4 myths about green product declarations

In December 2011, I wrote an article called "Clearing Up Transparency." At the time, transparency tools and product declarations were starting to gain traction in North America. LEED v4, formerly known as LEED 2012, just published the first draft of the updated rating system, and the built environment community was abuzz with acronyms: EPDs, PCRs and LCAs, to name a few.

Fast forward to now. Transparency is no longer a fleeting trend. All major green building rating systems globally and in North America have incorporated some form of life cycle-based product disclosure into their materials and resources sections. This includes LEED, BREEAM, ESTIDMA, GreenStar and Living Building Challenge.

There is no doubt that transparency is becoming a requirement for doing business. Some would argue it already is a requirement. Yet confusion still surrounds transparency tools and product declarations. Keep reading to explore four common myths and mysteries surrounding product declarations.

Before we dig in, let's first focus on defining today's most talked about transparency tools and product declarations.

Four of today's most talked about transparency tools and product declarations. Source: ED+C.

• Life cycle assessment (LCA): LCA is a technique used to measure product or building environmental impacts, such as carbon footprint, throughout its life cycle. Typically, an LCA measures impacts from raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing, use and end of life. The LCA is the backbone of an environmental product declaration (EPD). LCAs are based on guidelines published by the International Organization of Standards. They are used globally.
    
• Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): EPDs are a comprehensive disclosure of a product's impacts throughout its life cycle. EPDs are also known as Type 3 Eco Labels. Like LCAs and PCRs, EPDs follow the International Organization of Standards guidelines. They are used globally.
    
• Product Category Rules (PCR): PCRs are like a recipe for producing an LCA and EPD. They establish the methodology that all product manufacturers in a category must follow when creating an EPD. PCRs follow the International Organization of Standards guidelines. They are used globally.
    
• Declare: The Declare label was created by the International Living Future Institute in support of the stringent materials requirements of the Living Building Challenge. Declare is a simple ingredients label that facilitates communication of transparent material information between suppliers and consumers. Declare is used globally.
    
• Health Product Declarations (HPDs): HPDs are a standard format for transparent disclosure of building product ingredients and associated hazards. HPDs were created by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative and are mainly used in North America.

Myths and mysteries

Now that we all have a common understanding of the types of transparency tools and product declarations commonly discussed, let's focus on four common myths and mysteries.

1. All product declarations follow the same standard

It's a common misconception that LCA, EPDs and HPDs are all created following globally recognized ISO standards and are based on PCRs. Only LCAs and EPDs are created following ISO guidelines, and therefore only LCAs and EPDs are based on PCRs.

HPDs, on the other hand, are created following an open standard format developed by a U.S based-nonprofit organization called the Healthy Product Declaration Collaborative.

As mentioned above, Declare was created by the International Living Future Institute and is based on publicly available criteria.

2. All product declarations address the same issues

The primary function of EPDs is to disclose information about the environmental impact of a product. This includes things such as carbon footprint, embodied energy and ozone depletion potential, among others. EPDs also can disclose product performance information such as indoor air quality test results and recycled content, limited ingredient information and facts about a company's sustainability commitments.

Health and ingredient disclosure tools such as HPDs and Declare focus on building product content and ingredient disclosure. They also sometimes disclose hazards associated with content and ingredients.

With an HPD, manufacturers can choose to fully disclose all ingredients or only disclose a portion of ingredients. If one does not fully disclose all ingredients in the HPD, they must identify health hazards of remaining portions of product. Declare requires manufacturers to provide their full ingredients list, in addition to basic information about the product such as product source location and lifespan. The Living Futures Institute then assesses the ingredients to determine if any of those ingredients are on the Living Building Challenge red list, a list of 13 of the worst-in-class toxic chemicals and materials commonly found in building materials today. Manufacturers have to publicly disclose at least 99 percent of their ingredients and confirm any remaining ingredients less than 1 percent are not on the Living Building Challenge red list to participate in the program.

3. All product declarations define a product's greenness

I've said it before and I'm sure I will say it again: Product declarations are one tool in the specification toolbox and they don't tell you if products are green. Product declarations are disclosure tools that allow you to gain the information you need to make more informed, smarter purchasing decisions. They complement other environmental and sustainability performance labels and certifications, and encourage overall improvement in sustainability performance.

4. Product declarations are only marketing tools

This is possibly the most important myth to debunk. Sure, product declarations are a major component of any leading manufacturers marketing mix. However, this is not their most important use. Product declarations are most powerful when they are used as an internal management tool for measuring, monitoring and improving impact reduction. Companies with leading sustainability agendas adopt product declarations to help them understand where to find and reduce the greatest impacts in their product development, production and distribution processes. The information gathered during the product declaration creation process also informs future strategy and R&D decisions. Overall, product declarations are a footprint reduction, cost reduction and risk mitigation tool, just as much as they are a marketing tool.

Final thoughts

Ensuring a project meets its goals means using the best products that align with project requirements. Because of the emphasis on transparency from green building rating systems, understanding the differences among the various product disclosure types will help building teams avoid confusion -- and possibly something even worse -- down the road.

This article originally appeared at Environmental Construction and Design.

Magnifying glass image by Laborant via Shutterstock.