Companies constantly tout products as sustainable, eco-friendly, or green. But there are no set definitions for these generic terms and no requirement to back up the claims. Without a standard meaning to define these buzzwords, how can you choose between two products that both claim to be green?
This is where an environmental product declaration (EPD) comes into play. EPDs are standardized, third-party verified documents that communicate the results of a product's lifecycle assessment (LCA), including all relevant performance information.
A product's EPD is based on its LCA. LCAs include information on sourcing of raw materials, transporting the raw materials to the manufacturing plant, the manufacturing process, shipping and transportation modes and materials, construction and installation onsite, the product's use and maintenance, and recycling, disposing of, or repurposing the product at the end of its life.
Though nearly unheard of, LCAs and EPDs are still valuable tools for facility managers charged with greening their organizations because these vehicles for green information deliver a standardized method for evaluation.
America Adopts EPDs
After gaining wide acceptance in multiple markets around the world, EPDs are slowly catching on in the U.S. "In the United States, manufacturers are stepping forward proactively to catch up with the amount of work that's being done in Asia and in the European Union on EPDs," says Deborah Dunning, president and CEO of The Green Standard, a third-party verifier of EPDs. "In those parts of the world, there are a great many more EPDs in place, in part because there have been strong government directives recommending and even requiring environmental product declarations."
Interface, Inc. is one of many companies creating and publishing EPDs for its products. "Interface has been using LCA since 2000 to help us understand our environmental footprint and drive product development toward more environmentally sustainable materials," says Connie Hensler, director of Corporate LCA Programs for Interface. "We only began publishing third-party verified LCA results in EPDs for select products in 2009. We have committed to publishing EPDs on our products by 2012."
There are several driving forces encouraging American manufacturers to voluntarily adopt EPDs. After Executive Order 13514 – which requires federal government agencies to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and leverage federal purchasing power to promote sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services – was issued in 2009, government agencies began to use EPDs in order to meet the order's requirements. In addition, the LEED system will give credits for selecting products that have EPDs starting sometime in 2012, according to Dunning: "As I understand it from comments made by Scot Horst, who oversees the LEED program for the USGBC, and by his staff, the Materials & Resources Technical Advisory group is looking at providing credits for the selection of products that have an LCA-based EPD."
"One of the distinctive things about an EPD is that by definition, it is meant to encompass all relevant performance information of a given product type and a given brand product," explains Dunning. "That means, in addition to environmental performance, which is captured by the product LCA, an EPD will also include information on mechanical, safety, human health, and any other issues that are of particular importance for that product."
Defined and regulated by International Standard Organization (ISO) Standard 14025, an EPD must meet certain criteria. Explained by Dunning, "ISO Standard 14025 has 3 core requirements. These requirements include that the manufacturer uses product category rules (PCRs), which are essentially the rules of the road that shape what data is collected, measured, and then reported in the product LCA; that the PCRs are used to develop and verify the product LCA; and that the entire report is expert-certified and signed and posted with an EPD program operator, like The Green Standard."
Meeting the ISO requirements means that each EPD encompasses these 5 characteristics:
- An EPD is objective because it relies on scientifically accepted and valid methods used for LCA, which have been set by international environmental experts.
- An EPD is neutral because it provides all of the relevant information pertaining to the product performance instead of relying on predetermined environmental performance levels.
- An EPD is flexible because its contents can be amended following external review and verification.
- An EPD is comparable to other EPDs because the product data used is collected, analyzed, and reported in compliance with ISO PCRs and LCA methodology.
- An EPD is trustworthy as it requires review and verification by an independent expert, in addition to registration and public posting in an ISO-compliant EPD system.
Set Apart from Other Standards
By using the methodology set by ISO, standard comparison between the EPDs for different products is possible, says Joakim Thornéus, head of the International EPD System in Sweden. This uniformity and the ability to cross-compare is what sets EPDs apart from other green standards.
