Tools of the Trade: Connecting the Dots

May 1, 2008

A detailed look at Life Cycle Assessments, Environmental Product Declarations, and Sustainable Product Certifications.

By Paul Firth and Deborah Dunning

We keep hearing about how confusing it is for building professionals who are looking to select the best products that meet their specific design needs while also trying to reduce a project's environmental footprint. Manufacturers seem intent on choosing the best path for communicating their story, yet at the same time, their courses tend to diverge in many cases. Understandably, you might be puzzled about what to look or ask for when choosing products. While there are many paths, three seem to get more press both in the United States and in the international market in terms of their credibility and transparency: Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Sustainable Product Standards (SPSs).

So, which tool is preferable? Is it best to use only one or a combination of the three? The reality is that all three tools are beneficial, and their value is best understood within the framework of life-cycle thinking. This becomes very important as new sustainability tools, certifications and analyses are introduced every year. In looking at all the tools available, it is valuable to ask how they help you understand what happens within the life-cycle of a given product.

The importance of this framework becomes clear when you're looking at products and making decisions that initially seem to have a positive impact on your project. The example of using recycled materials in place of virgin materials is one that appears often. Sourcing new materials from a waste stream that is being recycled may require intensive reprocessing and energy, which can contribute more harm to the environment than selecting a material with less or no recycled content that requires less energy to produce and results in fewer emissions. Getting rid of a virgin material seems positive initially yet may not be the optimum choice when you're using a life-cycle framework for making decisions.

Most architects and interior designers have heard that it is important to look at the life-cycle of a product when making decisions. Yet they're often confused, as manufacturers are providing them with product performance information from diverse types of tools. Some choose to provide a LCA often in combination with an EPD, and others are using SPSs as a preferred method for gauging product progress. Our goal is to help you connect the dots between these types of tools so you can make product choices efficiently.


Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) offer architects and interior designers the most complete and scientifically robust information on a product's interactions with the environment throughout its life-cycle-that is, from raw materials sourcing and transportation of materials to the manufacturer's facility, through the manufacturing processes, shipping and end-of-life of the product, either through disposal or reuse. This cradle-to-grave assessment encompasses a holistic view into the environmental burdens that are associated with a product or process.

A full LCA (as compared with streamlined) needs to be conducted in alignment with the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) Standard 14044 to provide the greatest value. This standard was developed by a group of internationally respected environmental scientists and put into place to provide a framework for how a proper LCA should be conducted. It includes criteria addressing data collection and analysis that are transparent and provides manufacturers with a consistent and fair methodology. While this standard for LCA does not detail how each LCA should be conducted, it offers guidelines to manufacturers and purchasers that provide assurance on the core methodology and essential processes.

WHAT THEY DODevelopers of LCAs begin with a goal and scope process that essentially outlines the system to be studied along with other factors to be considered during the process. This is arguably the most important step in any LCA. A project then enters the data collection phase as it pertains to the product and its supply chain: this is called the Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). Once this detailed process is complete, LCA practitioners will convert the product LCI data into environmental impacts in the final step formally called a Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA).

Generally, a practitioner will consider using the multiple impacts. Several impacts identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA's) Science Advisory Board and frequently used include: 1) Fossil fuel depletion; 2) Global warming; 3) Ozone depletion; 4) Acidification (Acid rain); 5) Eutrophication (Water pollution); 6) Smog; 7) Criteria air pollutants (Ambient air pollution); 8) Indoor air quality; 9) Water intake or use; 10) Human health; 11) Ecological toxicity; and 12) Habitat alteration.

Often the impact assessment is conducted using the TRACI methodology developed by the EPA. TRACI is an acronym that stands for Tools for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemicals and other environmental Impacts. Although all environmental impacts of a product are typically reviewed during LCA, sometimes it may be prudent to look at only those that are relevant for that particular type of product or study.

For the resulting product LCA to be distributed publicly as an ISO-compliant LCA, the results must be certified by a third-party professional. This is particularly important when the LCA is being used to make a comparison of two types of products or even several products of the same type.

