As government purchasers continue asking more sophisticated questions about the environmental impacts of products and services, some suppliers are encouraging purchasers to look beyond environmental certifications such as EcoLogo, Energy Star, Greenguard, Green Seal and UL Environment. Suppliers also are sharing information about their products and services in Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which look like an environmental nutrition label. An EPD summarizes information about life cycle assessments (LCAs), human health concerns, hazardous substances and recycled content. As more and more suppliers share detailed information, purchasers need to understand how to use it to make greener purchasing decisions.

The basics of EPDs and LCAs

An EPD encompasses a variety of performance data, including environmental, human health, mechanical, safety and other performance capabilities, in a single document to help purchasers make greener purchasing decisions. An EPD is a third-party-verified, internationally recognized set of environmental information based primarily on the results of an LCA.

An LCA seeks to quantify the environmental impacts of a product or service. It attempts to measure the impacts from the product's entire life cycle, including the acquisition of raw materials, transportation, manufacturing, packaging, use of the product and ultimate disposal. It is typically a large report that documents the assumptions and data used to conduct the analysis. LCAs can vary in scope with some covering more life cycle phases than others.

An EPD summarizes an LCA and, in some cases, provides additional environmental information. To ensure EPDs are useful, purchasers are requiring that EPDs meet the ISO 14025 standard. ISO 14025 requires that an EPD be based on publicly available product criteria rules that determine what data should be collected and how it will be measured in a life cycle assessment. All of this information must be independently verified.

EPDs are frequently formatted to resemble the nutrition label found on a box of cereal to highlight the most relevant and meaningful data for a purchaser.

Like the nutrition label on a cereal box, an EPD does not evaluate products. Like a nutrition label, it simply provides additional product information to enable government purchasers and other interested consumers to compare products and to determine for themselves which ones are greener.

Traditional environmental certification and labeling programs such as EcoLogo, Energy Star, Greenguard, Green Seal, UL Environment and others identify environmental leaders. Their seals or marks only appear on products and services that meet an environmental leadership standard. Typically, environmental leadership standards are established so that only the top 20 percent of products can meet the standard.

These traditional environmental labels typically do not allow purchasers to determine which of the products meeting the standard are greener than other products that also meet the standard.

An EPD, however, could appear on every product, not just the environmental leaders. They are also more transparent than traditional environmental labels, allowing purchasers to compare products on multiple dimensions.

But EPDs can be confusing to interpret for purchasers unsure about which environmental indicators are most relevant or meaningful. It can be just as confusing for some consumers to select healthier cereals based on nutrition label information. (Which is more important Vitamin A content or Vitamin B12? Is fat content more important than calorie or sodium content?) As the purchasing and supplier communities become more familiar with LCAs and EPDs, it will be easier to integrate them into routine purchasing procedures.

Some of the environmental labeling programs, including UL Environment, are exploring hybrid labels as a way to combine the easy-to-use traditional certification with the additional transparency EPDs provide. This approach would allow purchasers to require products to be certified to an environmental leadership standard while also collecting additional environmental information, thus making it easier for purchasers to identify greener products quickly. It would also allow more sophisticated purchasers to conduct their own assessment to determine which of the certified products is most appropriate to meet their additional environmental requirements.

Creating an EPD

Many suppliers are beginning to highlight environmental information in nutrition-label type formats. Some of the labels are the result of creative marketing design rather than the result of a detailed product evaluation. Purchasers who understand how an LCA-based EPD is constructed will be better equipped to ensure the environmental information being provided by suppliers is meaningful.

An EPD is not simply a collection of environmental factors made to look like a nutrition-label. A legitimate EPD must be consistent with the internationally recognized ISO 14025 guidelines; this compliance requires a significant commitment of time and resources to compile all of the data and conduct the necessary analysis.

Generating an ISO 14025-compliant EPD requires the following steps:

  • Identifying or developing a set of Product Category Rules (PCRs). A PCR establishes guidelines used to conduct the life cycle assessment and to create the EPD. It identifies the boundaries of the assessment detailing, for example, which product components will be included in the environmental impact assessment and how far into the supply chain the assessment will extend. To ensure the comparability of EPDs, all LCAs for a specific product category must be based on the same PCR. To facilitate this process, PCR libraries are emerging so LCA practitioners are able to reference existing PCRs. If a PCR has not been developed for the product category, there is a peer-reviewed, multi-stakeholder process to develop the PCR to ensure it adequately captures all relevant factors.

