In today's eco-conscious world, making informed choices about the products we buy is more important than ever. But with so much information out there, it can be hard to know which products are truly sustainable. Enter the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), a powerful tool that sheds light on the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle.

What is an EPD?

Glasses, seeing a blurry image of trees clearly

Think of an EPD as a transparent report card for a product's environmental performance. It's a standardized document that assesses the impact of a product throughout its life cycle, in a comparable and verified way.

This means it considers the product beyond manufacturing (typically including from extraction of raw materials to its final disposal). The way it measures environmental impact is through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which quantifies environmental impact. It does so based on emissions, resources consumed, or other environmental effects.

EPDs can be used to communicate environmental performance to the market, for comparison of suppliers, or to reuse the data further in one’s own LCA analyses.

Why should you use EPDs?

The rules for EPDs ensure that results are scientific, comparable and reliable. Let’s dive into each of those traits, and how they are achieved.

Scientific: LCA

At the heart of EPDs is LCA, which is the most scientifically robust and rigorous method to measure the environmental impact of a product or service. Based on ISO 14040 and 14044, it provides a structure and framework to perform the assessment, which separates clearly the data gathered during the study (for which the specific case is most important) and the environmental assessment methods (for which it’s best to use scientifically robust impact assessment methods).

Having LCA at its core guarantees that EPDs stay up-to-date with the advancements of scientific research, as well as mitigating the risks of subjective data or narrow points of view when measuring environmental impacts.

Comparable: PCR

An image of Earthster comparing two alternatives

Numbers of environmental impact are only valuable as long as they’re comparable. In order to achieve this in EPDs, products from the same product category must follow a set of agreed “rules of the game”, that is, predetermined decisions on what the underlying LCA is considered. Those rules are called Product Category Rules or PCRs, and are generally produced and owned by a neutral 3rd party.

An LCA that is not limited by a PCR can make decisions in relation to the scope of the study (what is included in the LCA), data quality criteria, allocation, etc. Having a shared PCR makes all those traits the same, which makes the final results comparable.

Reliable: 3rd party verification

In any corporate disclosure, there’s always the paradox of sharing: the company wants to share the assessment, but can often not share the details inside. Because of this, EPDs always have a stage of 3rd party verification. A neutral 3rd party that is experienced in LCA must verify that the models and results are compliant with the PCR, and with LCA best practices.

This step makes the information you read in the EPD more trustworthy, since the process avoids potential greenwashing (intended or accidental). It also adds value to the entities doing the 3rd party verification, because all the data shared is supported as well by the 3rd party, not only by the manufacturer.

How to get an EPD

You’re convinced: how can you get an EPD for your product?

Step 1: Identify your PCR

To make sure you’re following the right rules and constraints, you must find the right PCR for your product or products. Listing like the one available in SmartEPD or EPD International can help you identify it.

You sometimes might find that there’s no specific PCR for your product, and that you have to use a more general one, based on a wide product category. Some other times, there might be more than one possibility, in which case you’ll need to see which fits best, or which one your customers will be most interested in.

Step 2: Your LCA

This is the heart of your EPD, and often the largest part of getting an EPD. In particular, it involves gathering all the data about your product, building a model, and providing the calculations.

The calculations of the LCA itself can be subcontracted to consultants, or performed in-house by your company. Either way, you will need to think about data collecting and sharing, which makes the selection of your LCA tool potentially very relevant.

Sometimes, the step of formatting the LCA for EPD is noted as an extra step. In practice, you will need to be aware of the documentation requirements while doing the LCA, and you should make sure your software allows you to document according to the EPD programme.

Step 3: Get it verified

You will need to find an approved verifier (individual or entity), and have them review your LCA. This 3rd party will need to go through your LCA’s documentation in detail, to make sure it meets the relevant standards, as well as requirements of EPD and the selected PCR.

In many places you will read that you have to compile a report for reviewers that is more extensive than the EPD itself. But that is not a prerequisite of EPDs itself, For example, with Earthster, you can give reviewers access to your full model, in a way that the verification happens collaboratively and efficiently. And programme operators such as SmartEPD have a fully automated process for the third party review.

The output of this step is a verification report, prerequisite for the registration of your EPD.

Step 4: Register it!

You’ve gone through the whole process, it’s time to turn your LCA into the right PDF shape (and optional XML format), together with the verification report, and send it to the registration body to have it listed. You now have an EPD!

You can read more about the process, as well as more detailed constraints, in the website of EPD International.

How to use EPDs

EPDs as a framework ensure transparency. But there are many ways of businesses getting advantage of this framework:

  • Publish EPDs for your products. The process above may look somewhat complex, but modern tools let you follow that process at scale. In some markets, this might be the difference between you showing up in your customers’ sales process or not. And in others, it can be a differentiator when they ask about your product’s footprint, and all your competitors are just giving their aggregate company footprint.
  • Ask for EPDs, or look for the EPD logo, on your purchases. Many manufacturers and retailers are now sharing EPDs for their products. Whilst it’s not a guarantee that the product’s environmental impact is lower, it does show commitment from the company.
  • Compare alternative suppliers with EPDs. If you’re comparing alternatives, chances are they are in the same product category, and thus follow the same PCR. If they have EPDs already in place, you will have high-quality information for your decision. And if they aren’t, you’re contributing to them having that information in the near future!
  • Set rules for your procurement (having EPDs, or even maximum/minimum values). Some corporations, governments and organizations use EPDs in procurement policies, ensuring more sustainable purchases.

By understanding and utilizing EPDs, we can all play a role in creating a more sustainable future. So next time you’re asked about your products’ environmental performance, share your EPD with them. Or when purchasing something, ask for the products’ EPD. It might just be the key to making a greener choice.

Do you have any questions about EPDs? Do you want to implement them at scale in the most efficient - and friendly - way possible? Book a meeting!