With other certification programs and Type I eco-labels, certain benchmarks are set. A product has to meet X for water efficiency and X for energy efficiency to be eligible for a level of certification. You will know the level of the product and roughly what targets must be hit to reach that level, but you won't know specifics – like what the water efficiency of the product is or how much energy went into making the product.
"Unlike the BIFMA level standard – which tells you whether a certain chair has met silver, gold, or platinum level, but doesn't transparently give you the data used for each of those levels – it simply says it has been reviewed and certified," explains Dunning. "So you're getting a summary, but you're not seeing all of the details."
A Type I eco-label (like BIFMA) shows no detailed information. The product is simply certified by BIFMA as obtaining a certain level of greenness. This type of eco-label differs greatly from EPDs, which are Type III eco-labels. Type III eco-labels offer detailed information about the environmental impact of a product, and the information has been verified by an independent third party. It's up to you to determine the greenness of the product.
So what does this mean for a facility manager? "EPDs are a communication tool intended to communicate all of the attributes and the performance of a given product to the marketplace in a specific manner that meets ISO Standard 14025," says Dunning. "It's a single source for all relevant performance information, saving a specifier or purchaser from having to go to 4 or 5 different sources."
This means that instead of digging around for environmental impact information and having to interpret whatever you can find, the information is at your fingertips with an EPD. "Rather than having to identify 10 or more different documents to understand different aspects of a product's performance, it is possible to find them integrated into a single source," she says.
"You're going to see the exact numbers and how much energy was used and what source the energy comes from," she explains. "But it isn't going to peg it or put it in a box and say that it's silver, gold, or platinum. The facility manager has much more information – often given in graphs – but it doesn't say good, better, best. You decide."
Read for Relevance
When comparing two similar products with EPDs, look at the aspects that are most important to you and your facility to help you choose the best. "Let's say you're a property owner primarily on the West Coast," Dunning explains. "Water efficiency is probably going to be more important than energy efficiency because of the cost of water and because water is so scarce."
Before using an EPD to help you make a product selection, first decide what aspects are most important to you. Because EPDs include a wide range of environmental impact information and are easily comparable to each other, they provide a simple tool to determine which product or service really is the best fit for your facility. Use EPDs to your advantage in making sustainable purchasing decisions.
EPDs meet the increasing requirements for metrics, verification, and reporting on a relatively new scale of how sustainable the purchasing options are.
"EPDs are an important addition to the toolbox of manufacturers and purchasers of building products, in that they offer a process for collecting performance information and making it available as the basis for decision making," continues Dunning. "They offer a new level of objectivity, flexibility, and transparency, which the marketplace seems to need and want in order to move forward to the next level of green production and green consumption. EPDs offer manufacturers and purchasers a valuable opportunity to advance their use of global sustainable best practices – best practices in the area of product eco-design, evaluation, and selection."
Relevance for Reporting
Because EPDs communicate all relevant environmental impact information throughout the product's entire lifecycle, facility managers can easily use the contents for their own education and communication needs. "I see LCA-based EPDs serving as a key part of green procurement programs among government agencies and large corporations," says Dunning. "I think that many companies and federal agencies are wanting to increase the level of reporting they're doing on their procurement. EPDs provide the kind of information that's very useful to corporations in their CSR and sustainability reports."
If all building products used in your facility had EPDs, you could use that information to determine your building's environmental footprint. "The environmental footprint of an entire building could be determined if EPDs were available for all of the components," Hensler says. "But today, there are not EPDs available for everything. The best course of action for building owners and facility managers is to request EPDs and preferentially purchase products that provide that level of information."
You can help transform the marketplace by demanding the transparency and environmental information provided by EPDs, she concludes. "When EPDs are commonplace, the market will begin to select products with lower environmental footprints and drive us toward a more sustainable future. As we look at food labels today to consider the calorie or fiber content, in the future, we hope purchasers will scrutinize the products they buy for their carbon or water footprint." B
Kylie Wroblaski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.