  • Conducting the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Once the relevant PCR has been identified, an LCA practitioner must collect the necessary data to quantify the environmental impacts of each phase of the product or service's life cycle as defined in the PCR. The resulting information is presented in a lengthy report identifying the various tradeoffs among multiple environmental issues and among each life cycle phase.

  • Third-party verification of LCA. Given the complexity of the data and the number of assumptions built into the LCA process, ISO 14040 and 14044 require all LCAs to be reviewed by an independent third party. The reviewer ensures that the LCA practitioner has used the correct PCR or developed an adequate PCR that clearly defines the boundary conditions and life cycle phases to be considered. The reviewer also examines all assumptions built into the LCA to ensure they are reasonable.

  • Creating the EPD. After completing the LCA, a supplier can prepare an EPD summarizing its key findings. The EPD should highlight the most relevant and significant environmental impacts used to differentiate similar products. EPDs can take various forms depending on how the LCA was constructed. The use of different EPD formats makes it challenging to compare products from different suppliers. UL Environment has developed a uniform reporting format to standardize EPDs to make it easier to compare products. If its approach or something similar is adopted, EPDs will become a much more useful tool for the purchasing community.

  • Third-party verification of the EPD. To ensure the EPD is an accurate summation of the LCA and that it adequately highlights the most significant environmental impacts, the EPD must be reviewed by an independent third party.

  • EPD registration. Following third-party review of the EPD, the EPD is published so others have access to the information it contains to ensure compliance with ISO 14025.

Challenges of using EPDs

Contrary to the claims of some supplier representatives, the availability of an LCA or EPD does not mean a product is greener than its competitors. Determining which of two competing products is greener requires that both products have LCAs or EPDs generated using the same set of assumptions and with access to equivalent data. This is unlikely for many products at this time, which makes it very difficult to use LCAs or EPDs to compare products.

LCAs were not originally designed for purchasers to compare products. They were designed to allow manufacturers to identify opportunities to improve the environmental footprint of their own operations. As a result, LCAs do not always include factors purchasers consider important. LCAs and some EPDs do not yet adequately consider human health and toxicity issues, for example. They also do not address product effectiveness or cost efficiency. An EPD might suggest one product is “greener” than another but fail to note that the “greener” product is more expensive or less effective.

An additional challenge for purchasing professionals and suppliers is the significant time and cost of creating LCAs and EPDs. They can take several months and cost up to $50,000 to create, a cost that can be burdensome for small businesses. The costs are declining, however, as LCA tools become more widely available. As the prices decline, they are more likely to be required by purchasers seeking to buy greener products.

Some questions to consider

When requesting or evaluating LCA or EPD information, purchasers should clarify the following:

  • Ask whether the product also meets an environmental leadership standard such as EcoLogo, Energy Star, Greenguard, Green Seal or UL Environment.
  • Ask for or determine whether an EPD is compliant with ISO 14025.
  • Require or ensure that LCA data be consistent with ISO 14040 and 14044.
  • If attempting to compare EPDs from competing manufacturers, ensure that both EPDs are compliant with ISO 14025 and that both are based on the same set of underlying assumptions.

Next-generation tools

LCAs and EPDs are an important wave of the future. EPDs are next-generation tools that can be used to improve transparency and give purchasers confidence they are purchasing legitimately greener products. When LCAs and EPDs are more widely available and more consistently used by suppliers, purchasers will find it easier to integrate the information into the purchasing process. New efforts combining the simplicity of traditional environmental standards and certifications along with the additional information available from an EPD approach will likely be even more useful to most purchasing agencies. Until then, purchasers should continue seeking products meeting tough environmental standards while continuing to ask suppliers for additional environmental information.


About the author

Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing issues for 17 years. He is market development director for UL Environment. Contact him via e-mail at scot.case@ulenvironment.com or in Reading, PA, at 610-779-3770.