmental Leader Technology Review. For more on Carbonostics “best-in-class” technology, visit: www.carbonostics.com

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