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How to benefit from the global growth and harmonisation of EPDs

The global hype around Environmental Product Declarations is gathering momentum as businesses and governments demand to understand how their procurement choices impact on the environment. Following are some of the trends surrounding EPDs and the opportunities on offer discussed during a webinar with expert Jane Anderson, principal consultant with thinkstep in the UK, Stephen Mitchell, chair of the Australasian EPD Programme and Barbara Nebel, managing director of thinkstep in Australasia.

Demand for Environmental Product Declarations has exploded on both sides of the Atlantic and if Europe and the US are anything to go by, EPDs will be the next big thing in Australasia. In the past five years, we have gone from 400 construction EPDs to over 3600.

Though EPDs are still quite new in Australia and New Zealand there is a very strong pipeline coming through.

What’s driving demand?

The demand for EPDs can’t be put down to just one factor. Different markets have different drivers but building rating schemes and government regulation have certainly played a significant role.

In Germany, there is the Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) rating system and regulation that large public projects must include building life cycle assessment as a core, mandatory part of the assessment. In the US, LEED is driving uptake, and in France regulation requires an EPD if you want to attach any type of environmental claim to your building product.

Closer to home, we’re already seeing state governments mandate EPDs as part of the tender process in some projects, according to Stephen Mitchell. The South West Rail Link Extension Corridor has made EPDs a contractual requirement for the rail cars that will be delivered as part of the project.

The trend of rating schemes encouraging uptake is also mirrored in Australia and New Zealand where Green Star and ISCA are contributing significantly to demand. Since the Australasian EPD Programme launched in 2015, there have already been 41 EPDs completed by 19 companies, including Liberty OneSteel, Bluescope Steel, Dulux and the Australian timber industry. 

The incentives are continuing to mount up too. Australasian EPDs are now recognised under the Australian government’s revised National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) for Products and Services.

The revised standard states that organisations that have registered an EPD with the Australasian EPD Programme are able to use a streamlined carbon neutral certification process. It’s a further for bonus for companies employing life cycle thinking and completing an EPD. It means they can reap the benefits of NCOS without going through the life cycle assessment again. A similar approach is planned for New Zealand.

 

What about all the different EPD programs?    

The number of EPD programs worldwide has grown in response to demand. For reference, the program is the system under which the EPD is registered. In Australia and New Zealand the Australasian EPD Programme is aligned with the International EPD System, headquartered in Sweden.

The largest programs are those of Germany, the US and France, however, newcomers such Turkey, India, and Latin America and the Australasian program are generating significant interest too. It’s a positive development to see the new and existing programs align themselves under mutual recognition agreements.

This means that an EPD for an Australian product produced to the requirements of the Australasian EPD Programme can also be registered with the EPD programs in Germany, Norway, the US and Spain, for example, or vice versa, with any subtle differences able to be accounted for in an annex, giving much wider recognition. Due to mutual recognition, EPDs published with the Australasian program have access to a huge number of markets.

Further benefits

While we’re busy focusing on how an EPD will make our product more specifiable, we shouldn’t forget that life cycle analysis and EPDs allow you to improve the product itself. A life cycle view offers unparalleled insight into environmental impacts and resource consumption at different stages of the production process. In identifying hotspots, not only are you able to make a greener product, you can often reduce cost too.

Businesses have become very good at paying close attention to the inflows and outflows at a macro level, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t extend to a product level too. Using the detailed analysis of inputs and outputs, many companies find they are able to tune the production process to save water, energy and materials and boost return. In many EPDs completed in Australia and New Zealand, companies have identified opportunities to save materials, energy or water. Beyond marketability, this is an immediate, tangible result.

Four future trends

  1. Building rating systems will move to extract full value out of EPDs

Some schemes treat EPDs as a tick-box exercise which gives credit for using materials that have an EPD, rather than using the EPDs to select materials based on environmental impact. Ultimately, the aim of building rating schemes is to transition to more environmentally friendly buildings. Rating schemes are continuously evolving and, as we approach a point where an EPD for a building product becomes standard, we are likely to see a shift towards credits given on the content of the EPD rather than just its existence.

  1. As EPDs are becoming increasingly aligned globally, initiatives are under way to develop a consistent, machine-readable format

Companies are telling us that their customers want to understand product choices and their impact on the environment. Providing the data in a machine-readable format further improves transparency and ability to assess impacts through the whole life cycle. It’s another step towards having EPD data seamlessly integrated into more sustainable decision-making processes.

  1. While traditionally the domain of LCA experts, the application of EPDs is becoming mainstream

In construction, building software solutions such as BIM and CAD recognise the need for life cycle thinking and work is currently underway to integrate EPDs into software, allowing the environmental footprint to be calculated at the click of a button. EPDs become most usable in building models that are able to auto-calculate the quantities of materials used as opposed to using large spreadsheets.

Integrated EPD data will empower architects and other building professionals to assess the impacts of different materials early in the design phase without requiring extensive LCA knowledge or dedicated LCA software.

  1. EPDs are not just for the construction sector

EPDs have been completed locally for products such as Asaleo Care, Zip and David Trubridge. Globally, EPDs are becoming popular in the transportation sector (Bombardier produced a second EPDs for a plane recently) and the food and beverage sector. Given the significant impact of agriculture, there’s great potential for the sector here too. For organisations committed to ISO 20400 on Sustainable Procurement, EPDs are a valuable tool in assessing product or service options. In that sense, EPDs are likely to appeal to manufacturers across the board who look to position themselves as sustainable suppliers.

In a nutshell, it’s an exciting time for EPDs, both locally and globally. The early adopters are already on board and there has been a phenomenal growth in interest. They’re the gold standard in communicating environmental credentials and there’s no doubt they’re here to stay.

thinkstep’s “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth” webinar “The global trends of EPDs” is available as Video on Demand.

Florian Nebel is a sustainability economist who has a background in banking and finance.

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