In 1998, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) created a set of standards for environmental labels and declarations (ISO 14020:2000). As part of these standards, ISO identified three types of environmental labels – Type I, II, and III labels, providing different information to purchasers and different degrees of assurance.
Type I labels, Seal of Approval Labels, are typically awarded by government or private organizations. The labels ensure that the evaluated product meets a set of predetermined criteria and indicate that the product is environmentally preferred. Type II labels, or Self-Declaration labels, deal with one or more environmental aspects of a product (i.e., recycled material content) and are claims made by the manufacturer. Type III labels are Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). An EPD presents environmental information on the life cycle of a product or a system and are often compared to nutrition labels because they are visibly communicating life cycle impact information for a product or a system in a consistent and standardized format. They usually take the form of brochures, rather than a simple label or logo and are designed to provide detailed comparative information to the consumer.
EPDs have been widely used in Japan and the European Union since the 1990s, typically in the construction products industry. The first EPD was registered in the United States in 2009 and the program has been slowly gaining traction. More than 50 EPDs were prepared in 2012 while just a handful of EPDs were performed in the US previously. Much of the increased interest is due to the fact that LEED certified building projects can now benefit from the revised US Green Building Counsel’s LEED Standard which gives credit to using products that have EPDs. As a result, this recent uptick in the number of registered EPDs have sparked interest in many industrial sectors, including the building construction product sector.
The EPD Process
1) Identify the Program Operator
When a company is interested in obtaining an EPD for one of its products, the first step it must take is to identify a program operator. A program operator, as defined by ISO, is a “body that conducts a Type III environmental declaration program. A program operator can be a company or a group of companies, industrial sector or trade association, public authorities or agencies, or an independent scientific body or other organization.1,2”
When selecting a program operator, the company should consider the following:
- The requirements of the product standard
- The experience of the program operator in the related industry
- The maturity of the PCR program
- The program operator’s reputation and credibility3
2) Identify or Develop the Product Category Rule
EPDs are developed following a set of standardized rules known as Product Category Rules (PCRs) which are developed for specific products or processes like Cement or Concrete. Once a program operator has been identified, the company, with the help of the program operator would then determine the product category and perform a PCR search to determine the need for a new or revised PCR. PCR searches entails visiting all program operator websites and contacting them to determine if any related PCRs are under development.
If a new PCR is needed, the company would develop a new PCR with the program operator. In accordance with the ISO 14025 guidelines, a program operator is required to create PCRs with input from industry stakeholders. A completed PCR defines the product category and provides a detailed set of procedures to conduct the life cycle analysis (LCA).
3) Conduct an LCA
Once the program operator has developed the PCR, an LCA is conducted to evaluate the product. The development of organization-specific LCAs provides a tangible basis for companies to confidently assess and transparently report to stakeholders where environmental risks and opportunities lay. LCAs examine the cumulative environmental impacts throughout the product or service cycle.
The results of these assessments allow an organization to make informed decisions to manage environmental risks, evaluate process improvements and formulate alternatives, and potentially highlight its own proactive environmental stewardship that differentiates it from competitors (e.g., through environmental labeling). The environmental impact metrics considered as part of an LCA include global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, material efficiency, acidification, photochemical smog, natural resource depletion, eutrophication, terrestrial toxicity, human health, water use, and land use. Even for relatively simplistic processes, the amount of data required to conduct a meaningful LCA can be quite extensive. Once an LCA is finalized for the development of an EPD, it must be verified by an independent party to ensure it meets the requirements of the PCR.4
4) Develop, Verify, and Register the EPD
The EPD can be created by the company or by a third party. The EPD summarizes the LCA, providing the consumer with all of the relevant information needed to understand the product’s environmental effects. It typically consists of the following information:
- Company Details and Product Info
- EPD Number
- Summary of LCA results
- Resource and Energy Consumption
- Water usage
- Certification Information
The program operator ensures that the EPD complies with applicable standards. Before the EPD can be registered, it must be verified. “The Program Operator appoints the verifier and establishes a transparent verification procedure, usually in consultation with the verifier.5”
The final step for the EPD is to register and enter it into a public repository – typically the repositories are owned and managed by the Program Operator.
Understanding the EPD Landscape
Companies that may be considering developing an EPD should consider the following:
- Develop an EPD that is comparable to peer products or services. Ensure that the EPD uses the same PCR as other like products, including the PCR setup for the scope, methodology, data quality and indicators.
- EPD programs and resulting PCRs between countries can vary. International organizations may have to produce a different EPD for each region in which they operate.
- Due to the nature of how PCRs are developed as well as vagaries in the standard, consensus is lacking on how to develop sound and consistent PCRs. Consequently, there are already duplicate and inconsistent PCRs within the same product category.6
- Identifying appropriate and comparable functional units is key to obtaining value in the EPD. Comparing LCA results are only valuable when functional units are comparable (i.e., 1 kg resin compared to 1 m3 of concrete).
Despite some of the drawbacks of the EPD program due to its infancy and lack of regulation for program operator development, the recent surge of US EPDs in 2012 indicates that their importance is increasing. For example, the US based Adhesive and Sealant Council Inc. (ASC) met in October, 2012 and considered PCR development as one of the most critical issue that the industry faces.7 Additionally, new program operators are added as industry groups show vested interest in the development of the EPD program. ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) introduced themselves as a program operator in early 2013, to “raise awareness of the development of environmental product declarations for the adhesive industry by educating industry on the value of Type III EPDs and proactively engaging industry in developing product category rules.”8 Beyond industry pressures, completing an EPD can meet increased demands for information and transparency in the marketplace. Furthermore, EPDs can simplify information exchange for purchasing and procurement, potentially providing a valuable competitive advantage.
1 ISO, (2006). ISO 14025:2006 Environmental labels and declarations -- Type III environmental declarations -- Principles and procedures. Geneva, Switzerland.
2 A list of program operators can be found at http://www.pcrguidance.org/?page_id=172
3 Guidance for Product Category Rule Development. 2013. Ingwersen, W., Subramanian, V., editors. The Product Category Rule Guidance Development Initiative. Version 1.0. http://www.pcrguidance.org
6 Guidance for Product Category Rule Development. 2013. Ingwersen, W., Subramanian, V., editors. The Product Category Rule Guidance Development Initiative. Version 1.0. http://www.pcrguidance.org