US Switching from Eco-Labels to EPDs?

Originally published by: Building Products MagazineSeptember 9, 2011

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Green consumers are getting more sophisticated. Tired of "greenwash" and confused by the hundreds of eco-logos in use worldwide, leading-edge buyers want real evidence of a product's environmental footprint. This is why North America is beginning to join a wave currently sweeping through Europe and Asia: a transition from eco-logo certifications to environmental product declarations, or EPDs.
 
Eco-logos serve a useful purpose, by providing a recognizable symbol on a product label indicating that the product meets the environmental criteria of a particular program. These programs make it easy for buyers (the logo conveys a seal of approval). But transparency is sacrificed for simplicity: the details of the program criteria and the product environmental data being examined by the program are not necessarily accessible. The buyer is asked to trust the judgment of those who administer the program.  
 
Comparability is also a problem. A buyer may be considering several competing products, each of which bears a different eco-logo. Which one is best?      
 
EPDs are not as simple as an eco-logo, but they provide transparent, credible environmental footprint data in a standardized manner that allows buyers to fairly compare one product to another. The kind of information typically included in an EPD addresses energy consumption, water consumption, global warming, waste, and air emissions, among other common environmental metrics. 
 
Much like the nutrition label on food packages, an EPD simply provides data and makes no judgment about the product. Where a grocery shopper may be concerned about sodium, a building product consumer may be concerned about fossil fuel depletion. With an EPD and a nutrition label, the buyer decides what's important and the criteria for selection. 
 
An EPD doesn't tell the whole story about a product-human health issues such as VOCs and forest management assurances, for example, are addressed by well-established certification programs and legislation, but an EPD is a complete picture of what is normally meant by the term "environmental footprint." EPDs are based on life cycle assessment data, which is developed by expert practitioners following international standards. Life cycle assessment (LCA) means that all impacts related to a product are accounted for, from the initial extraction of raw materials through manufacturing, transportation, use, maintenance and final disposition at the end of the useful service life.
 
There are hundreds of EPDs in circulation globally, for products as diverse as food packaging, consumer goods, and building materials. This is a trend just starting in North America, with only a few EPDs currently produced. Many more are likely to come in the near future, as several industrial groups are currently developing EPDs and EPD standards are underway in the U.S.  
 
One possible market driver for EPDs is the popular green building rating program LEED, with a newly released experiment in EPDs and LCA. In an effort to motivate more sophistication and rigor in environmental data, the LEED program will reward building projects that include products with validated LCA information or with an EPD. 
 
The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association is among the pioneers looking at EPDs as an effective vehicle for meeting buyer interest in better environmental data. In 2009, WRCLA commissioned the Canadian forest products research institute FPInnovations for a life cycle assessment study of cedar decking and siding. The resulting data allowed WRCLA to then work with FPInnovations to create the first North American EPDs for wood products.

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