By Jim Weglewski, Andersen Corporation
It is likely we have all, at one point or another, attempted to make a responsible decision with the best information available, only to find out later the product wasn’t quite what we believed it to be. How do we inform and empower consumers to make the purchasing decision that truly reflects their values?
From box labels to acronyms, to hype from well-intentioned consumer groups, consumers can grow confused when trying to research and compare products. The available information can present incomplete or conflicting messages. Certifications portend to offer some direction, but most tend to be narrow in scope. “Single attribute” certifications can play much like single-issue voters, maximizing one desirable attribute while obscuring the full, and far less desirable, implications of a product or service.
Environmental impact is a complex notion with many facets, and is something I like to refer to as kaleidoscopic. The view changes dramatically with small changes in perspective. A clear set of standards is needed to simplify comparison across a balanced set of measures. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) do just this, while creating a common language that facilitates education and appreciation of the ever-widening impact of human activities.
We are all familiar with nutrition labels. Much like these food labels, an EPD shows the key environmental attributes of a product, within a standard context. Nutrition labels provide an uncluttered display of a balanced set of data like calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein. An EPD likewise provides a clear view of six standard impacts, including global warming potential.
Is all this information really necessary? Consider the example within the window industry of the ultra-high energy performance benefits of xenon gas-filled insulated glass (IG). Such IG units provide an advantage toward the single-factor energy performance value called U-factor. Hidden from the consumer is the large amount of energy required to extract the requisite amount of xenon from the atmosphere. The energy equivalent of more than a full barrel of oil is required to fill just a single window unit with xenon gas. This product feature makes a dubious tradeoff, inducing a large carbon footprint to gain modest improvement in a single energy efficiency metric. Does the investment in energy payoff over time? Only an EPD can tell you.
EPDs are not perfect. While their mission is a complete and balanced view of environmental impact, some important attributes may be left out. Product longevity and extended service life through serviceability are two factors that may not be encompassed by every EPD. Often, the product category rules governing an EPD will establish an industry standard life span. This practice obscures the very real difference between the most durable and least durable products in the industry.
Just as nutrition labels are based on a “serving size,” selected by the manufacturer, an EPD counts for a single purchase of the product in question. In the window industry, consider the large implications of a high quality window that delivers twice the standard performance life, versus a low cost, low durability window that last only half as long. Due to lasting four times as long, the EPD must be multiplied by four in order to provide a direct comparison between the two product choices.
As EPDs becomes mainstream, deeper benefits will be derived, as R&D departments looking for competitive advantage engineer more environmentally responsible products. Imagine a world where “carbon neutral” or ”100-year performance” becomes as commonplace as the “low fat” mantra in healthy food labelling. Consumer demand will spur healthy competition among manufacturers, and reduce or eliminate demand for under-performers in the environmental impact arena.
Simply put, 21st century enterprise is accelerating toward a new era of social good and climate justice. Companies destined to survive in the long term welcome the opportunity to open their books to the idea of transparency. This open world will ensure the prosperity and longevity of the true social enterprise, and fuel a virtuous cycle of transparency and ongoing innovation.
Andersen Corporation has been a proud, privately held company for more than 100 years, and we are embracing transparency in a way we have never done before. Our future will be one of transparency leadership in an industry whose products and practices provide solutions to our collective global climate challenge.
Jim Weglewski is vice president of Corporate Quality, Sustainability and Facilities for Andersen Corporation.