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Transparency in a nutshell

What is transparency?

Over the last couple of years the idea of what makes a product sustainable has been evolving, and with it the parameters that are being used to quantify sustainability. Gone are the days when manufacturers could use blanket statements like “environmentally friendly” to describe their products. Customers have started asking for a more standardized system for quantifying a product’s environmental impact. These types of demands from designers and builders have lead to the creation of the transparency movement. Manufacturers are seeking simple ways to communicate information about their products, and designers are seeking simple ways to interpret the information about the products they specify. The best tool to clearly and concisely communicate transparent information about products is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).

What is an Environmental Product Declaration?

Manufacturers who are paving the way in the transparency movement have been faced with the difficulty of finding a standardized system for sharing information with their customers. The goal of an EPD is to provide a summary of the environmental impacts of a product in a way that is accessible, consistent, and ultimately comparable.

EPD PictureMore specifically, an EPD serves as a tool for communicating the results of a product’s life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA is a methodology that helps to quantify the environmental impacts of a product from the extraction of raw materials through to the end of the product’s life. The report from an LCA can be more than 100 pages long and --while thorough-- can be all consuming for someone in the midst of making a design decision. An EPD summarizes the LCA results into a document that is usually 10-pages or less. The document has a standardized format that breaks down the results into five categories: acidification, eutrophication, global warming, ozone depletion and smog. In order for EPDs to provide comparable information for similar products (you may have heard people refer to comparing “apples to apples”), the methodology for conducting a product’s LCA must be the same for each manufacturer within a product type publishing an EPD. In order to ensure a standardized LCA methodology is used for similar products, the concept of the product category rule was created.

EDP-ProcessCredit: Smart Dynamics of Masonry,

What are Product Category Rules?

Product Category Rules (PCRs) lay out the specific nuts-and-bolts requirements for creating an LCA and EPD for products that fall into the same product category. Product categories are broken down by product function--for example wood, vinyl, and fiber cement siding all have the same function and can be found within the same product category, making their EPDs comparable. Due to the increasing demand for EPDs, the demand for PCRs are also on the rise. PCRs are typically issued by industry and standards organizations such as the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, which issued a PCR for ready mixed concrete in 2012 or ASTM International, which issued a PCR for masonry products in 2014. 

The main goal of an EPD is to clearly communicate the life-cycle assessment results. EPDs work to eliminate qualitative judgments by communicating the data in the form of the five impact categories. This allows for designers to quantitatively compare multiple products in each impact category. However, product evaluation can still be difficult, especially when the designer is looking to choose between many EPDs. Thankfully, databases like the U.S. Life Cycle Inventory can be used as a baseline in conjunction with software such as The Athena Institute’s Impact Estimator and EcoCalculator, which provide a graphical comparison between an industry standard and multiple EPDs to help designers make informed decisions.

The demand for more information isn’t coming just from end users of the products, but also from the people that are creating and designing spaces on their behalf. Large influential design firms have been increasingly requesting more detailed product information. Before EPDs were available, the requests came in the form of requests for information (RFIs). More than ever designers are working towards meeting internal firm-wide environmental targets, such as the 2030 Challenge for Products, Living Building Challenge or exclusively building to LEED gold or platinum standards. One of the fundamental concepts within all of these programs is the idea of focusing on disclosing information on product ingredients and hazards. Under the newest version of LEED, transparency credits have been added to the Materials and Resources section of the certification program. The new LEED credits do not attempt to classify products as either “good” or “bad”, but rather the system has been designed to give credit for projects that select materials that have published transparency documents, regardless of a product’s actual environmental performance. The intentional level of qualitative neutrality towards a product's environmental impact leaves the onus on the relationship between designers and manufactures to propel the transparency movement forward.

The demand for EPDs is increasing as the transparency movement gains traction among designers and manufacturers. As they increase in popularity, EPDs will become tools that designers rely on to make informed product decisions. While transparency doesn’t necessarily equate to better product performance, it does provide an incentive for manufacturers to design higher performing products. Today, designers are giving preferential treatment to manufacturers that are willing to disclose transparent product information. In the future, once EPDs are more widespread designers will be comparing products and giving the upper hand to manufacturers whose products are more environmentally favourable. In the meantime, manufacturers can differentiate themselves and start issuing EPDs today.

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