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Measure & Monitor the Footprint of 1000s of Product Lines Without Prohibitive Costs

14 October 2013

Read the abridged version of presentation given by Craig Simmons at the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) World Forum on 9th October 2013.

For those of you who don’t know the history of Best Foot Forward, we were established more than 15 years ago in Oxford, England.  We are sustainability consultants with extensive experience of product footprinting. We have calculated more than 100,000 product footprints and advised more than 300 clients across 15 sectors.

In 2005, we received a Queen’s Award for our pioneering work in this area.

Recently we became part of the Anthesis Group – giving us global reach and broadening our range of service offerings.

We are a values-based business and we are always looking to ensure that we are making a difference with our work; helping both our clients and the planet. What we realized some years ago, relating to the subject of this talk, is that you “You cannot save the world one life cycle analysis at a time”. Conventional LCA’s are simply too slow, too expensive and lack business focus.

In other words, they are not scalable.

Businesses are concerned about many things; costs, KPIs, supply chains, technologies, brands, compliance, logistics, hotspots, waste, consumer behaviour, product categories, markets and risk. You rarely hear businesses fret over product life cycle stages. Product analyses need to better address business concerns.

There are many other problems with conventional life cycle thinking. Single product analyses don’t integrate well with existing enterprise databases where much of the necessary raw data resides.  Data sharing both with internal and external stakeholders is problematic. Modelling closed loop processes is also difficult when you are only focused on a single product. Sure, you can use system expansion and other approaches to model circular flows,  up-cycling and down-cycling but you cannot easily see the whole picture.

Quality control between LCAs can also be difficult. Ensuring consistent boundaries, processes and emission factors is more difficult when you have to manage multiple, unrelated individual footprints. There are also issues of transparency, comparability etc. etc.  Many concerns have been raised by earlier speakers.

We believe that many problems with conventional life cycle assessment can be addressed by stepping back from individual product analyses and taking a more holistic view. We call this approach product portfolio footprinting (PPF)– because it considers hundred, thousands or even tens of thousands of products and how they relate to each other.  With PPF the focus is on aggregations of products; categories, brands and markets – not on life cycle stages. At the same time, PPF is about recognising the commonalities between products (raw materials, packaging, logistics etc.). In this way, businesses can better understand where there are impact hotspots across their operations.

The best analogy we can think of is a cookbook. Conventional LCAs focus on the recipes – of which there may be hundreds (each with many variations) in a cookbook. Trying to improve each of these is both time consuming and tiresome. With PPF, we look more at the ingredients of which there are probably fewer than a hundred. Yet by improving the ingredients you can positively impact on all the recipes at once.

PPF has many benefits. It is relatively low cost and quick. It better reflects real life (for example products are sales volume and market adjusted). It is easier to map on to existing enterprise data systems. It is easier to identify hotspots at all levels; process, material, brand, category, market etc. Manipulating product data at a portfolio level makes it easier to maintain consistency and develop scenarios. It is easier to understand the relationship between footprints. Version control is also a whole lot easier than when dealing with individual footprints.

The biggest challenges we have faced are around ‘big data’. Interacting with hundred, thousands or tens of thousands of product footprints at a time is not always straightforward.

You can’t use Excel! (at least not unless your product portfolio is quite small). And the problem with generic big database systems,  that companies would normally use in such circumstances, is that they don’t include footprinting ‘engines’.

Big data also presents its own unique quality assurance problems. Checking one product life cycle for accuracy is difficult enough – but how do you check 100,000? We learned a lot from the methods used to automatically check tax returns, and similarly critical documents, for errors.

Although we hadn’t set out to do this, we ended up working with a Silicon Valley start up company, Footprinter Inc, to design and write software to support PPF and make managing and manipulating tens of thousands of product data possible.

  • Our successes to date include footprinting 700 products to PAS 2050:2008 standard for Crown Paints in five weeks. An average elapsed time of just over 15 minutes per product footprint.
  • For Tesco, we analyzed 70,000 products to GHG Protocol Product Standard by life cycle stage at an average of  around 5 minutes per product.
  • For Coca Cola we completed a Scope 3 footprint for 19 markets in 8 weeks – two days per Country.

Our current work includes applying PPF to new sectors; world class events and construction. Further developing the platform for WRAP’s Products Sustainability Forum, extending the range of metrics covered and integrating new product development. We are also working with the Cool Farm Institute to directly integrate farm level data into portfolio footprints (using the online Cool Farm Tool).

Thank you for reading.

For those joining my follow-up discussion group, I am very happy to answer any questions you may have about PPF. I am also keen for you to share your own experiences of footprinting at scale.

Craig Simmons
Chief Technical Advisor and Founding Member, Anthesis
Co-founder, Best Foot Forward

Email Craig at


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