Measuring The Environmental Footprint Of Organisations In The PEF Initiative

In 2013, the European Commission started testing the environmental footprint rules in what is known as the environmental footprint (PEF) pilot phase. However, this pilot phase contains more than just PEF. Although the focus is predominantly on the product level (24 out of 26 pilots), this 3-year initiative also aims to test the development of environmental footprint rules for organisations. In this article, I will briefly describe the organisational environmental footprint (OEF) in the European Commission’s initiative.

By Marisa Vieira on September 05, 2016

The European Commission developed methods for assessing the environmental performance of products, services and organisations. These methods are based on a comprehensive assessment of environmental impacts of the life cycle of the entity being assessed. The OEF method is a general method to measure and communicate the potential life cycle environmental impact of an organisation. The aim is to make it easier for organisations to monitor and communicate their performance.


Developing Sector-specific Rules

Just as is being done for product assessment, the pilot phase is developing sector-specific guidance for calculating and reporting the life cycle impacts of organisations, the organisation environmental footprint sector rules (OEFSR). The OEFSRs help focus OEF studies on those aspects that are most relevant in determining the environmental performance of an organisation in a given sector, thereby reducing the time, effort and money needed to do an OEF study. Two pilots are currently testing the development of OEFSRs, namely the pilots on copper production and retail.


Defining The Organisation And Product Portfolio

The PEF and OEF methods, including PEFCRs and OEFSRs, are methodologically consistent. But an OEF study has a number of elements that are exclusive to an organisational study. The most important ones are Organisational and OEF system boundaries; and definition of the organisation and product portfolio, which we will discuss here.


An OEF study is intended to provide a measure of the potential environmental pressures related to the provision of products by the organisation. This requires a reference unit for assessment, parallel to the concept of “functional unit” in an LCA study. The organisation is the reference unit for an OEF analysis. For the purpose of calculating the OEF, the function of an organisation is to provide goods and services over a specified reporting interval. The organisation and its product portfolio define the system boundaries.


The product portfolio is defined similarly to the functional unit in the PEF. It encompasses the functions and services provided (“what”), the extent of the functions and services (“how much”), the expected level of quality (“how well”), and the life time or duration of the products and services (“for how long”). Additionally, in an OEF study, the reporting interval should be one year, clearly defined (e.g. 2015).


I’ll define PRé, as an example, following the rules in the OEF method:




PRé Consultants B.V.

Goods/services sector

Sustainability software and consultancy services

Locations of operation


NACE codes*

M71.1.2 - Engineering activities and related technical consultancy

Product portfolio

Functions and services provided

Sustainability software tools and consultancy services

Extent of functions and services

Tools and consultancy services sold in the reporting period




The duration of the service contracts

Reporting period


* NACE is a system for statistically classifying economic activities in Europe, similar to ISIC (the international system). The principal activity is the activity which contributes most to the added value of the organisation


Organisational And OEF Boundaries

The system boundaries need to include and clearly distinguish both the organisational boundaries (corresponding to the activities under control of the organisation) and OEF boundaries (specifying which aspects of the value chain are included in the analysis). The two sets of boundaries define which aspects are included in the environmental performance assessment.



Organisational Boundaries

Organisational boundaries are defined to encompass all facilities and associated processes that are fully or partially owned or operated by the organisation and that directly contribute to the provision of the product portfolio. This implies that the organisation being evaluated should be able to leverage direct access to specific data for activities in the organisational boundaries. These are then considered “direct” activities and impacts. This is traditionally defined as gate-to-gate system boundaries.


OEF Boundaries

The OEF boundaries are defined by considering the value chain of the organisation and its product portfolio. The OEF boundaries include, at a minimum, the site-level (direct) and upstream (indirect) activities associated with the organisation’s product portfolio. By default, OEF boundaries are cradle-to-grave, including all upstream and downstream activities from raw material acquisition to processing, production, distribution, storage, use and end-of-life treatment of the product portfolio. If downstream or indirect activities are excluded (e.g. use stage of intermediate products or products with an undeterminable fate), this requires explicit justification.


Now, let’s think about the OEF of a retailer that sells a wide variety of products, considering that the complete value chain has to be assessed for each product, up to the OEF boundaries of the retailer… Quite a challenge, right? Luckily, integration with the PEF studies can save the day. Once there are PEFCRs for all product groups and average models for their “representative products”, this exercise will be much easier. The retailer will be able to focus its data collection efforts only on its direct activities and impacts – its organisational boundaries – but, at the same time, the retailer will be able to identify the actors in the value chain to engage with to reduce its OEF boundaries. I guess this is what the European Commission is going for.


Why Should We Make The Effort?

Starting an OEF study is quite an endeavour. There have to be solid benefits to OEF studies, or we wouldn’t even think about doing one.


Some of the applications and benefits of doing an OEF (retrieved from Commission Recommendation 2013/179/EU):

  • optimisation of processes along the whole supply chain of an organisation’s product portfolio;
  • communication of life cycle environmental performance to interested parties (e.g. through annual reports, in sustainability reporting);
  • entering reputational schemes that give visibility to organisations calculating their life cycle environmental performance, or to organisations improving their life cycle environmental performance over time (e.g. year on year);
  • being able to join schemes requiring reporting on life cycle environmental performance;
  • being able to provide information on life cycle environmental performance and objectives in the framework of an environmental management system;
  • providing incentives based on improvement of life cycle environmental performance as calculated based on the OEF method.


Future Outlook

The OEF pilot phase is exploring whether it is possible to compare two similar organisations operating in the same sector, or, in case of organisations covering several sectors, to compare the performance of business units.


Given the variance of product portfolios from organisation to organisation, I believe that comparison across organisations won’t be possible. However, I think that OEF results constitute a good tool for monitoring environmental performance, particularly when the results are expressed per selling unit or per unit of revenue.


Learn More About PEF

If you want to learn more about PRé’s role in the PEF initiative, please send me an e-mail. See other episodes of this series:

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“The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive.”

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Marisa Vieira
Marisa Vieira
Principal Consultant
'Making informed decisions'
For PROSUITE, PRé helped develop a novel sustainability impact assessment method for technology, including social impact assessment and new sustainability metrics. This helps understand the effect of these hard-to-predict technologies.