LCA results can be used in various ways. Given that the results are based on the rigorous development of product information, manufacturers, architects, interior designers, and marketing professionals can use them in many ways. Here are a few examples of how LCA can be used beneficially:
  • By manufacturers for internal improvements as a part of a DfE (Design for the Environment) program, product development or process redesign
  • By manufacturers for industry benchmarking and tracking annual improvements
  • By manufacturers in connection with an application to certify a product to a SPS
  • By manufacturers as part of a certified EPD-integrating various types of product performance into one resource for specifiers and purchasers to use
  • By architects and interior designers to provide documentation as to why one manufacturer's product has been selected over other options
  • By building professionals to document that they have selected a product with the lowest environmental impacts for that product type
  • By various entities to formulate policy decisions on legislative efforts and financial investments that reduce environmental impacts and improve human health, productivity and quality of life

These are only some of the uses of LCAs. However, for LCA to be used, its methodology and processes must first be understood. This is where third-party verification adds the most value, as it provides a level of comfort with the results, whether the LCA is used by a manufacturer or a purchaser. Third-party verification enables the architect and interior designer to trust the results without having in-depth knowledge of the methodology and analytical processes used.

THEIR BENEFITA LCA conducted in alignment with ISO Standard 14044 is considered by many to be the most holistic and transparent tool to measure a product's environmental impacts. It is often used to develop data for a SPS and serve as a guiding framework for the type of requirements to set forth within the standard based on where environmental impacts occur within the life-cycle.

While building designers do not have to see or even fully understand the data used, they do have to trust the product LCA results. This trust is most easily and fully established when the product LCA meets the ISO Standard and has been verified and signed by a qualified LCA professional.


An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is the core component in the emerging Global Product Information System, so, it's important for architects and interior designers to learn about this resource. In short, an EPD provides the specifier and purchaser with a third-party certified LCA as well as a broad range of product performance information, potentially including human health, life-cycle cost, and safety as well as economic, environmental and social equity performance of a manufacturer's product. In sum, EPDs integrate diverse types of product information into one document that is verified by a third-party organization or professional as meeting all requirements of ISO Standard 14025.

All EPDs must be based on two things: 1) product criteria rules for a given product category—for example, carpet-that determine the scope and boundaries that all manufacturers must use for product data collection; and 2) a product LCA that meets requirements for LCA set by the ISO.

Product Category Rules (PCRs) are developed by a group of professionals who are knowledgeable about the materials and manufacturing processes used in a given industry—primarily product managers and technical experts in manufacturing firms who are brought together to develop consensus on these rules in a fair, open and transparent manner. Sometimes leadership of this consensus process comes from a trade organization such as the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI), while at other times it is led by a non-governmental organization like The Green Standard, formerly the International Design Center for the Environment.

Either approach to developing PCRs is credible as long as the decision-making process is open. Once a final draft of the PCRs is available, it is sent to GEDNet for review of both the process and the results. This step ensures that all industries are working in comparable ways—giving the purchaser comfort that no one industry has used less rigor than another.

PCRs are one of the components that make EPDs effective. PCRs govern how an EPD, within a category, is produced and what scope and boundaries are to be used in collecting product data. During the validation of the EPD, the certifier will check to make sure that these rules have been followed. This is to ensure that the EPDs based on these product criteria rules can reliably be used to compare the performance of products of a similar type.

The second component that makes EPDs effective is that they are based on product LCAs, the most reliable means of measuring a product's impacts on the environment throughout its entire life-cycle. As we've seen earlier, LCA results have to be verified by a third party to meet requirements of the ISO.

Encouragingly, there are movements internationally to support use of multiple EPDs of similar product types as a component of product selection. With this development in mind, it is important that we be mindful of the ISO 14044 guidelines for comparative assertions of products and to implement them when we're using an EPD system for product evaluation; this includes a comprehensive set of impacts; analysis of the sensitivity analysis, data quality and certainty; evaluation of interpretive statements as well as completeness of the study; and others.

In the European Union, there is a directive for harmonization in place for the ways EPDs are developed and used in all of the member countries beginning on January 1, 2009. To date, there are more than 3,000 EPDs in use in EU countries, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. As a result, the European Union is taking a leadership role in shaping a Global Product Information System, featuring EPDs. Believing that North American manufacturers will benefit from having an EPD system developed to meet their needs, The Green Standard is now in the process of developing a U.S. Environmental Product Declaration System with collaborating organizations that will be made public in November 2008.

