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Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are, in theory, the answer to our product information prayers. To the extent enabled by the appropriate Product Category Rule (PCR), a product’s EPD discloses environmental life-cycle assessment results including its ingredients and environmental impacts. If that information is validated and certified by a credible third party, so much the better. To better understand how all that works, check out BuildingGreen’s graphical EPD primer (PDF) and our feature article on product transparency (member link).
Current LCA methods are not very helpful for some key issues, such as human health, ecological toxicity, and habitat disruption, so most EPDs wisely omit those categories. Even the information that remains, however—a 20-30 page structured summary of an LCA study that might run 100 pages or more—can easily overwhelm designers and other potential users of all this information.
In an effort to make the key parts of this information more accessible, UL Environment (ULe) has now unveiled a new two-page “Transparency Brief” that summarizes the LCA results even further. ULe collaborated with Perkins+Will on this new format, building on that firm’s work in 2011 creating product transparency label for Construction Specialties, and with Interface, which had produced its own summary view of its EPDs when they first came out in 2011.
A single EPD often covers multiple configurations of a product, but to keep the Transparency Brief simple it is limited to just one configuration, so each EPD can spawn multiple briefs. You can see the new Tranparency Briefs, along with their associated EPDs, by searching UL’s so-called “Sustainable Products Database” for certification type: “Environmental Product Declarations.”
The Transparency Brief does a nice job highlighting the key EPD information, and serves as a useful teaching tool about LCA and EPDs, with explanations of the impact categories and tables listing ingredients, recycled content, and other data. This teaching function is enhanced by keeping placeholder cells even for non-existent information—though they could have gone even further to make it clear where current LCA’s don’t tell the entire story.
UL intends to make the format available to any EPD producer, according to Heather Gadonniex, Lead, Strategic Development and Innovation at ULe, and is differentiating its own EPDs with a new “badge” declaring that the Transparency Brief is based on a UL certified EPD.
When it comes to the fundamental problem of making this information accessible and usable to designers and other decision makers, however, it’s not clear how much the Transparency Brief really helps. Its paper or PDF structure is stuck in the 20th-century document paradigm, which is not a great model for helping users sift through huge amounts of data and make comparative decisions. For reviewing data on individual products, a smartphone app model might be more helpful, with summary views of the data linking to additional details from the EPD and the underlying LCA as needed.
Ultimately, however, users need access to this data in a way that they can easily compare and manipulate, ideally within the context of a data-rich design tool. I hope that the folks at ecoScorecard and Autodesk are burning the midnight oil (ok, so that’s a 19th-century metaphor) to bring us that functionality so we can stop managing documents to manage data.
New formats alone won’t solve this problem—we also need comparable data for many more products to put each product’s information in context. ULe hopes to be the provider—or at least the certifier—of most of those EPDs. It will be an interesting year or two as all this gets sorted out, along with the question of how the new Health Product Declarations (HPDs) factor into the mix. While it doesn’t solve many of the problems, the new Transparency Brief is a step in that direction.
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