How “Green” Is a Product?

Growing Market for Environmentally Friendly Products Creates Interest in EPDs and PCRs

There was a time when environmentalism was a fringe issue, confined to a few countries and a limited spectrum of society. However, growing awareness of the consequences of poor environmental practices, as well as positive examples of the benefits of better environmental practices, has helped reshape the public’s views. Now, in varying degrees, environmental awareness and concern are practically universal.

This has been reflected most obviously in government regulations, which have often been the first step toward reform and improvement. But private initiatives have grown in importance, as evidenced by the successes of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating systems. In Europe, in particular, environmental product declarations, or EPDs, have become an element in helping the public and decision makers understand what is really “green” and in what ways.

Now, interest in EPDs is growing in North America. In part, says Amy Costello, environmental sustainability manager at Armstrong World Industries, Lancaster Pa., and a member of the ASTM board of directors, interest is growing because of the pervasiveness of “green washing” — marketing claims that a product is “green” or “natural” that offer no validation.

EPDs have been used for construction products since the 1990s; an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard for EPDs, ISO 14025, Environmental Labels and Declarations — Type III Environmental Declarations — Principles and Procedures, sets out requirements they should meet. In fact, EPDs are the product of two other acronyms — LCAs and PCRs. An organization seeking to provide an EPD for a product needs first to conduct a life cycle assessment, or LCA, of that product or material and then, in conjunction with an independent organization such as ASTM International, must develop an EPD. Both the EPD and LCA must follow the rules outlined in the product category rules, or PCR, for that type of item. PCRs for construction products have been developed in Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom.

Indeed, Costello says, she believes the prime driver for developing and adopting EPDs in the United States is the proposed LEED v4, which is being balloted this summer and which focuses on increasing technical rigor. “Manufacturers to some degree are driving PCRs because they understand the importance of making sure that the playing field is level,” says Costello. For example, when a manufacturer conducts an LCA there are many assumptions that can be made in LCA modeling.

For example, what will happen to a material at the end of life? Will 100 percent be sent to a landfill or will 20 percent be incinerated and 80 percent sent to a landfill? How far will a finished product be transported after it is manufactured? Sometimes material is sent locally, sometimes far away, but the model requires an assumption.

“These types of assumptions result in uncertainty in the modeling results. So, if we can standardize these assumptions then we can have LCA model results that are more meaningful,” says Costello. If one manufacturer makes assumptions that differ from another, then potentially the result for similar products may be radically different. “This issue worries manufacturers who are concerned that customers will select one product over another based on the environmental impacts provided in an EPD,” she explains.

Like others in the field, Costello compares EPDs to mandatory food product labeling, which provides dietary information for packaged foods. The standard appearance of the labels are universally used so that consumers have a consistent way of comparing products.

Costello says LCAs are also important in and of themselves. “At Armstrong, we have been performing LCAs since around 2000 and have published their findings,” she says. “That has helped manage the sustainability of the products.”

There is the example of Levi Strauss, which wanted to look at the environmental impact of their company and performed an LCA on one type of their iconic jeans. The results showed that although there was room for improvement in activities such as cotton production and manufacturing, the greatest environmental impact associated with the product came in its use by consumers, where water and energy consumption (for washing) tipped the scale. Indeed, energy consumption after manufacture was several times higher, overall, compared to other parts of the product life cycle. That discovery prompted the company to work with retailers and detergent manufacturers to educate consumers about the potential financial and environmental benefits of washing less often and using detergents suitable for cold water washing.

For a company like Armstrong, Costello says the LCA process can yield similar insights. “We look at impact across the board. An LCA helps us understand which raw materials and processes have the biggest impacts,” she says. With this knowledge, she explains, “we can redesign or reformulate our products or processes to reduce impacts.” For example, the environmental impacts associated with our vinyl composition tile flooring are reduced when we use reclaimed post-consumer VCT material collected through our VCT recycling program. So, for Armstrong, understanding can lead to products that have reduced environmental impacts, Costello explains. “It is a network effect, where no one realizes the impact until you do an LCA,” she adds.

Ralph M. Paroli, Ph.D., director, R&D, measurement science and standards, National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, says that increasing implementation of EPDs will be good for everyone. “For any given building, they can help you design for the characteristics you need such as cost, durability or emissions,” he says. “Some products might have a high initial environmental footprint, but if they last for 100 years, they may actually be more environmentally friendly than something with a small footprint that only lasts two years.”

Nor are EPDs likely to be confined to building materials. Paroli says he has seen an informal shift toward an EPD approach in the consumer field as well. “I have been in some Starbucks stores where they have decals showing that the materials they use are a certain percent more recycled than what they used previously,” he says.

In the end, Paroli notes, the whole EPD process isn’t really radical; it’s a return to common sense. “My grandparents’ generation thought about how long a product would last — they were really using life cycle thinking,” he says. And that thinking is now back in vogue. “I have met college kids who are now studying life cycle assessment modeling as part of their curriculum,” adds Costello.

ASTM International is a program operator for the development of product category rules and environmental product declarations. For more information on ASTM’s program, contact Timothy Brooke, ASTM vice president of certification, training and proficiency testing (phone: 610-832-9729).

Alan R. Earls is a writer and author who covers business and technology topics for newspapers, magazines and websites. He is based near Boston, Mass.

This article appears in the issue of Standardization News.