ISO's release of an international standard for EPDs in 2007 has encouraged the development of EPDs as instruments to support sustainable building policies in the design and construction sectors. The primary purpose of building product EPDs is to illustrate the environmental performance of a building—as derived from its many parts and selected products. By bringing together EPDs of the core products in a building or building space, an architect and interior designer can begin to create a building LCA to use as a decision-making tool.

As the data used for modeling the building's full life-cycle has to be credible, consistent and transparent, it is best drawn from ISO-compliant product LCAs that have been through the rigor of a third-party review. ISO Standard 14025 requires that all performance data included in an EPD must be documented for the reviewer from a third-party organization. This data can range from environmental impacts, life-cycle costs, mechanical features, energy efficiency, and safety. Other factors such as certification to standards like those managed by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS), NSF International, and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) would wisely be added to information in the U.S. EPD System under development.

Architects, interior designers and other building team members could make good use of EPDs in the following ways:
  • By supporting the use of a common basis for building owners, designers, engineers, contractors, and suppliers to formulate and apply effective environmental performance strategies
  • By encouraging design processes through providing science-based declarations of all environmental considerations and making their relative importance understood
  • By measuring how brand products advance the use of high sustainability standards
  • By enabling building team members to apply LCA results in all phases of strategic planning-from building planning through design, to construction oversight, fit out and furnishing—for all buildings types
  • By facilitating the use of product information to lower costs of constructing, furnishing, maintaining, operating, insuring and financing sustainably developed buildings
As many building professionals are looking for credible information that encompasses a broad range of product performance, EPDs provide such a tool. In summary, EPDs are:
  • Comparable in what information they include and the processes for collecting and analyzing data on a product's environmental (and other) performances
  • The responsibility of the manufacturer to fund, using standards set by the ISO and third-party certification entities
  • Developed by organizations and professionals respected for their high level of expertise in LCI and LCIA methodologies
  • Verified by third-party independent experts with clear, verifiable credentials
  • The basis for sustainable building design, construction and product selection

Development of EPDs for many products will advance the use of common language and common metrics for product design and selection, meeting the demands from the A&D community to have tools enabling them to be contributors to a sustainable world. Remembering the discussion about LCA, an EPD essentially builds on the LCA by requiring additional requirements for verification, rules for conducting the assessments, and including the additional product information.

To legally use the term "Environmental Product Declaration," an EPD must use a data development and communication system that has been approved by GEDNet, an international organization based in Sweden. Certification systems have been created and are in broad use in many European Union countries as well as in Australia, Japan and others. Currently, there are close to 8,000 EPDs in use globally.


WHAT THEY AREA Sustainable Product Standard (SPS) is a tool that assists manufacturers in gauging improvements in a product's performance in three areas over a five-year period of time: 1) economic; 2) environmental; and 3) corporate responsibility (including social equity). A product's performance is measured in each area according to criteria set by the standard development organization and its council of stakeholders. As most organizations developing SPSs aim to meet most—ideally all—of the requirements set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), development by a council with broad representation of all stakeholder groups is important. ANSI requires that manufacturers in the industry for which the SPSs pertains can fill no more than 49 percent of the seats on the council. Other seats are filled by governmental and non-governmental organizations and consulting firms with significant expertise in certification and green manufacturing.

As "greenwashing" or unsubstantiated green product claims have become a major concern in the building field, consensus on which attributes of products in each industry have to be measured is an important development. In sum, sustainable product standards assist both manufacturers and purchasers in communicating environmental and other product performance benefits.

A SPS typically facilitates measurement of product improvements over time by incorporating a benchmark from which product improvements are measured and providing metrics to measure percentage improvements within a defined timeframe. Additionally, a standard will encompass other important criteria, such as renewable energy or recycling rates, based on goals rather than benchmarks.

Frequently, a standard will define how materials are selected; how manufacturing processes are handled; what levels of different chemical emissions are tolerable; what usage of water is allowed; and how wastes are prevented. This information is useful for architects and designers when looking for products that satisfy requests for proposals or other stipulations for product selection.

