Industry Driver Interview – Paul Firth and Anna Nicholson, UL Environment

lcaOur industry is in the early stage of wrestling with the complicated landscape of sustainability related issues and challenges. This month’s blog is devoted to my interview with UL Environment’s Paul Firth, service development and innovation, and Anna Nicholson, product manager – Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), for their perspective on these topics. I find their insights very informative, and believe you will as well.

Question: Sustainability is seen by some as another layer of compliance that is burdensome to businesses. In UL’s work with building products companies and associations, what are the tangible benefits of doing this work?

In UL’s work with building product companies and associations, there are very real and tangible benefits to conducting sustainability work, especially when science based inventories and assessments serve as a data-driven foundation for understanding building products across their entire value chain.

Early adopters used life cycle analysis (LCA), chemical inventories and other science-driven measures to assess their own processes to learn where opportunities for improvement exist, and take action to improve based on a holistic approach and evaluation. Some adopters undertook these assessments because it was a marketplace expectation, advantage or required for certain bids. Both of these angles are valid business approaches, but in isolation, neither fully captures the value behind the world of transparency through EPDs and material ingredient disclosures like health product declarations (HPDs).

While many organizations have traditionally focused on the processes within their own four walls — labor costs, manufacturing, logistics and the like — they may be able to create even greater value by looking at resource use in their product life cycle across the entire value chain, which is analyzed in an LCA and reported in an EPD. This can be a data-intensive process, but one that can provide both internal and external stakeholders a solid understanding of a product’s environmental impacts across the entire chain, from product development, sourcing and manufacturing through distribution, marketing, use and disposal. Resource use and its associated wastes — such as inefficient consumption of energy, water or raw materials — represent real costs to suppliers that trickle down the value chain. The exercise of gathering these types of data needed for a holistic and comprehensive end-to-end analysis of a product can often lead to surprising results, and the examples that follow demonstrate some examples of the value of sustainability extending beyond compliance.

Question: Does LCA work cover the range of disclosures that the market is, and will be, asking for? What is the role and future of material ingredient transparency reporting and what is UL doing in these areas?

Focusing on LCA is not enough. While great at addressing environmental issues, LCA has historically not been as beneficial in settling questions related to chemicals and hazards within products. The world of hazard assessment received a jolt when the USGBC’s LEED® Rating System introduced credits rewarding material ingredient transparency through manufacturer disclosures, HPDs and Cradle to Cradle certifications. The benefits of this approach follow similar structure and pathway for the manufacturing to understand even more about the chemical makeup of their product, and users to gain greater insight into the products they purchase.

In order to make the LCA more useful, the EPD has become the default communication mechanism for companies and users, primarily addressing issues from an environmental impact point of view. The world of material ingredients hasn’t fully settled in yet, but is working to address the health-related side of the equation. UL offers EPDs and materials ingredient solutions, including the upcoming release of a program designed to meet the needs of chemical transparency and information disclosure in a manner that resonates and informs the users for better decision making.

Question: What are some of the factors that are driving demand for transparency documents like EPDs and HPDs?

  • Green building programs: One of the most prevalent reasons for pursuing sustainability activities is the growth of green building programs – we’ve had manufacturers come to us who have lost bids because their products lack EPDs or material ingredient disclosures. Given the increasing number of consumers and members of the architecture and design community demanding access to green products, these transparency documents are an easy way for your products to contribute to points under a number of schemes, including LEED v4, ASHRAE 189.1, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), NAHB’s National Green Building Standard, and Green Globes.
  • Risk and reputation management: Today, resource constraints are creating unprecedented prices and volatility in natural-resource markets, making sustainability integral to business risk management. Confronting issues such as water and resource scarcity, as well as supplier practices are reasons all businesses need to take sustainability seriously if they are to remain viable for the long term. Above all, a robust risk management strategy that incorporates sustainability is about more than being compliant; knowing your risks goes beyond protecting your company and understanding threats can also lead to new business opportunities. How can you know your risks unless you know your products, their makeup, and their impacts?
  • Enhance brand value and communications: In many industries and markets, there’s a distinct prestige if your brand is perceived as environmentally beneficial. Many businesses are embracing sustainability initiatives so they have a good story to tell. Today, many company’s brands revolve around the fact that their products are competitive from both an individual health and overall environmental sustainability perspective. In many cases, a business is able to leverage sustainability decisions made primarily for other reasons — cost or regulatory compliance, for example — into positive publicity.
  • Improved design decisions and better procurement decisions: Engaging in transparency solutions is also useful when making design decisions that affect sustainability. By evaluating various possible materials and processes for manufacturing, understanding chemical hazards, and delivering a new product at the design stage, companies can use environmental, social and economic criteria to reduce the overall impacts of their products. This helps answer eternal dilemmas such as “which is better — paper or plastic?” Also, by engaging multiple suppliers on joint cost and impact reduction efforts, and by encouraging innovation among suppliers, businesses can make procurement decisions that significantly boost their sustainability efforts.

Question: In five years what changes do you foresee in the sustainability landscape for manufacturers of fenestration products, both for commercial and residential markets?

As you can see, sustainability is a continually evolving space that has progressed rapidly over the past two decades. From a focus on energy and recycled content to the use of complex assessments, one would assume that the next five years will see a lot of movement and activity to provide this type of information on all products in use for the built environment.

If you have any questions about EPDs and transparency programs, please reach out to us at