New forum to tackle environmental 'footprint' of every-day goods

20th June 2012

Ground-breaking research will be at the heart of a unique collaboration by retailers, suppliers, environmental charities, academics and UK governments to tackle the challenges posed by the environmental impact of every-day products.

The Product Sustainability Forum (PSF) brings together more than 80 organisations to take the lead on addressing environmental and sustainability issues that arise from making and selling products.  Greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, water use, reliance on raw materials, product-related waste and packaging will all come under the spotlight.

Taking a joined-up approach to researching, measuring, communicating and reducing the environmental impact of a range of consumer goods - from dairy products and DIY materials to soft drinks and tinned groceries - the group’s focus will span the whole of a product’s life.

Set up by WRAP in response to discussions with industry and governments, the forum is chaired by the organisation’s chief executive, Dr Liz Goodwin. She said:  “The scale of the challenge is enormous. For example, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the retail sector alone accounts for around 3.5% of the UK’s carbon emissions, and the retail supply chain, for more than 30%.

“Many companies already measure the environmental impact of their products but until now, this has always been done in isolation, and the methodology and results have not been shared. By working together, we have a real opportunity to minimise the effect our activities have on the planet.”

The PSF is the first organisation of its kind in the UK, and demonstrates the desire and determination that exists to look at better ways of managing resources. The approach marks a shift away from simply concentrating on a single issue like packaging, towards a focus on a product’s whole life.

The forum believes that improving the environmental performance of products will deliver a number of benefits – reducing costs, improving resource efficiency, and securing the future supply of products for consumer use.

“With the current focus on the challenges of sustainability being discussed at the Rio+20 Summit this week, and the UK’s own carbon targets very much in mind, the group will play a critical role in both driving down CO2 emissions and reducing other environmental impacts of the way we resource, manufacture and sell goods,” said Liz.

The PSF is currently assessing the evidence, and identifying grocery and DIY products where there’s most opportunity to improve environmental performance.

“This is not only about identifying the products themselves, but also where in the lifecycle any action would have the most effect,” said Liz.

The next step will be the publication of a report which identifies priorities for action, along with plans developed by member organisations to tackle these. The report is due to be published in the autumn.

Added Liz: “The PSF vision is that every-day products should be designed with resource efficiency in mind, minimising environmental impact and encouraging sustainable consumption and production. With more than 80 organisations supporting these goals, along with the support from all the UK governments, we’re determined to make progress towards this vision a reality.”

This is the first collaboration of its kind in the UK. “It’s pretty unusual – if not unique – to see so many major organisations and brands working alongside one another and sharing best practice in order to find ways of making better use of all our resources,” said Liz.

“This demonstrates just how seriously organisations are taking the issue of sustainability and the impact of their manufacturing and retail processes.”

As well as its focus on key products sold to consumers in the UK, the PSF is forging links with other national and international organisations to share learning and avoid duplication of effort.

“This is particularly important for organisations which have markets and operations beyond the UK, as well as bringing benefits to other groups and countries keen to address the environmental impact of their own products,” said Liz.

“The Product Sustainability Forum is an excellent example of collaboration between businesses, NGOs, academics and Government. Together we can analyse and understand the complex range of environmental issues associated with thousands of every-day products and work towards improving them.”       

Environment Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach

“Global pressure on resources means we have to act now - both to save on significant costs and address climate change.  This will require some fundamental changes in how we design and use every-day products - and beyond that how we change to a more ‘circular’ economy, where materials are used again and again. That's why the Scottish Government is glad to support the Product Sustainability Forum and is keen that its approach will encourage businesses into practical action.

“In Scotland we are also clear that we need to consider all resources – energy, materials, water and waste - within this mix and we are taking steps to bring together our support to businesses in this area.”

Richard Lochhead, Environment Secretary, Scottish Government

“The Welsh Government is currently updating the ecological footprint for Wales. I am delighted to support WRAP's initiative and look forward to reading the report later this year.

"While emission reduction commitments focus on production-based emission targets, we recognise the significance of emissions produced by goods and services we import into Wales. This is reflected in our Climate Change Strategy and it is why we're committed to reporting on Wales' ecological footprint as one of our five headline indicators of sustainable development."

John Griffiths, Environment Minister, Welsh Government

“This new collaboration will help businesses find the best ways to manufacture, transport, store, display and dispose of a wide range of products so they have the smallest possible impact on the planet. It’s truly ground-breaking.”

Bob Gordon, British Retail Consortium Head of Environment

“Using resources more efficiently is key to delivering sustainable growth and has been at the core of FDF’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition since its inception nearly five years ago. We see the Product Sustainability Forum as building on the work we are already doing to promote life-cycle thinking across our supply chains, helping us to produce more, from less and with less environmental impact to meet the twin challenges of climate change and food security. It is only through this sort of collaborative action that we will achieve the scale of change required, here and in other markets where we are competing to supply sustainable, safe and affordable food.”

Andrew Kuyk, Director, Sustainability and Competitiveness Division, Food and Drink Federation

Full list of PSF members and Q&As:   www.wrap.org.uk/psf

Facts & figures

  • On average for every tonne of products we consume, 10 tonnes of fuel and materials have been used, rising to 100 tonnes if we include water.
  • In the last 30 years, the amount of basic resources (fossil fuels, metals, minerals, timber and other crops) that we extract from the environment has increased by 50% and is projected to rise by a further 40% in the next 20 years. The majority of these resources were not recaptured.
  • Of all of the resources flowing into the global economy (materials and energy) less than 2% was retained in the economy for more than six months, with the rest going to waste. 
                                  (Biffa - mass balance studies from 1998 – 2006)
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that in most countries, household consumption, over the lifecycle of products, accounts for more than 60% of all of the impacts of consumption.
  • Earlier UNEP studies suggest that a doubling of wealth leads to 80% higher carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions
  • In 2009 UK households dispose of 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink waste every year (source: WRAP; 2011 figs show this figure has fallen to 7.2m). Food waste leads to additional waste – of the water and energy that was used to grow and process those foods. It also creates greenhouse gas emissions, and has a range of other environmental impacts.
  • The water footprint of the UK calculates the amount of water used to produce goods and services consumed in the UK. Previous research by WWF-UK (Chapagain & Orr 2008) says the water footprint of the UK is 102,000 million cubic metres of water per year. WRAP/WWF research shows that, based on the 2009 food waste figures, that the water footprint of avoidable food waste is 6,200 million cubic metres per year- nearly 6% of all our water requirements
  • It’s estimated that avoidable food waste is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions of 20 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, accounting for the whole lifecycle. Avoidable food waste represents approximately 3% of the UK‟s domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast to the water footprint, approximately two thirds of emissions associated with food waste occur within the UK.