I have sometimes fantasised about doing a PhD in sustainability leadership but I kept delaying, realising that a PhD requires a great deal of work and focus on the detail. The sheer volume of information to process, and the time commitment required to complete a PhD to a sufficiently high standard, have simply been prohibitive and taken me away from my core actions.

It’s a similar story when it comes to understanding the sustainability credentials of a product, and navigating through the ecolabels, life cycle assessments, environmental product declarations and other tools available to make sense of it all.

Recently it has come to my attention that there has been confusion as to what an ISO 14024 Type 1 ecolabel actually means, what it measures and what we mean when we talk about “the top 20 per cent”.

This does not refer to the top 20 per cent of financially performing businesses, and it is certainly not about not-for-profit organisations recouping costs by rewarding those making the most money. The “top 20 per cent” figure is globally referred to and supported by United Nations Environmental Principles NEP guidelines and it utilised across the majority, if not all, of the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) members.

To be clear, this is about rewarding and promoting leading sustainable products and services. It is about rewarding those who do more than just meet the minimum standards – they rise above and exceed them, outperforming even the “good” products.

This is about shifting “good” to “great.”

It is about measuring sustainability performance through independent and credible processes. It’s about certifying and creating demand for those products and services that are within the top 20 per cent of what is possible for manufacturing or creating that product against stringent sustainability outcomes.

This is about measuring leadership – sustainability leadership.

Kate Harris
Kate Harris

The increase in the thirst for data and knowledge, and therefore the proliferation of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in the industry, is understandable to some extent. It is confirmation of our need to grow awareness and education in the marketplace towards solutions for sustainable procurement and I support and understand the role they play.

Data and EPDs certainly have their place. Indeed, GECA has its own Environmentally Innovative Products standard that provides agility and adaptability for emerging markets in manufacturing through using the LCA/ EPD approach.

However, unless you or your procurement manager have a PhD in chemical and environmental science or engineering, it is unlikely that you will understand the relevance of the data you receive in an EPD report. Even then, you are left to make a significant sustainability procurement decision based on extraordinary amounts of detailed data.

The strength of top tier ecolabels lies in processing all the complexity and creating profound simplicity with a pass or fail test (measured against the top 20 per cent of what is possible to achieve).

In fact, the global UNEP initiative of Sustainable Consumption and Production still stands by this as their preferred global mechanism: giving preference to products that have voluntary third party certification that adopts a pass/ fail, top 20 per cent tiered approach wherever possible.

UNEP believes in the importance of this leading top 20 per cent so much that they are promoting this capability across South East Asia and recommending for all countries.


We don’t have the luxury of time.

Cop 21 Paris commitments require significant systemic change through all sectors to achieve sustainable outcomes within a decided and difficult time frame. And the longer we leave it, the worse it will be: both financially, and in the impacts we will face.

Consumers, businesses, governments and all end users need to know what to choose as part of their sustainable decision making across multiple areas of expertise.

I do not believe we have the knowledge, time or capability to be able to make these decisions through analysing all that data.

But perhaps procurement professionals have overlooked what lies beneath the somewhat simple “tick” or forgotten the complex process behind the scenes. This is why GECA is working on showing you all of the complexity that goes into certifying that top 20 per cent of leadership.

A tick is not just a tick – it’s the simplest way for you to know you are supporting sustainability for people and planet, for now and for our future.

And the good news? You won’t need a PhD to use it.

Kate Harris is chief executive officer of Good Environmental Choice Australia

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  1. Hi Kate.

    Most building and infrastructure projects are very complex and comprised of multiple materials and products. The data provided in an Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) is mainly meant to be used in a whole of building life cycle assessment (LCA).

    While some of the programs used to conduct a building LCA are also complex, and need training in their use, there are tools now available that are relatively simple to use.

    Agree that education of the market in the different roles of the various ecolabels and EPDs in more sustainable decision making is needed.

  2. I mostly agree with this article, but with a few points of difference. Forgive me being pedantic, but I read ISO14024 as reporting “Environmental Preferability” in the performance of the products/services not in the leadership shown by anyone. That means the product has to have a 20% better environmental performance, not the company has to be recognised as a 20% leader amongst its peers. The distinction is important, because whilst we see many claims about leadership they rarely reflect in the actual performance of products and services.
    There is an underlying problem in all ecolabelling and EPD programmes that depend on the international standard for Life Cycle Assessment ISO14040/4. ISO14040/4 is not fit-for-purpose as a “standard” because its requirements are so loose that no consistency in outcomes is obtained between practitioners assessments of products/services. Different practitioners, organisations, industry sectors, countries, ecolabelling or EPD programmes adopt different interpretations of the standard to suit their vested interests. Everyone’s a winner with ISO14040/4, but no trustworthy basis is established for informing procurement decisions. Even the fundamentals of preserving mass/elemental/thermodynamic balance are now almost univesally compromised in LCA. As a result even the best EPD and Ecolabelling programmes are profoundly compromised and most have degenerated to sophisticated greenwash.
    It is possible to do all of this well and the UK Ecoprofiles project, completed in 1998 after 10 years of tough debate, worked with 23 product sectors to establish a single consistent methodology for all building products. This is still operating today and feeds even into building regulation (Code for Sustainable Homes).
    In Australia, the Building Products Innovation Council(BPIC) completed a similar project in 2011, acheiving methodology consensus from the 10 main product sectors. But instead of this methodology being adopted and promoted by the industry, by the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society (ALCAS), by GBCA and ecolabelling and EPD bodies in Australia, it was vigorously opposed because of the vested interests that it threatened. Subsequently, BPIC have redrafted the methodology to remove the key content that ensured consistency and comparability – the currently available draft is neutered and serves no purpose.
    The independent standards writing body National Standards Development Organisation is now the only body developing PCR’s and Ecolabel standards independent of any conformance assessment body (best practice) and using the original version of BPIC LCA methodology to ensure consistent and comparable outcomes. NSDO standards and “Product Category Baseline Assessment” reports are a beacon of best practice in governance and technical robustness and are available for use by ANY EPD or ecolabelling programme including GECA. https://www.nsdo.org.au/