Those wishing to make more sustainable purchasing decisions have a challenge on their hands.

Thankfully, there's an increasing array of tools available that aim to assist such decision making. One such tool, Environmental Product Declarations (EPD), is comparatively new in Australia and sits alongside ecolabels, life cycle analysis (LCA) assessments, and other methods of assessing and rating products. But what is the difference between these tools and how do they all compare?

An Environmental Product Declaration is exactly what it says: it declares the environmental performance of a product, much like a food label that declares nutritional information, thereby encouraging much needed transparency in the industry. Information is provided on several environmental impact key performance indicators (KPIs) such as climate change, ozone depletion, and damage to aquatic environments (eutrophication), to name a few.

The performance on these KPIs is determined through a quantitative LCA of the product within a specified system boundary (that is, the range of stages or processes along the life cycle of the product that are selected for the analysis). An EPD is a simplified, easily digestible way of communicating how a product performs according to key environmental criteria.

However, the simplified nature of EPDs can have significant limitations. For example, the document reports on environmental performance, but this could mean anything ranging from 'poor' to 'business as usual' to 'excellent' and everything in between.

EPDs give no indication of how a product performs compared to other products on the market - is it a better environmental choice, or an inferior one? Purchasers and specifiers are left to make this decision themselves. While nutrition labels are also similar by comparison, the information is typically much easier to understand and the impact of any decision is usually restricted to the person making the decision. Information on product environmental performance in an EPD is more complex, involves trade-offs, and product selection can have a wider impact at a much larger scale.

EPDs can also vary widely depending on the extent of the system boundary used in generating the EPD. While some EPDs are based on a 'cradle to grave' approach, which takes into account the impacts of a product from materials sourcing to disposal, other EPDs only consider the impacts from 'cradle to gate' - from materials sourcing till the product leaves the manufacturer’s “gate.” This could in some cases fail to address what may be the significant environmental impact that results from use and/or disposal of the product at the end of its life. In addition, EPDs also fail to take into account other important measures of sustainability performance, such as social and ethical considerations.

EPDs can also vary depending upon whether they are “industry wide” or “product specific.” Industry wide EPDs are averaged over the whole industry, so they are cheaper and easier. However, it also means that top performers are scaled down and bad performers are scaled up in this process. Product specific EPDs are more expensive but more accurately reflect the performance of that particular product.

An ecolabel, on the other hand, is an independently verified label given to identify proven environmental preference of a specific product or service (that is, the product meets certain standards of performance that are usually well beyond “business as usual”) within a specific product or service category. Ecolabels are based on a rigorous scientific understanding of these potential impacts and trade-offs, stakeholder consultation and alignment with international standards to ensure an optimum outcome.

Each ecolabel scheme can have its own standards and criteria, and its own methods for assessing whether a product or service meets those criteria. Since an ecolabel is only awarded to a product that satisfies the relevant criteria, this gives a much clearer indication that the performance of those products is superior to their competitors'.

Ecolabels also have greater freedom and flexibility to recognise other aspects of sustainability performance compared to EPDs. The Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) ecolabel, for example, assesses a range of health, social and ethical criteria in addition to the environmental impact of a product or service. By focussing on a product's sustainability performance more broadly, a potential buyer can gain a more holistic view of whether they are making a good purchasing decision.

EPDs do have their benefits. They are a transparent, verifiable way of showing the environmental impact of a product and making that information more readily accessible compared to a lengthy technical report, such as the LCA report an EPD may be based on.

However, an EPD does not indicate that a product is an environmentally preferable choice, any more than the presence of a nutritional label on food indicates that the product is a healthy choice. It merely provides information, which can make discerning between products a more challenging process. Ecolabels provide the expertise and set standards to take the guesswork out of choosing products with the best sustainability credentials.