If Greenbuild 2011 was any indication, transparency is the hot new topic in the green building industry. This buzzword was flying all around the convention center filled with building product manufacturers, architects, designers, specifiers and building owner/occupiers. Recently, it appeared in a new LEED pilot credit and was seen in the second draft release of LEED 2012. And all signs indicate that it is here to stay.

However, for many, the meaning behind transparency is vague, and the path to achieving transparency is even more unclear.

Transparency is a valuable concept. The general idea is that 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.


A Tool for Transparency

One of the most sophisticated transparency tools used today is an ISO 14025-compliant environmental product declaration (EPD). An environmental product declaration is a third-party certified, internationally recognized, single comprehensive disclosure of a product’s environmental impacts throughout its life cycle. An EPD reports the results of a product’s life-cycle 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 the depletion of abiotic resources. Additionally, an EPD can include other pertinent 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 is to be included in the EPD and the rules for conducting the LCA on which the EPD is based. PCRs provide detailed instructions covering what data is collected and measured in the LCA, and how the LCA results are reported. In addition, PCRs outline what additional information is reported in the EPD. This could include health, indoor air quality, safety or performance information. In order for EPDs to be viable on a regional and global level, it is important that product manufacturers in the same category use the same PCR to create an EPD. If we want to ensure comparability between products in different categories, we need to make sure PCRs are aligned.

Environmental product declarations heighten the utility of the LCA because PCRs help to standardize the data collection process. Once the PCR identifies the key attributes to be commonly shared within the EPD, collecting data for the LCA becomes much 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. If EPDs in the same product category are not based on a common PCR they will not be comparable. Industries and EPD program operators (those creating PCRs and certifying EPDs) must work together to ensure PCRs are not duplicated and that EPDs are created following global guidelines.


EPD Adoption in the Building Industry

The architecture and design community is increasingly seeking products that can provide comprehensive, credible sustainability information. Inquiries for third-party verified, life cycle-based product impact data such as material use, energy use, water use and carbon footprint are on the rise.

Forward-thinking architecture and design firms are asking manufacturers for EPDs and incorporating EPD information into specifications.

The USGBC is also recognizing the need for transparency-based tools. On June 15, 2011, the Certified Products and Materials Pilot Credit (Pilot Credit 43) was released, encouraging the use of environmentally preferable products and promoting transparency. The pilot credit outlines two pathways for contribution: the certification pathway and the EPD pathway. The certification pathway rewards manufacturers for verifying environmental claims with a third party and for obtaining single- and multi-attribute product certifications. The EPD pathway promotes product transparency by allocating credit to products with accompanying life-cycle assessment data or third-party certified EPDs.

The USGBC’s push for transparency is also seen in the latest draft release of LEED 2012. The proposed Materials and Resources Transparency Credit rewards products with accompanying ISO 14025-compliant EPDs.

In addition to the USGBC, Architecture 2030 is encouraging disclosure of life cycle-based product impact information and reduction of product carbon footprint through the Architecture 2030 Challenge for Products. According to the Architecture 2030 website, “the raw resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, construction, usage and end-of-life stages of building products each generate significant GHG emissions. Slowing the growth rate of GHG emissions and then reversing it is the key to addressing climate change.” To accomplish this, Architecture 2030 asked the global architecture, planning, design and building community to adopt carbon reduction targets.

International markets are also adopting EPDs. The BREEAM green building rating system encourages transparency through the use of EPDs, and in France the government-backed Environment Round Table (Le Grenelle Environnement) is encouraging the use of EPDs through government mandates. The European Committee for Standardization recently released a guideline to standardize the creation of building industry product category rules with the grand vision to use single EPDs to build full building footprints. If you understand the life-cycle impact of all of the products in your building, you can use this information to determine a building’s total environmental footprint.

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.


How is an EPD Created?

Creating an EPD is a multi-step process. First, one must search for available PCRs. PCRs describe the scope and methodology for performing an LCA, the data foundation for an EPD, and provide detailed requirements for additional environmental and health information disclosure. Therefore, the first step in creating a compliant EPD is to find an applicable PCR 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. At the moment, PCRs are tricky to track down. If you are having difficulty finding a PCR, call an EPD program operator. They will be able to assist you.

Second, once the appropriate PCR is determined, the manufacturer must conduct and independently verify a product life-cycle assessment. A range of factors is used to assess a product’s environmental performance. Such factors include 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. Often, manufacturers choose to work with a life-cycle assessment consulting firm to accomplish this task. In order to complete an EPD, this LCA must be independently verified. According to ISO 14025, LCA verification can be done internally or externally.

Once the applicable PCR has been identified or developed and an LCA completed and verified, an EPD can then 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. Working with a credible EPD program operator will ensure this step is completed accurately.


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.


Only Part of the Solution

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. Over time, we will be able to use the information in EPDs to determine environmental preferability and create more accurate baselines for environmental performance. However, the intent of an EPD is not to replace multi-attribute sustainability certifications that indicate environmental preferability.

Ultimately, it is the combination of a multi-attribute performance-based certification that indicates environmental preferability with a third-party certified EPD that provides both an indication that a product is environmentally preferable and helps the end user understand the product’s impacts throughout its life cycle.


Where Do I Start?

You have the ability to transform the industry and meet customer request for more robust sustainability information. In order to fulfill potential LEED requirements, start requesting ISO 14025-compliant EPDs from product manufacturers. If you are interested in learning more about EPDs and transparency, feel free to reach out to UL Environment by emailing us at epd@ulenvironment.com. As an EPD program operator, we offer EPD educational workshops both in-person and online.