The tools needed to produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) were available some 15 years ago. So why has it taken so long for Australia to get involved?

An EPD is a verified document that reports environmental information on a specific product or service, in accordance with the international standard ISO 14025 (Type III Environmental Declarations). The reported information is based on the results of a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), itself a lengthy and complex report. So you could say that an EPD is a very short and readable summary of an LCA.

EPDs do not classify or rank products, they simply state the product’s impacts against a series of predetermined environmental impact indicators (for instance climate change, ozone layer depletion and so on). The overarching aim is to allow consumers or businesses to compare products like to like. To do that, a series of rules called ‘Product Category Rules’ (PCRs) are defined for a given product type, aligning every assessment against the exact same criteria. PCRs are an integral part of the process required to publish an EPD. They improve the comparability of two products falling under the same category.

Overall, EPDs provide a way to publish verified, science-based and comparable information about the environmental performance of products.

However, they don’t just provide good information to the consumer; they can also provide valuable information to a manufacturer on the impacts of its products over their life cycle. Being based on an LCA, they provide an opportunity for manufacturers to identify environmental impact hotspots across a product’s life cycle and to focus impact reduction efforts on what have been identified as the most significant life cycle steps.

By 2000, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) had published a technical report on the procedure for developing EPD programs and EPDs. A myriad of activity has taken place on a global scale since. There are now over 15 EPD programs globally, in Asia, Europe and North America. Thousands of EPDs have been registered under these programs, detailing the environmental impacts of products and services as varied as nylon fabric, cleaning services, vinyl flooring, or mozzarella cheese.

Public policies have played a critical role in raising public awareness and driving the completion of EPDs. Since 2013, any company in France supplying building products to the French market and wanting to make claims on its environmental performances must have a published EPD to support its claims. The methodology to be used during the assessment is fixed by regulation, and so is the information to be provided. It has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of declarations publicly available, now exceeding 1,500. This activity is not limited to building products. By July 2017, this regulation will be applied to electric and electronic products as well as air-conditioning systems.

In Japan, the Eco-Leaf Program was introduced by the Japan Environmental Management Association for Industry (JEMAI) in 2002 to support the development of Type III environmental declarations, with support from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Since then, over 500 products have been registered, and information on their production and environmental performances can be accessed on JEMAI’s website. There is no doubt that the fact that a government body was backing up the program is in part responsible for its success.

So why has it taken so long to take hold here?

First, there was no recognised national EPD program in Australia until last year. No local EPD program meant a lower visibility for environmental declarations in Australia.

The second reason is that there has been very little market pull in Australia for product manufacturers to go through the process of developing and publishing EPDs, no strong public commitment and no significant market demand. Although global initiatives such as the International EPD Programme, in place since the end of the 1990s, allowed EPDs to be published anywhere in the world, Australia lacked market-driven and policy-driven impetus.

In the last year, however, we have seen two major events that may change the Australian landscape. The first is the official launch of the Australasian EPD Programme, a joint-venture of the Australian and New Zealand LCA Associations, launched in partnership with the International EPD Programme – giving credence at last to locally derived EPDs.

The second is the launch by the Green Building Council of Australia of updated versions of its Green Star rating tools. Under the new version of the tools, Green Star projects can now earn points by carrying out an LCA of their project compared to a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario and demonstrate that their project will have lower environmental impacts than the BaU scenario. Additionally, specifying a proportion of products covered by EPDs completed in accordance with ISO 14025 is a new way to earn points as well.

These two credits are closely interlinked, since EPDs can potentially be used during an LCA as a source of specific information on a product. Assessment tools such as eTool have been busy making this possible, meaning EPDs could take a prominent role in the actual life cycle assessment of buildings. This would indirectly push for the use of verified and transparent information on environmental performance to drive decision-making in the specification of building products – the original aim of Environmental Product Declarations.

Green Star is not the only building rating tool to recognise the value of EPDs. The DGNB (Germany), LEED (USA) and BREEAM (UK) include EPDs in their rating schemes, and the latter two are used in Australia.

With a credible system to verify and register EPDs now in place in Australia, close ties with the widely recognised International EPD Programme, demand drivers from building rating schemes, and able practitioners, we are now in a better position to see product manufacturers take EPD development seriously on our shores.