Lauren Nassef

In a market where manufacturers tout all kinds of environmental claims, it’s hard to decipher what’s really green. In 2006, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published standards for Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs)—scientific, third-party validated reports that disclose a product’s life cycle assessment (LCA); carbon footprint; land, water, and air impacts; and ozone depletion potential. Now fairly common in Europe and parts of Asia, EPDs are relatively new in the U.S., but a groundswell toward certification is under way.

Certification alone does not make a product eco-friendly. Rather, EPDs track and report a product’s progression from cradle to grave (or back to cradle). EPDs are based on the product’s LCA, which is guided by specific Product Category Rules (PCRs) that describe the LCA parameters for scope, data collection, methodology, and presentation format. Independent agencies, or program operators, help manufacturers navigate the certification process and comply with ISO standards. Because standardization is critical for comparing products worldwide, EPD program operators should first look for existing PCRs specific to the industry sector; if none exist, they can develop and publish new PCRs.

To date, approximately 45 EPDs have been issued in the U.S.—and the number is rising. Architects and specifiers want objective and accessible product information that doesn’t greenwash. The Architecture 2030 Challenge for Products encourages manufacturers to file EPDs, and the latest draft of LEED v4 rewards the use of products that have EPDs.

UL Environment, a business unit of Underwriters Laboratories based in Marietta, Ga., and one of the few program operators in the U.S., has registered approximately 30 EPDs in four industries to date. Strategic development and innovation group lead Heather Gadonniex has seen a surge of interest and growth in the program in the past two years. “Although the U.S. is just getting started, we are working with a large number of manufacturers and industry associations to address demand for EPDs,” she says.

Cost and complexity are among the reasons why U.S. manufacturers have been slow to report EPDs. Certification costs vary depending on the program operator’s role, but the real cost lies in conducting the LCA. EPD education remains a challenge. No single entity oversees EPDs or their approval process, so it’s important to delve into which PCRs were followed to ensure consistency when comparing products.

Carpet manufacturer Interface has attained EPDs for 90 percent of its product lines globally. Director of sustainable strategy Melissa Vernon notes two program shortcomings: an absence of both performance thresholds and of benchmarks for many products. “But there’s a lot of excitement about the concept and we are working through these ideas,” she says. Meanwhile, EPDs do provide “environmental indicators across multiple categories, so you can … find products that address your values.”