Against a backdrop in early 2014 where by many measures environmental progress in business appears to have plateaued, Environmental Product Declarations are among the hottest topics in sustainability. This blog post is the first of several over the coming weeks about EPDs.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking comments on proposed Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for use in federal procurement to help federal purchasers select greener products and meet sustainability purchasing goals. 

Some suggest this EPA proposal is not a true “environmental product declaration” program because it does not fit within the ISO International 14040 EPD standards or is not consistent with the USGBC’s new LEED v4 MR Credit Building Products Disclosure and Optimization – Material Ingredients, or otherwise does not match up nicely with some other proprietary system. But at a time when green product development is relatively flat, if not losing ground, possibly those existing measures are failing the marketplace? Or is there a larger problem including that the USGBC abandoned TRACI (used by EPA) when establishing priorities for LEED v4 and the v4 MR credits do not include toxicity reporting, a potentially huge gap in transparency?

Moreover, the United States federal government is one of the world’s largest consumers. Indeed, it is the single largest consumer within North America spending over $350 Billion on goods and services each year.

So, when EPA proposes guidelines “for science based, verified and comparable information about environmental performance of goods and services,” (.. it sure sounds like an EPD) the environmental community should listen. EPA’s interest comes from several market places, such as in the raw material supply chain, in product development and green procurement.

Federal agencies are directed by federal laws, regulations and executive orders to make purchasing decisions with the environment in mind. Most recently, these requirements have included Executive Order 13514 – Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance (PDF) , which orders federal agencies to use sustainable practices when buying products and services.

“These guidelines will make it easier for federal purchasers to meet the existing goal of 95 percent sustainable purchases while spurring consumers and the private sector to use and demand safer and greener products,” said Jim Jones, Assistant EPA Administrator.

While the EPA environmentally preferable purchasing program will not keep a list of environmentally preferable products, there are existing programs at EPA that do have lists of vendors and products that meet their requirements, including: ENERGY STAR for energy efficient products and services; Design for the Environment for chemical-based products, like all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, and carpet and floor care products; and WaterSense for water-efficient products and services.

As the federal government issues new regulations for environmental product declarations and existing regulatory programs come to include the LEED v4 building product disclosures, and the like, it is important that this new and emergent body of law both be transparent (including toxin reporting) and not move more quickly than and get ahead of the scientific and engineering research.

A lot can be learned from reading the draft Ecolabels and Product Environmental Performance Standards and much can be gained by commenting to EPA by February 25th.