Environmental Product Declarations 101

By now you’re likely aware of the big changes to the Materials and Resources (M&R) credits under LEED v4. If not, the following article might come as a surprise. Regardless, hopefully BASF can shed a little light on one area we’ve been working on for the past three years – Environmental Product Declarations (EPD).  In simple terms let’s peel back the layers to understand the following:

What is an EPD?
The EPD process
EPD in practice

The intent is not to make you an expert but to give you enough information to navigate the credit and know what you’re asking for and what you’re getting in return from suppliers.

What is an EPD?

An EPD reports a comprehensive set of environmental impacts in compliance with the International Standards Organization ISO) 14025 and ISO 21930.    Under ISO 14021, 14024 and 14025, there are different environmental labels that exist.

Type I label is a verified label that meets a set of standards. Examples are Energy Star and the FSC label for lumber.
Type II label is a self-declaration by an organization on their product or products and might provide information such as the recycled content in the product or in the packaging material.
verified ISO Type III label contains Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) results which may provide additional product and environmental performance information. (LCA uses guidance from ISO 14040 and 14044.)

To put the output of an EPD into context let’s look at the nutrition label below (Figure 1) that you would find on a box of cereal or bottle of soda for example.  These labels provide information relative to health impacts associated with consuming a particular product such as saturated fat or total carbohydrates per serving size.  Similarly an EPD provides environmental impact information such as climate change or acidification potential (acid rain) based on a declared unit, in this case one cubic meter of concrete.


Figure 1 Putting EPD’s in context – nutrition labels compared to EPD’s


The EPD Process

This process can be quite lengthy and involved. It begins with Product Category Rules (PCR) which define the rules and requirements for an EPD in a certain product category.    For example, if you wanted 10 batches of similar chocolate chip cookies to compare from 10 different bakers you would need a recipe.

Simply stated the PCR defines which data is used in a life cycle analysis and how the data is collected and reported. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analyzes the data specified in the PCR. The LCA measures inputs, outputs and environmental impacts of a product across its lifespan from cradle to grave. The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is the summary document of data collected in the LCA as specified by the PCR. This process is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 The EPD Process


EPD in practice

Recognizing that buildings are a large contributor to carbon emissions, mitigating this at a product level with science based environmental data has the potential to make a huge impact. This type of data allows the design community to evaluate trade-offs on both performance and environmental criteria which has become an element of the building profession.  This drive for environmental information has happened for a variety of reasons such as USGBCs LEEDv4 which calls for EPD in the revised M&R credits; Architecture 2030 challenge which calls for the reduction of carbon and fossil fuel energy consumption for new and renovated buildings and lastly the proliferation of EPD globally, particularly in furniture and flooring, is putting pressure on more US manufacturers to provide the same level of transparency.

To highlight how this would work in practice, let’s consider that you’re designing a building that will use a significant amount of concrete. Portland cement, a key ingredient in concrete, is extremely carbon intensive by virtue of how it is produced. Recognizing that your firm and your client are interested in driving down the carbon foot print of the project one place to start is by requiring an EPD from your concrete producer. The results of this process may allow you to compare various mix designs to see which one offers the most carbon savings. Figure 3 shows fly ash and slag as replacements for Portland Cement with Green Sense® being a proprietary mix optimization program from BASF. As you can see carbon emission savings results from optimizing the mix design – replacing Portland Cement with a secondary material lowers the overall carbon footprint. Using practical equivalencies to show gas, energy and water savings helps put environmental impact categories in perspective.


Figure 3 Mix designs and carbon emissions with practical equivalencies.


Moving forward utilize the information here to ask questions of your manufacturers about the information you’re gathering on projects. If EPDs are provided, question the process:

Is there a PCR guided by ISO 14025 and ISO 21930?
Is the LCA guided by ISO 14040 and 14044?
Is the EPD third party verified?
Recognize that a Type III EPD has three main parts 1.) A description of the company and product, 2.) A section for environmental performance and 3.) A section for reviewing bodies and standards.

Conduct your due diligence so you’re getting the best information possible and not unintentionally proliferating greenwashing.

FYI NOTE: In the International Standard (ISO 21930:2017), EPD is an abbreviation used to represent both the single and plural full form designation of “environmental product declaration”, which is intended to be synonymous with the designation “type III environmental declaration”.

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