Transparency is one of the hot new topics in the green building industry, and it is a valuable concept. It boils down to this: If we are privy to social, environmental and health-related information about products and the companies that produce them, we are better equipped to make smart purchasing decisions. However, for many, the meaning behind transparency is vague and the path to achieving it is also unclear.

A Tool for Transparency
One of the most sophisticated transparency tools used today is an ISO 14025-compliant environmental product declaration (EPD). This is a third-party certified, internationally recognized, comprehensive disclosure of a product’s environmental impacts throughout its lifecycle. An EPD reports the results of a product’s lifecycle assessment (LCA) as well as other information relevant to a product’s impact profile. Typically, an EPD will include information on a product’s carbon footprint and its potential impact on global warming, ozone depletion, acidification of land and water, eutrophication (an impact of water pollution), photochemical ozone creation, and any depletion of abiotic resources. Additionally, an EPD can include information pertaining to sustainability, health, performance or durability.

EPDs are considered a Type III Ecolabel as defined by ISO 14025, and they are most often linked to the concept of a nutrition label. When created following ISO 14025 guidelines, EPDs promote transparency and facilitate apples-to-apples comparability of impacts among products in the same category. This comparability is possible because they are based on product category rules (PCRs).

PCRs are guidelines that establish what will be included in the environmental product declaration, as well as the rules for conducting the lifecycle assessment on which the environmental product declaration is based. PCRs provide detailed instructions covering what data is collected and measured, and how the lifecycle assessment results are reported. PCRs can also outline any additional information reported in the environmental product declaration, including health, indoor air quality, and safety or performance information. In order for these declarations to be viable on a regional and global level, it is important to make sure PCRs are aligned.

PCRs help to standardize the data collection process. Once the PCR identifies the key attributes to be commonly shared within the environmental product declaration, collecting data for the lifecycle assessment becomes easier and more cost effective. Results from the product category rule-based LCA are then synthesized into what becomes the EPD. In addition, EPDs standardize how information is reported, making it easier for end users to find and understand product information. Standardizing product category rules is vital to the success of EPD adoption in North America.

EPD Adoption in the Building Industry
Forward-thinking architecture and design firms are asking manufactures for EPDs and incorporating EPD information into specifications. The USGBC is also recognizing the need for transparency-based tools. Last summer the Certified Products and Materials Pilot Credit (Pilot Credit 43) was released, encouraging the use of environmentally preferable products and promoting transparency via two pathways for contribution: the certification pathway and the EPD pathway. The USGBC’s push for transparency is also seen in the latest draft release of LEED 2012.

Architecture 2030 is also encouraging disclosure of lifecycle-based product impact information and the reduction of product carbon footprint through the Architecture 2030 Challenge for Products. International markets including Europe are also adopting EPDs. Outside of the EU, Masdar City, a large scale eco-city project in Abu Dhabi, is encouraging the use of EPDs and LCA to evaluate building products used in its construction.

Steps in the EPD development process. Image courtesy of UL Environment.

How is an EPD Created?
The first step in creating a compliant EPD is to find an applicable product category rule for a particular product. If PCRs do not exist for the specific product category, one must work with an EPD program operator (such as UL Environment) to create a new PCR in accordance with ISO 14025.

Once the appropriate PCR is determined, the manufacturer must conduct and independently verify a product lifecycle assessment. A range of factors is used to assess a product’s environmental performance, including energy and resource consumption, waste generation, pollutant emissions, impacts during use, and end-of-life considerations. An LCA provides a structure for identifying and assessing these and other factors. In order to complete an EPD, this LCA must be independently verified. According to ISO 14025, LCA verification can be done internally or externally.

After the applicable PCR has been identified or developed and an LCA completed and verified, an EPD can be prepared. The EPD presents the results of an LCA as well as additional information about the product’s performance and other sustainability information. When an EPD has been completed, it must be submitted to an independent third party for a thorough review, verification and registration of the results presented - and any additional information supplied - per ISO 14025 guidelines.

The Role of the EPD Program Operator
All Type III EPD programs are guided by the requirements set out in ISO 14025. According to the standard, a program operator is responsible for the administration of the entire EPD program, therefore playing a significant role in the program’s effectiveness and acceptance.

One of a program operator’s most important responsibilities is determining whether an existing PCR is sufficient for the assessment at hand or if the development of a new PCR is required. In cases when a new PCR is deemed necessary, a program operator should make every effort to facilitate harmonization with similar documents by adopting content from existing PCRs in the same product category. Efforts to achieve harmonization with existing PCRs, and the reasons for not adopting available content, should be documented in any new PCR.

It is important to note that EPDs are just one tool in the proverbial sustainability toolbox. They are extremely valuable when used to find condensed information on a product’s environmental impact in one easy-to-find location. However, the intent of an EPD is not to replace multi-attribute sustainability certifications that indicate environmental preferability.

You have the ability to meet customer requests for more robust sustainability information. In order to fulfill potential LEED requirements, start requesting ISO 14025 compliant EPDs from product manufacturers. For more information about EDPs you can also reach out to UL Environment by emailing - By Heather Gadonniex, EPD program mgr., UL Environment

NOTE: This story previously ran in a slightly different form inEnvironmental Design + Construction.