Is anyone else wondering when an ecolabel is ok to use, and when an environmental product declaration might be needed? Let’s clarify: EPDs are primarily business to business and eco-labels are primarily business to consumer. Read on to find out how to use them to your advantage.

Imagine choosing between two products without knowing their potential environmental impacts, and picking the worst one because the packaging says “eco-friendly”. In a B2B context, an EPD can eliminate that uncertainty.

Every time you are about to make a big purchase, say a new camera, you probably go online and do two things: see what products are available, for instance, by checking online stores and which product will likely be best for your requirements, spending hours reading product reviews.

This strategy relies on a very important premise: that you know what you need and what to look for. If you can’t distinguish between different types of products or can’t read basic specifications, or you don’t understand how these factors link with my needs, you might end up investing in a bulky 50 megapixel, multi-lens set when all you need is a good quality compact. Or a small car when you really need a ute.

Or a Life Cycle Assessment when you need an ecolabel. Or an ecolabel when you need an environmental product declaration (EPD). Or an EPD instead of an ecolabel.

Ecolabels versus EPDs – what’s the difference?

It is important to understand the difference between ecolabels and EPDs. An EPD is not an ecolabel.

Picture EPDs as the environmental equivalent of a nutrition label on a cereal box, and ecolabels as the “health stars”. Sometimes you want to buy the product with the most stars. Sometimes you want to know the sugar, fat, salt and protein content of that product.

There is a role for both quick ecolabel decisions and in-depth EPDs. The ideal scenario is for ecolabels and EPDs to use the same approach to compile data, so they are consistent with, and may complement each other. The suggested approach is a Life Cycle Assessment.

Ecolabels are primarily used in a B2C context and, in certain circumstances, they also target businesses. They highlight a specific claim of a product or service. Ecolabels can cover a single issue or encompass multiples issues in one simplified indicator. For instance, an ecolabel might focus on fair trade or organic agriculture, or provide a broad appreciation of environmental performance. For the consumer, ecolabels are meant to be a clear “tick of approval” that the product addresses some of their concerns.

EPDs are meant to be used by businesses. As the name suggests, EPDs declare environmental performance. Like a nutrient label on the back of a cereal box, but with environmental impacts and other environmental information. Rather than attempting to provide a single metric for complex issues, EPDs document the issues. EPDs are rigorous documents through which a manufacturer can transparently, comprehensively and clearly inform its clients. “An EPD is a validation tool that offers manufacturers a standard approach for assessing the environmental impact of their products and provides buyers with an effective framework for making direct product comparisons.”

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler – Einstein

When it comes to disclosing the environmental and social impacts of products, simplification often means losing the full picture. When an individual or a business bases their decisions on over-simplified information, they are relying on what the author deems relevant.

Manufacturers who over simplify the sustainability claim of their products, on the other hand, become susceptible to their own biases by taking away information that would enable customers to make the purchasing decision that best reflects their values.

Sustainability is complex

Every product and service has impacts that aren’t as straight forward as carbon neutral, fair trade and organic. This is not to state that these are minor claims. On the contrary: they are crucial claims that, when true, allow consumers to make choices that reflect their values.

Simple claims such as the above highlight one aspect of the product. You might buy something that is fair trade, but its production might have released toxic gases that affected the “fairly remunerated” workers’ air and water. You might buy local because you’re mindful of your community, but your out-of-season produce may have been grown in energy-intensive greenhouses.

A client needs access to the full picture of a product or service’s impacts in order to choose between alternatives, based on what impact is most important to him/her. It might end up being a choice between recyclability versus climate impact, or local empowerment versus energy use. And remember, the sustainability of a product will also be competing against other criteria: practicability, price, nutritional content, brand perception. It’s a tough world out there and it can’t be summarised by a few stars on a box.

Unfortunately, until the day when sustainability is taught in schools and as part of every professional training, consumers – both individuals and businesses – will have to educate themselves in order to make choices that reflect their values.

The good news is you don’t need a PhD. Large businesses address the need for educating themselves by hiring sustainability staff. Small businesses have options such as the free-of-charge Sustainability Supply Chain School. For individuals and for small organisations, there’s Google, workshops, libraries, blogs, magazines, newspapers, radio.

Use your own compass: what do you want? Go after that. In doing so, information and disclosure won’t throw you off course; they will empower you.

Tati Guedes is communications coordinator and Dr Joana Almeida is senior consultant for Edge Environment