The development of American National Product Standards—led by NSF International, an ANSI-accredited standards development organization—has truly been an important initiative. NSF is working with stakeholders in contract textile, carpet and rug, business and institutional furniture, and resilient flooring industrial sectors to produce separate sustainability standards for these product categories.

By working with multiple industries that affect the indoor environment, NSF is promoting the sharing of best sustainability practices across standards committees-ensuring that standards are developed in a cohesive and consistent manner. Currently, NSF is working on product standards with the Association of Contract Textiles, the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association, CRI, and the Resilient Floor Covering Institute. Of these, the carpet standard, NSF 140, was adopted as an ANSI standard and is in active use today with various products from all of the leading manufacturers receiving certification.

Notably, an industry-inclusive product standard has been developed by MTS. Since releasing the SMART© Sustainable Building Product Standards that can be applied to all types of building products, MTS has become an ANSI-accredited standards development organization. To date, the SMART Sustainable Building Product Standards have not been adopted as official ANSI standards but may in the future.

WHAT THEY DOThe essential characteristics of a SPS are that it:
  • Features a transparent process for sourcing and analyzing product information
  • Covers all environmental impacts identified by EPA's Science Advisory Board
  • Includes the economic impacts of a product; that is, fair employer wages, etc.
  • Encompasses social equity impacts, including contributions to the community
  • Results in a consensus of all stakeholders in a given field or industry, based on an open discussion of core principles and their application to product types assessed

To meet best practices in sustainable product development, SPSs need to require use of a product LCA that is in alignment with the relevant guidelines of the ISO for LCA. At this point in time most of the U.S.-developed product standards do not feature this requirement. It is our hope that their developers and managers will move rapidly to make LCA a required metric, making these standards as scientifically robust as tools being developed and used in other parts of the world. Given that most manufacturers sell their products in a global marketplace, they would benefit exponentially from this added requirement.

HOW THEY'RE USEDSPSs are designed to be used consistently by manufacturers for achieving sustainability for any product. It defines how materials are selected, how manufacturing processes are handled, what level of chemical emissions is Tolerable, what usage of water is allowed, and how waste is prevented. Characteristics of SPSs include:
  • Set environmental and energy achievement performance levels across the global supply chain and all product stages
  • Set material usage and content achievement levels for products
  • Set levels of achievement for social equity across the global supply chain
  • Communication as to how a manufacturer designs, develops and reuses its products

They are typically used as the engine under the hood for an EcoLabel. This is to provide substance and recognition in an easily digestible manner.

THEIR BENEFITSPSs complement rather than take the place of product LCAs and EPDs. They offer the added value of measuring a manufacturer's product against criteria set by their entire industry and measuring a given product relative to its prior performance.

The purpose of creating standards with multiple sustainability attributes is to ensure a product is measured against criteria that amount to the maximum benefit to the environment across numerous media while communicating the results in a single, easy to understand logo. Some of the most relevant measures include: toxicity of chemicals and materials; types of energy used; water quality; conservation of natural resources; recovery and recycling of materials along the entire life-cycle; and socially responsible manufacturing practices.

Used in combination with other tools like product LCAs and EPDs, SPSs contribute significantly to the Global Product Information System with the latter promoting the common language and common metrics we all need to connect the dots more easily.

CONNECTING THE DOTSHopefully, it's now clear that a life-cycle framework provides the strongest basis for assessing a product's environmental attributes. LCA offers the most rigorous environmental assessment of products and services. The EPD takes the LCA to the next level by establishing PCRs that govern the boundaries, methodology and procedure for conducting the LCA as well as adding in the crucial third-party verification to the process. The SPS differs from LCA and EPDs in that it is not necessarily based on LCA though it typically follows a life-cycle approach. Yet it offers something not available in LCAs and EPDs: measurement of a product's improvement over time relative to industry-developed criteria.

While all are not equal, you've seen that they're all related in that each relies on a life-cycle framework. The beauty of these is that, given the nature of a life-cycle and the transparency it provides, choosing a product based on, either all of its impacts, or only some, becomes much easier. The only issue left as an architect or designer is to determine which factors are most important to you and your clients and to then connect those dots.

Before joining The Green Standard as vice president of technology, Paul Firth worked for eight years at Interface, founding the company's global Life Cycle Assessment initiatives and facilitating their applications across all businesses worldwide.

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