Environmental Product Declarations Are Sweeping the Globe
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are life-cycle based ecolabels that disclose environmental performance, in much the same way that nutrition labels disclose nutrient information.
As you can see in the map below, many countries host EPD programs, typically operated by not-for-profit organizations. In fact the US exports about $1 Trillion per year to countries with EPD programs in place.
What is new in this field is that in 2007, France passed a law, the Grenelle Environment that required environmental product declarations for all mass produced consumer goods. On July 1 of this year, the French government began a set of experiments that are seeking the best way to implement the law. The European Commission has begun a program to develop guidance on environmental product declarations, so it seems that it is only a matter of time before the requirement will expand to the entire EU.
Product Category Rules are the Pivot
All environmental product declarations require that one first have agreement on how to calculate the environmental impacts and how to disclose those results. These agreements are formalized in product category rules (PCRs), which are simply specifications on how to perform the life cycle assessment and how to disclose the results.
While there are many national and international standards providing guidance on developing PCRs, there is already a great deal of confusion at the level of international trade. Likely we will need to have tens of thousands of PCRs to cover the entire economy. However, already there is overlap between programs in different countries, with PCRs being developed on the same product in more than one country. Furthermore, many PCRs are not tight specifications. When there is a great deal of freedom about where one can get data and how one must calculate the results, there is no comparability between programs.
There is an international group seeking to harmonize the PCRs developed in different countries: The PCR Roundtable, a group formed under the aegis of Thema1, a German non-profit. Some of the issues being addressed include standard vocabulary for PCRs, standard formats for PCRs and approaches to assuring that the entire economy is being covered without redundancy.
What’s a Company to Do?
Even in the absence of full consensus on EPDs, companies still have a lot of options to get ahead of the curve on EPDs. First of all, start getting a handle on your life cycle inventory data. The stuff your buy and sell, and information on emissions to air and water and your waste figures should be at your fingertips. This data is the basis of all life cycle assessments, and no matter which EPD program you follow the basic inventory information will be the same. Second, start having conversations with your vendors and customers on LCA and EPDs. These will be your partners in developing EPDs. Finally, consider your stance on EPDs. Consider your market, and how you want to present the environmental performance of your products. Sooner or later you will have to do EPDs. Starting now can give you a first to market advantage.
Rita Schenck is the Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Research and Education, and the Secretary of the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment. She sits on the PCR Roundtable.