The Science Behind Shopping For the Environment

By Thomas Landreth

Barcode with green tree illustrationLast week EPA announced draft guidelines under consideration to help purchasers across the federal government select the most environmentally-friendly and safe products.  Key components are the development and use of environmental standards and “ecolabels” to help make the environmental performance of products, such as energy output efficiency or the amount of biomaterial used during development, a seamless part of comparison shopping along with unit prices.

The challenge with coming up with such guidelines is that there are different standards for communicating environment performance on labels. When environmental performance claims are based on different standards, comparison of environmental performance information on labels is not possible.

EPA researchers are working to help. They recently co-led an international initiative to develop guidance on Product Category Rules (PCR), which will help organizations develop guidelines for products. Ultimately PCRs will allow comparable analyses of products’ environmental impacts.

The power of PCRs lie with generating a wider consensus on an approach for evaluating environmental impacts. The PCR approach will cover a product’s entire production cycle (Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA) to ensure accurate product comparison.

The Product Category Rule Guidance Development Initiative is a voluntary, international effort with more than 40 participating organizations dedicated to improving this ongoing guidance document.

In the first version published in September, the Guidance for Product Category Rule Development focuses on several key areas, including the general planning process for product rules, identifying what they need to cover, and coordinating a review process and series of ‘best practices’ leading to eventual publication and use.

The European Union has recently launched a Product Environmental Footprint program that will use this guidance to develop the rules for labels for European products. In the US, where these types of labels are not as widespread, there has recently been an increase in demand for standardized environmental information for building products, in part because of the new LEED 4.0 green building standards making credits available for products with these labels.

Cover of the "Guidance for PCR Development"In terms of reliability of information, PCRs are a step forward in making environmental data accessible and applicable, to both scientists and the public, helping us all be better comparison shoppers.

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About the Author: Thomas Landreth is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.