Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) describe the impact of products on the environment and help consumers to make informed, green choices. A life cycle assessment (LCA) made by a verified third party determines the EPD and facilitates the comparison of the environmental impacts of goods and services.
Consumers have a lot to be skeptical about in the rapidly growing green economy. Wherever there’s money to be made, there are people willing to take advantage. So it’s no surprise that many companies with not-so-green intentions have been making a lot of money while doing very little (in some cases nothing at all) for the environment.
With increased consumer skepticism and a continued influx of green products on the market, a number of certification systems have emerged. From single-attribute programs that focus on one product in particular, such as Forest Stewardship Council’s certification of wood products, to multi-attribute programs that assess a number of factors, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which are intended to effect consumer choice by providing a clear comparison among competing products and services.
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are multi-attribute reports that provide a standardized life cycle assessment (LCA) of a product, service, or system from raw material extraction to disposal, to give an accurate assessment of that product's effects on the environment. For consumers wanting to know just what impact a product has on greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, or water pollution, an LCA can inform them.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
As consumers think in terms of LCAs, the demand for more highly sustainable products will increase, and the various industries will respond by providing them. An example of how the market drives change can be found in the fast food industry. As consumers have become better informed and have demanded healthier choices, McDonald's and other fast food giants have started offering healthier food options. A healthy shift occurred as a response to changing consumer preferences.
However, Environmental Product Declarations determining the impact that an office chair has on the environment isn’t quite the same as finding out the health effects of eating a hamburger. We know that a burger with x number of calories will cause us to put on x number of pounds, but assessing how far the many parts of a chair travelled, the impact of the labor that went into assembling those parts, and the effects of disposal are not as easy to quantify, which is why EPDs utilize such strict guidelines.
Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) Guidelines
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines EPD criteria under standard 14025. Manufacturers need to follow product category rules (PCRs), which are a set of guidelines that determine what information is used to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA). LCAs are made by any of a number of qualified third parties, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or The International EPD System.
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) aren’t like ENERGY STAR or other eco-labels that are designed to give consumers a minimal amount of information at a glance. They follow a report format intended to provide a full understanding of a product’s sustainability over its complete life cycle. These reports don’t have the marketability that a label has because they don’t instantly tell a consumer that a product has met a certain benchmark or achieved a certain grade like an EcoLogo or ENERGY STAR rating, which is why they’re mostly used by procurement departments and less of a concern to typical consumers.
Interface, a designer and manufacturer of carpet tile, uses Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for its products. Interface's director of sustainable strategy Melissa Vernon likens an EPD to a nutrition label on a donut. An EPD can be given to unsustainable products, and it’s up to the consumer to compare EPDs to determine the relative sustainability of different products. (Certification with an eco-label provides a clear stamp of approval that consumers can instantly recognize.) So EPDs are less a branding tool and more an informing tool. Their strength lies in the comprehensive package of information they provide about a product’s entire life cycle and the legitimacy that such transparency provides. Vernon suggests that companies get both an EPD and a certification for their products, so that they can offer consumers both kinds of information.
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in Practice
Scandinavian Business Seating (SBS) uses EPDs for its office chairs. Laura Fouilland, environmental consultant at SBS, trusts EPDs because they are widely accepted and make it easier for consumers to compare the environmental impacts of various products. “The EPD is a good tool for really serious customers that are looking for products with the lowest environmental impact,” she says. “We think that talking about the environmental performance of products is nothing if you can't prove the facts with documentation.”
By showing low scores, particularly on two key indicators—accumulated energy consumption based on life cycle assessment (LCA) and carbon emissions—a company proves to consumers that it's focusing on the environment, which makes its selling job that much easier, Fouilland believes. Consumers, she thinks, benefit from EPDs because they know they are getting objective facts, not a sales pitch.
LEED recently ran Pilot Credit 43: Certified Products to reward transparency and ensure that LEED buildings contain a greater proportion of products that have well documented life cycles. LEED's Pilot Credit program is a clear signal that it wants to drive the shift in consumer demand toward truly sustainable products.
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are transforming the market for green products. As customers demand more transparency from manufacturers, they become better informed and more confident of their purchases. Since happy customers are willing to speak highly of the products they’ve bought, companies that take the extra step to obtain EPDs get valuable word-of-mouth advertising. In the end all benefit – the manufacturer, consumer, environment, and the industry as a whole.