Labels Lead to Choice
Comparing Single- and Multi-attribute Standards and Environmental Product Declarations
By Kimbrely Matsoukas
Age, background and values are three demographics that greatly influence a consumer’s perception of the ideal green product. For example, someone growing up in an urban area with poor air quality may value products with a low contribution to smog while a commercial fisherman may look for products that don’t contribute to water pollution.
Although some people put a lot of value on one environmental attribute, most people are looking for more than one attribute in a “sustainable” product. Someone may want a product that’s high in recycled content and has a low contribution to air pollution. Having a multitude of definitions of what “green” means, derived from personal beliefs and goals, makes labeling green products difficult for the manufacturer and purchasing green products even more challenging for the consumer.
Given this diversity in definitions and ideas about sustainable products, it’s no surprise the marketplace today is flooded with various environmental product labels.
Most of these labels and claims address a single attribute, such as recycled content or low-emitting materials. ENERGY STAR is a single-attribute label, familiar to most, which measures the energy efficiency of various electronics, for instance. The reality is single-attribute claims are not a holistic measurement of sustainability and give very little information about the product. This limits the usefulness of these labels for those requiring multiple sustainable attributes in a product. For example, someone who wants to buy a sustainable product that is energy efficient and non-toxic would not be able to make an informed decision based on the ENERGY STAR label alone.
Multi-attribute standards generally are more useful to consumers with more than one criterion for a sustainable product. They take a more comprehensive approach and generally contain multiple criteria based on various stages in the product’s life cycle—from raw materials to manufacturing to end of life. Additionally, this type of standard often offers multiple levels of certification. Thus, a product with greater levels of environmental performance earns a higher level of certification.
NSF 140, “Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard,” takes into account everything from the toxicity of the materials in the product to the energy used to make the product to the percentage of product the manufacturer recycles at the end of its life. Certification to NSF 140 is awarded based on the number of points earned in each of these categories. Another example is the LEED rating system. LEED is essentially a multi-attribute standard for buildings in that it measures a building’s environmental performance and awards certification based on multiple criteria.
Identifying environmental trade-offs is important because not everyone is aware that something seemingly positive, like increasing the recycled content of a building material, may actually increase the environmental impact of the product in a different category, like the VOC emissions of the material.
Although multi-attribute standards are a more inclusive approach to sustainability, they still do not take into account any trade-offs that may exist between different environmental attributes. Identifying environmental trade-offs is important because not everyone is aware that something seemingly positive, like increasing the recycled content of a building material, may actually increase the environmental impact of the product in a different category, like the VOC emissions of the material. Another potential drawback of multi-attribute standards, such as LEED, is they attempt to define what makes the product/building sustainable by assigning point values to certain attributes, like renewable-energy usage or recycled content of materials. Given the diversity of opinions with respect to product sustainability, it’s likely that one’s personal values regarding sustainability may differ from that of the standard rendering this rating system subjective.
Moreover, neither single-attribute labels nor multi-attribute standards give specifiers or end users information about the life-cycle environmental impacts of a product. For instance, the percentage of recycled content in a product reveals nothing about its impact on climate change, smog, water pollution or other environmental considerations. This could be compared to a food manufacturer disclosing that its product contains flour without disclosing the nutritional information, like grams of fat or the number of calories. The health-conscious consumer would not be able to make good decisions with this limited amount of information. The same goes for environmentally conscious specifiers and end users trying to make educated decisions without full disclosure of environmental information for a product.
Luckily, there is an environmental label in the marketplace that is objective and contains the information necessary for consumers to make well-informed decisions. Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs, are an environmental label that gives a specifier or end user, transparent, third-party verified life-cycle information so that he or she can make an informed choice with respect to the environmental impact of the product across various categories. Specifically, EPDs disclose information about product ingredients, energy and material resources used throughout the life cycle of the product, and the life-cycle environmental impacts of the product.
What’s more, the information contained within an EPD is standardized through the creation of product category rules, or PCRs. PCRs establish the parameters and boundaries for the preparation of an EPD. In other words, EPDs for products belonging to the same category must follow consistent procedures to allow for comparability of data across products. For instance, the climate-change impact of two different flooring products in the same EPD system could be compared.
In much the same way one can compare the number of calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates in different food products, EPDs allow one to compare the environmental impact of different products in various categories.
In much the same way one can compare the number of calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates in different food products, EPDs allow one to compare the environmental impact of different products in various categories, including climate change, smog formation and ozone depletion. EPDs do not define what is sustainable or place value judgments on product attributes. Rather, they present the information in a transparent, standardized and third-party-verified way and allow purchasers to decide which product they feel is more sustainable.
In the examples given above, the urban dweller concerned about air quality would use EPDs to pick the product with the lowest life-cycle impact on smog while the commercial fisherman would choose the product with the lowest water pollution impact. EPDs are the environmental label that empowers consumers to make the right “green” choice for them based on their values, background and experience.
While the market is filled with seemingly endless definitions, standards and labels attempting to define what make a product sustainable, EPDs are an environmental label that truly gives a purchaser the freedom to decide for him or herself.
Kimbrely Matsoukas is sustainability manager for City of Industry, Calif.-based Bentley Prince Street, which received an environmental product declaration for its 24-ounce solution-dyed products using High PerformancePC backing.