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LEED Critics ‘Missing the Point’ of EPDs

Critics who fear that LEED has opened the door to alternative wood certifications have missed the point of pilot credit 43 for certified products, according to Deborah Dunning, founder and president of non-profit product development consultants The Green Standard.

Dunning said the credit’s value is in its recognition of environmental product declarations (EPDs).

“EPDs focus on core environmental impacts,” said Dunning. “It can serve as an uber-label that will encompass and reference a number of single-attribute labels like FSC. [But] EPD is not going to displace any existing labels.”

Dunning spoke to Environmental Leader as the Greenbuild conference and expo, which had seen several EPD-related announcements, drew to a close in Toronto.

Perhaps most controversially, on Thursday Greenpeace, ForestEthics, the National Wildlife Federation, and Rainforest Action Network took out a full-page ad in the Toronto Star, accusing the USGBC of greenwash. The ad alters the USGBC logo to read “U.S. Greenwash Building Council,” and says proposed changes to the LEED program “would reward the use of materials sourced from recklessly clearcut forests and rainforest destruction.”

In June, Jason Grant of the Sierra Club Forest Certification Team said pilot credit 43 will reward products verified by any of the five major forest certification systems – even though last December, U.S. Green Building Council members voted to give points only to wood carrying the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) seal.

Dunning said these types of criticisms miss the mark. She said that single-attribute or “type one” eco-labels often set benchmarks that need to be set, but don’t show the data or calculations behind those benchmarks. EPD, on the other hand, “does require that all relevant performance info be given and be based on life-cycle assessment methodology defined by ISO, so it’s showing you all the data, allowing you to take data on each impact and compare it.”

She said recognition of the pilot credit is growing. Greenbuild appeared to demonstrate heightened interest in EPD declarations, with a number of related company announcements. Interface said it is on track to complete environmental product declarations (EPDs) for 90 percent of its products, measured by production volume, by the end of 2011. The company committed last November to obtain EPDs on all products globally in 2012.

McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry announced that products using its Cradle to Cradle design framework are now eligible for a point through pilot credit 43.

And Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a global third-party certifier of environmental and sustainability claims, announced that it is certifying Type III EPDs to the new LEED Pilot Credit 43 as well as to the EPD requirements of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association.

SCS also announced it is offering a new generation of EPDs, called “comparative EPDs,” based on advanced life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) protocols and product category rules being standardized under the American National Standards Institute process.  These advances augment international life cycle assessment standards (ISO 14044), SCS said.

The Green Standard last week released its own white paper on how EPDs can contribute to LEED certification.

“U.S. manufacturers have begun to understand the value of using an EPD based on ISO standards, because it can be used globally and it will help them access foreign markets and help them be competitive in a much broader sense,” Dunning said.

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4 thoughts on “LEED Critics ‘Missing the Point’ of EPDs

  1. This article gets several things wrong. First, the pilot credit does explicitly recognize the SFI and other forest greenwash programs as part of its broader approach — and encouraging ecologically devastating forest practices in this way would cause LEED to miss its mark.

    Nor is it true that “[an] EPD… ‘does require that all relevant performance info be given and be based on life-cycle assessment [LCA] methodology defined by ISO, so it’s showing you all the data, allowing you to take data on each impact and compare it.’” In fact, current EPDs for North American wood products do not assess “all relevant performance info,” and ignore most of the environmental (and all of the social) impacts relevant to forests and forestry, including direct impacts to soils, waterways, and ecosystems. Equally important, EPDs are by definition not “performance standards;” they do not require forests or other resources to be managed for any particular level of sustainability.

    While transparency is an important goal, most EPDs and LCAs do not begin to be a sufficient basis for identifying environmentally and socially responsible wood products – or avoiding the most harmful wood products. The same is true of the proposed LEED 2012 credits for any wood whose harvest doesn’t happen to involve legal violations. These “bio-based” credits are another major flaw in LEED 2012, and would encourage some of the worst logging and deforestation, both globally and domestically, including harm to imperiled species’ habitats, watersheds, and other forest ecosystem values.

    As Todd Paglia told Grist the other day, “They’re on the brink of taking the second E out of LEED.” And that’s what needs disclosure.

  2. The USGBC Forest Certification Benchmark decision was notable chiefly for the fact that almost nobody voted. There are more than 20,000 USGBC members – 965 individuals representing 774 member companies opted into the section that voted on the forest certification credit. Of those, only 54% voted and the results were: ‘Yes’55%, ‘No’42%, ‘Abstain’3%. To succeed the ballot had to pass with a 60% ‘Yes’. In other words, after years of debate a rejectionist group of about 300 USGBC members prevented the credit change because it required a super-majority (of a minority). Greenpeace, ForestEthics, the National Wildlife Federation, and Rainforest Action Network are merely a bunch of dead-enders who have managed to latch onto a couple of overly generous foundations prepared to pay for a newspaper ad.

  3. While over-emphasis of EPD/LCA approaches is one current weakness of LEED 2012, it is sadly not the only one. Transparency is a reasonable goal, but to provide up to 5 credits for barely legal wood, as long as it’s transparent, is not “green.” Social and environmental performance in the forest is part of USGBC’s triple-bottom-line. The second draft of LEED 2012 forgets this fact. Hopefully the third draft will be much stronger.

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