Guide for Designers to Find a Responsible Selection of Sustainable Products
Essential information to guide designers into the sustainable products market, and to help them understand and evaluate the environmental characteristics of a sustainable product
By Paola Moschini and Michele Paleari
The construction sector has an enormous impact on the environment and is responsible for a fair share of environmental degradation. Building designers and architects have the opportunity and responsibility to prevent this problem from growing even bigger in the future — by making sustainable choices. For instance, selecting materials and products that benefit rather than harm the environment. To help navigate through the sustainable products market, there are tools, labels and declarations created to help understand and evaluate the environmental characteristics of a sustainable product.
The impact of the construction sector
Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown enormously since preindustrial times, with an increase of over 80 percent between 1970 and 2010. Waste generation is increasing with a similar pace; 70 percent from 2010 to 2025 (“5 reasons for Interior Designers and Architects to use Sustainable Materials”, Aquafil, 2015, p.3). In a scenario where the awareness about environmental concerns is growing, people in many sectors are working to provide real solutions to these issues.
The goals of Agenda 2030, promoted by the United Nations in the Paris Conference in 2015, are a good example of the concrete intent to address these issues: “We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations” (“Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, United Nations, 2015, p.2).
The construction sector is one of the most involved industries in terms of reducing the environmental impact, so it is essential that designers and architects adopt a life-cycle perspective in their projects.
To reduce the environmental impact of buildings along their lifespan, the manufacturers of building products and materials also play a key role; by improving the production cycles, reducing the CO2 emissions and using the resources in the most efficient way.
How to evaluate the sustainability of building materials and products
The sustainability of a product should be assessed during its entire lifespan — from the raw material extraction, through the production chain and the usage, to the final disposal and the subsequent reintroduction into responsible production processes.
Designers should commit to knowing the sustainable products market and understand the value of the products in terms of performance, environmental compatibility and durability. For this, they need to be informed on how to evaluate a sustainable product’s environmental characteristic. Eco-friendly products are available at fair prices and are easily identifiable on the market.
There are different tools to evaluate the sustainability of building materials and products, whether they are the steel of a load-bearing structure, a painting or a carpet for the interior finishing. Among these tools, the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is one of the most rigorous and well-known, and it is based on a scientific method, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
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The transparency environmental label
The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a Type-III environmental label that transparently describes the production process and the environmental profile of a product. A company, which certifies its product through EPD, provides the market with results deriving from a scientific environmental assessment, verified by an independent third party. Therefore, the company demonstrates an attitude of transparency toward the public and the potential customers, providing information on its supply chain, production cycles and product characteristics. Thus, the customers can independently evaluate the sustainability level of the products and make informed choices.
The EPD environmental information is based on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a consolidated tool for assessing the environmental impact of a product.
LCA is a scientific method that analyzes and measures the environmental impacts caused by products, production processes and services. It is based on the principle that any anthropic action involves the extraction of material and energy resources from the ecosphere (input flows) and the subsequent dispersion of solid, liquid or gaseous waste (output flows) in the environment.
The LCA method studies the quality and quantity of the input and output flows of the analyzed system and provides information on the consumption of fossil or renewable resources and on waste production. This method is named “life cycle analysis” because it focuses on all life phases of a product or a process, i.e. raw material collection, production, distribution on the market, use and maintenance, end-of-life and final disposal of waste, including the transport between one of the previous stages and the others.
The outcome of the evaluation is expressed through environmental impact indicators, such as:
- Global Warming Potential (GWP), kg CO2 eq., indicates the potential effect of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere;
- Ozone Layer Depletion Potential (ODP), kg CFC-11 eq., indicates the potential effect of the emissions of gasses that damage the stratospheric ozone layer;
- Acidification Potential (AP), kg SO2 eq., indicates the potential effect of the emission of substances that alter the pH level of land and water;
- Eutrophication Potential (EP), kg (PO4) ³⁻ eq., indicates the potential effect of the emission of substances that increase the nutrient content in the fresh water;
- Photochemical Ozone Creation Potential (POCP), kg C2H4 eq., indicates the potential effect of the emission of substances that facilitate the smog creation;
- Abiotic Depletion Potential (ADP), kg Sb eq. and MJ, indicates the potential effect of the emission of substances that reduce the non-fossil and fossil resources.
Highlights of EPD
The EPD is therefore a document that shows the product’s characteristics and its environmental profile. Even without having specific knowledge as an LCA expert, designers can read this document and deduce from it some basic information about the product’s sustainability.
Using the EPD for the ECONYL® yarn as an example, let’s see which information is included in this document:
- the description of the company and the production process;
- the technical description of the product upon which the EPD is based;
- the Functional Unit or Declared Unit chosen for the analysis — that is the product unit to which the analyses are referred to;
- the boundaries of the life-cycle analysis that represent the limits of elements and phases of the process included in the evaluation (“core process” means stages and activities directly managed by the producer; “upstream process” means the preparatory activities before the core process; and “downstream process” means the activities that will be held after the core process);
- the list of the renewable and not renewable resources and their quantity;
- the list of the environmental impact of the product during the process.
Other details that are also worth noting are the period of validity, the certification number and the presence of the independent third party who conducted the verification of the LCA.
In comparing different EPDs, users should remember that an EPD must be read in its entirety, because the reported environmental data for each product are referred to a specific context and defined by the boundaries of the life cycle analysis. The EPD is public and usually available both on the company website and on the provider website where the EPD is registered.
LEED includes products with EPD
The main sustainability rating systems, such as LEED® Living Building ChallengeTM and WELL®, increasingly require the usage of products with environmental labels that can clearly and transparently determine the production resources and, for food labels, the ingredient list.
For example, EPDs are well recognized in the Materials and Resources area in LEED v4, since they attest the transparency of the manufacturer and guarantee the optimization of the production process.
Choose products based on environmental characteristics
On the way to the construction sustainability, manufactures must optimize the products, while the designers must optimize the construction.
For the manufactures, optimizing means a deep understanding of the product and the process behind it to maximize the contribution of each resource. The main approach will be to reduce the quantity of the primary resources for each unit of product without losing its characteristics, until the entire replacement of primary resources with recycled materials.
For designers, optimizing means carefully selecting materials and products based on their environmental characteristics in the global vision of the entire life cycle of the building (usually 100 years). Using EPDs can help guarantee a responsible selection of sustainable products.
- 5 reasons for Interior Designers and Architects to use Sustainable Materials, Aquafil, 2015
- Environmental Product Declaration for ECONYL® Polymer, Revision 2, April 10th
- Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations, 2015
- Environmental Product Declaration Schemes (EPDs), European Commission
- The International EPD® System
- The Institut Bauen und Umwelt e. V. (IBU)
- LEED — Material and Resources: Building Product Disclosure and Optimization — Environmental Product Declarations, The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)
Founder and owner of Macro Design Studio Srl, Paola is an architect and sustainability consultant. She works as facilitator and manager of design and construction teams, contributing in the certification process of numerous LEED® buildings in Europe. Paola is LEED AP BD+C, LEED AP ID+C, LEED Green Rater, LEED Faculty and Living Future Accredited (LFA). She is involved in training programs, developing courses about sustainability, LEED protocols, sustainable building sites and the envelope commissioning.
An architect with a PhD in Technology for Architecture, Michele is specialized in the environmental impact assessment of products and buildings with the LCA method. He is a GPP specialist, Adjunct Professor at Politecnico di Milano and was a research fellow in A.B.C. Dep. at Politecnico di Milano.