The most compelling argument I’ve heard for transparency in the marketplace is that transparency causes self-correcting behavior—that it’s not the metrics, it’s the peer pressure.

By now, most architects and designers along with some manufacturers are familiar with environmental product declarations (EPDs). The inclusion of EPDs in the LEED Pilot Credit 43 could have a major influence on transparency in the manufacturing industry, not to mention that it could expand access to robust third-party-verified information for the architecture and design community.

The great thing about an EPD (besides its transparency) is that it explains the life-cycle analysis (LCA) information in a clear, concise, and consistent manner from product type to product type. Because EPDs must follow product-category rules, they allow you to compare products in a more apples-to-apples approach, instead of asking manufacturers questions and getting responses back in many different formats. An EPD allows you to compare items that serve the same function, but have completely different chemical and physical properties.

My favorite analogy is to think about coffee. Let’s say you are making a trip to your local coffee shop. You have many options to choose from as to how to drink your coffee. If you are getting your coffee to go, you might get it in a Styrofoam or paper cup. If you are meeting someone and you intend to stay, you might choose a ceramic or glass mug—or perhaps you bring your own travel mug. An EPD would allow you to look at the LCA data of all of these coffee vessels so that you could determine which choice had the lowest environmental impact and then enjoy your coffee with a clear conscience.

The same concept holds true no matter the material or product: carpet versus porcelain tile; porcelain tile versus hardwood; hardwood versus carpet. An LCA-based EPD allows you to compare a product with others that serve the same function and then make an educated selection on behalf of your client. It allows you to compare different aspects of a product, such as embodied energy or water used in manufacturing, much like single- or multiattribute certifications—but using much more robust information. The only thing that could make EPDs better would be a little at-a-glance label to relay the most important information.

As an interior designer with BNIM, the recipient of the 2011 AIA Architecture Firm Award, I have had the privilege of working on some amazing, and not to mention highly sustainable, high-performing buildings. I had become used to evaluating products and materials on behalf of our clients using the limited, sometimes narrow-focused information provided by different industry certifications. But a few years ago, when I was asked to speak at Greenbuild International Conference and Expo on the topic of transparency in the marketplace, I began to appreciate the importance of life-cycle analysis and the major role that EPDs could play in product and material selection.

My introduction to the concept of EPDs started much earlier, in 2002, on one of my first projects at BNIM—the School of Nursing and Student Community Center for the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. On that project, the university’s goal for all furniture and movable-wall selection was to enhance sustainability by minimizing the impact of embodied energy and the resulting pollution in carbon dioxide.

To accomplish this, BNIM’s internal sustainable consulting group, Elements, developed an extensive questionnaire that was issued to major manufacturers in the form of a request for information (RFI). The questionnaire was not a comprehensive sustainability questionnaire, nor was it a scientific life-cycle analysis. Instead it was a series of 47 questions designed to collect key pieces of comparable data. Some categories considered were the use of certified wood, whether or not a product contained PVC, a manufacturer’s existing relationship with the university, and participation in in-house social-equity programs.

As with any analysis, the margin of success rested on the accuracy of the information provided and who provided it. In some instances, it appeared as though the person answering the question did not understand the query or that he or she was not the right person to be answering it. A comparative analysis report was created to facilitate product selection, and it noted how much of the information provided could be substantiated. It was a long and arduous process. The firm continued to use this approach of product and material inquiry and analysis on many subsequent projects. As I look back, I think about how much easier and more precise that process would have been if LCA-based EPDs had been in existence.

BNIM’s interiors group still uses the RFI process to short-list product manufacturers for project consideration. Although we have evolved our process since 2002 by refining our questions to include the most current industry information, in most cases we are still at the mercy of manufacturers and their claims. We can take industry certifications into account, but often the focus remains on single-attribute certifications such as Greenguard or Energy Star that highlight one aspect of a product. These are great certifications, but they lack the information regarding a product’s environmental impact throughout its life cycle.

The challenge with EPDs right now is that there are not a lot in existence, at least not in the United States. Interface has issued EPDs on its Convert product offering and has committed to work with UL Environment to complete EPDs on all of their products globally in 2012. Other manufacturers have made commitments to organizations such as the Green Standard, but little has surfaced regarding their progress.

That being said, dramatic action is starting to be seen. As mentioned earlier, LEED Pilot Credit 43: Certified Products has been launched. And, this year at Greenbuild in Toronto, Construction Specialties and Perkins+Will launched the industry’s first building-product transparency label. This is all compelling evidence that the concept is taking hold. The marketplace is demanding transparency, so the question is now how quickly manufacturers can deliver it.

Gretchen Holy is a programmer and interior designer at BNIM. For more information on EPDs, read “Transparency and the Role of Environmental Product Declarations,” a white paper from UL Environment.