PCRs, LCAs and EPDs: Spelling it Out

From seating to flooring, PCRs, LCAs and EPDs work together to help you compare and specify green products. Here’s what you need to know about the process.

By Jane Wilson

The era of the Environmental Product Declaration may have finally arrived.

For years, building and design professionals have sought consensus, confirmation and clarity regarding what constitutes a “green” product. Now, a standard for environmental labeling in Europe seems ready to take root in the United States.

Many designers have at least a passing familiarity with Product Category Rules (PCRs), Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and the more widely known Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). A few early adopters, notably modular carpet manufacturer Interface, already have taken the leap and incorporated EPDs into their daily operations.

Now, thanks to the efforts of industry groups including the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) and product certification organization NSF International, the EPD reporting format is gaining wider support in the United States. It pairs science and third-party certification with an internationally recognized method for reporting a product’s environmental impact.

NSF has been working with product manufacturers through their industry organizations to establish the first step in the process for determining the environmental footprint of a product. The process starts with Product Category Rules.

In mid-2012, NSF International announced the successful development of PCRs for the seating and flooring product categories. NSF and BIFMA collaborated in creating the seating PCR, while NSF worked with multiple flooring trade associations to establish the PCR that defines the content of LCAs for resilient, carpet, laminate, tile and wood flooring

products. In each instance, the NSF National Center for Sustainability Standards (NCSS) followed the international environmental labeling standard ISO 14025, employing an open stakeholder process to engage input from manufacturers, suppliers, regulatory agencies, environmental organizations and end-users. Additional PCRs are now in development for office storage products, residential countertops and flat glass.

Spelling it Out
Product Category Rules
PCRs delineate how to conduct an LCA for a particular product group and what to include in the resulting report, the EPD. PCRs can be utilized as the basis of business-to-business or business-to-consumer communications.

ISO 14025 defines the PCR as a set of specific rules, requirements and guidelines for developing environmental declarations for one or more product categories. PCRs identify the data that should be collected, measured and reported in a particular product’s LCA. They include instructions for gathering data about the consumption of resources including energy, water and renewable resources, and emissions to air, water and soil.

PCRs contain the following key elements:

  • Description and definition of the product category
  • Functional unit of the product category (for example, 1 square meter of carpeting in use for 10 years)
  • Boundaries of the product system analyzed in the LCA
  • Criteria for the inclusion of inputs and outputs in the LCA
  • Life-cycle impact categories to be analyzed
  • Data quality requirements
  • Description of the content and form of the EPD

Because LCA data collection methods are standardized, the PCR allows for the comparison of different product impacts among products within a specific category.

Life Cycle Assessments
The ISO 14040 series of standards provides the framework and guidelines for how an LCA must be conducted. When paired with the requirements specified in a PCR, the LCA can be used as a tool to compare the environmental impacts of two products in the same category.

The LCA process identifies and measures a product’s inputs, outputs and environmental impacts across its lifespan, from sourcing through end-of-life, whether disposed of (cradle-to-grave) or disassembled for reuse (cradle-to-cradle).

The LCA employs scientifically based methods to analyze a product’s:

  • Raw material selection and production
  • Manufacture
  • Packaging and distribution
  • Use
  • Disposal, reuse or recyclability

The life-cycle impact assessment phase of an LCA evaluates a product’s impact relative to end points including:

  • Climate change
  • Ozone layer depletion
  • Land and water acidification
  • Eutrophication, i.e. water pollution due to high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates
  • Formation of photochemical oxidants
  • Depletion of fossil energy resources
  • Depletion of mineral resources
  • Hazardous and non-hazardous waste

Environmental Product Declarations
EPDs enable architects and designers to compare and contrast a product’s environmental impacts within its specific category, with the assurance that all data provided has been verified by an independent third party, such as NSF.

As a document designed to meet all the requirements of ISO 14025, an EPD offers an international standard of communication, and is a summary report of all data collected in the LCA as specified by the PCR.

LEED is incorporating credits that encourage the use of EPDs, because they provide transparency regarding a product’s environmental attributes and performance. This enables architects and designers to make informed decisions regarding which products are best suited to any given project.

Case Study: ABC Seating
To illustrate the progression from PCR to LCA to EPD at an elementary level, consider the hypothetical case study of fictional American company ABC Seating and its popular (and equally fictional) Xyla wooden stool, used primarily in snack bars and school music rooms.

PCR: ABC Seating reviews the BIFMA/NSF Product Category Rules for seating as developed by the NCSS. PCRs are publicly available documents that any interested party can obtain.

LCA: ABC Seating prepares Xyla’s LCA, per the data collection and analysis requirements specified in the PCR, and in accordance with the ISO 14040 series of LCA standards.

Among the stool’s LCA highlights:

  • Xyla’s primary raw material is wood, which is harvested in responsibly managed forests 40 miles from ABC Seating’s manufacturing plant.
  • Xyla’s “feet” are comprised of 75 percent post-consumer recycled plastic from yogurt containers.
  • The wood is treated with an environmentally safe, bio-based soy wood stain.
  • Xyla stools are blanket-wrapped for shipping.
  • The stools are designed for a 10-year life; replacement plastic feet are available from ABC Seating online or via an 800 number.
  • At the end of its useful life, Xyla’s plastic feet can be easily removed and recycled; the rest of the stool can be down-cycled or incinerated.

EPD: ABC Seating prepares an EPD based on the data derived from the LCA. A qualified third party—in this case, NSF—reviews and verifies that all pertinent data on the Xyla stool was collected in accordance with the applicable PCR and meets all ISO requirements. As program operator, NSF posts the verified EPD for public access to interested parties.

The EPD provides architects, designers and other members of the building team with the documentation and transparency they need. In the example of the Xyla stool, they get the entire picture of the product’s life-cycle, from the woodlot to the schoolroom. They have the ability to make apples-to-apples comparisons with competing stools that have EPDs prepared using the same PCR. They have the information their clients expect. They have the essential third-party verification. And, in turn, they have the data required to pursue LEED certification for their building project.

The entire EPD process moves us closer to an internationally recognized standard of communication for consistent reporting of a product’s environmental impact in a shared language that we all can understand.


Jane Wilson, MPH is director of standards at NSF International, an independent organization that writes standards, and tests and certifies products across multiple industries. Wilson works with regulators, industry representatives and consumers to develop consensus-based standards for a range of industries and products.