Opinion: Orwellian EPDs Ignore the Worst Impacts of Wood, Vinyl
Life-cycle assessment (LCA) and environmental product declarations (EPDs) are touted as comprehensive, objective sustainability assessment and reporting tools—and indeed they have their merits. Among their strengths is that they deal with things that are more or less precisely measureable.
But results produced by LCA are only as good as underlying data, methods for calculating impacts, and rules for what impacts must be disclosed—and how—in the related EPD.
Sometimes critical impacts are not addressed in EPDs. For example, the ecological impacts of different forms of land use, such as logging and agriculture, are ignored in most EPDs. So are the health impacts of toxic chemicals.
In other words, despite assertions by LCA promoters, as things stand today, LCA is not truly comprehensive.
A wood EPD that doesn’t address forest management
The unfortunate fact is that certain industries benefit from (and appear to actively exploit) blind spots such as these. Take, for example, this EPD for North American softwood lumber.
Prominent on the first page is a claim that the LCA study covers all processes, including forest management. The average reader may assume that it covers all forest management impacts, but it doesn’t. The most significant impacts of industrial forestry—including but not limited to harm to forest ecosystems, biodiversity, and soil and water quality—are not addressed, a critical omission that is not mentioned in the EPD.
What many regard as the most important impacts underlying forest products—namely, those arising from logging—are simply not considered. This not only hides major impacts but also paints all forms of logging as having the same environmental profile, regardless of whether the logging practices are low-impact or highly intensive.
A vinyl EPD that doesn’t mention toxicity
Or consider this EPD for PVC pipe. It leads with a statement that the “PVC pipe industry recognizes the benefits of communicating credible, science-based and transparent environmental information about its products.” But nowhere does the EPD mention the serious threats to the health of humans and other animals related to the manufacture and disposal of PVC.
The conclusion is obvious: in the wrong hands, LCA and EPDs can be used to greenwash rather than reveal the most serious environmental and health impacts of certain products and materials. To do this in the name of science and full disclosure is nothing less than Orwellian.
LCA and EPDs hold great promise—but reform is needed so that their potential can be realized.
Jason Grant is the director of Greenwash Action, an initiative with roots in the environmental community whose mission is to defend leadership and challenge greenwash in the green building sector. He is also the principal of Jason Grant Consulting, a consultancy focused on serving the ecological forest products industry.
Published August 3, 2015