The following article is a white paper from UL Environment that was produced independently of ECO-STRUCTURE. UL Environment seeks to support the growth and development of sustianable products and services through standards development, educational services, and independent third-party assessment and certification. A PDF of the white paper is available for download at ulenvironmetn.com. To learn more about EPDs, contact UL at epd@ulenvironment.com.

As the world’s consumption of natural resources continues to grow at an ever increasing rate, the design and manufacture of environmentally responsible products is no longer a luxury but a necessity. From electronics to textiles to food production, producers are giving increased attention to the environmental impact of their products across the entire product life cycle. These considerations span design and manufacturing through actual use to end-of-life. Such efforts from producers are now leading towards the collection and compilation of relevant environmental data. This data helps identify opportunities for improvement along the supply chain, often taking the form of a life cycle assessment (LCA). However, there are many ways to distribute this data.

Everyone benefits when a product’s claim of environmental sustainability is easily validated against objective and transparent criteria, thereby simplifying the process of making informed direct comparisons among similar products. An environmental product declaration (EPD) is a validation tool that offers manufacturers a standard approach for assessing the environmental impact of their products and provides buyers with an effective framework for making direct product comparisons. As such, an EPD addresses the needs of both manufacturers and buyers seeking clear, credible and precise information.

This UL white paper discusses the use and importance of EPDs in the validation and certification of life cycle-based product environmental impacts. The paper then reviews the steps in creating EPDs consistent with the requirements of ISO 14025 2006, Environmental labels and declarations—Type III environmental declarations—Principles and procedures, and discusses the important role of an EPD program operator in developing and running an effective EPD program. The report concludes with a look at potential developments regarding the use of EPDs in support of product environmental claims.

What is an EPD?

An EPD is a single, comprehensive disclosure of a product’s life cycle-based environmental impact that has been validated by an independent third party. An EPD reports the results of a product’s life cycle assessment (LCA) as well as other information relevant to a product’s environmental profile. Typically, an EPD will include information on a product’s carbon footprint, and its potential impact on global warming, ozone depletion, acidification of land and water, eutrophication (an impact of water pollution), photochemical ozone creation, and the depletion of abiotic resources. Additionally, an EPD can include other pertinent environmental and health-related impacts that are of particular interest to a discloser.

EPDs are categorized as a Type III eco-label as defined under ISO 14025. Type III eco-labels are succinct, fact-based documents that provide specific information by category. Unlike TypeII labels, which are self-declarations often used by manufacturers to claim an environmental benefit related to the product or its use, or Type I labels, which verify compliance with a specific environmental standard, TypeIII eco-labels requires independent validation of a product’s environmental impact. As such, EPDs promote greater transparency of important environmental impact information and ease buyers’ efforts to make objective comparisons among similar products.

It is important to note the distinction between an EPD and an LCA. An LCA is an essential component of an EPD that evaluates a product’s environmental impact throughout its various life stages, from material and component sourcing though final disposal or recycling. It provides a comprehensive picture of the amount of energy, water and materials consumed in the production and use of a product. Manufacturers use the insights an LCA provides to make changes along their current supply and production chains, improving a product’s environmental profile.

To complete an LCA, manufacturers can use in-house resources or work with a third-party provider. Providers currently conducting LCAs for EPDs include PE International Inc., Quantis and ATHENA Sustainable Materials Institute.

While an LCA is useful in identifying improvements to a product’s environmental impact over time, it is not typically used to communicate externally comparative impacts among multiple products within a category. To compare life cycle-based product impacts from multiple products within the same category, LCAs must be conducted following the same set of guidelines, known as product category rules (PCRs). An LCA that is based on objective, identifiable product category rules provides the transparency necessary for comparing one product with another, but requires the rigorous process necessary for creating an EPD to provide an optimal platform for understanding product environmental impacts.