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December 16, 2013
Fed assessment of ecolabels

The EPA has proposed guidelines it believes federal agencies should use to meet standards for sustainable acquisition purchases.  Essentially, the proposed guidelines provide methods to assess the credibility of nongovernmental product environmental performance standards and ecolabels.

Paying over $500 billion a year for goods and services, the U.S. government is the world’s largest purchaser.  Moreover, under Executive Order 13514, the head of each federal agency is required to advance sustainable acquisition to ensure that 95 percent of new contract actions for products and services, with the exception of acquisition of weapons systems. satisfy certain sustainability standards, including energy-efficiency, water efficiency, biobased, nonozone depleting, containing recycled ingredients, and nontoxic. 

Energy Star, etc. 

A number of federally developed ecolabels assist agencies in their purchases.  These include EPA’s Energy Star, WaterSense, and Design for the Environment and the Department of Agriculture’s Biopreferred label.  However, the EPA has found that the lack of guidance on nonfederal product and environmental performance standards and ecolabels often results in an inconsistent approach by federal purchasers and confusion and uncertainty for vendors and manufacturers. 

Clarity requested

To address the issue, in 2011, the EPA, the U.S. General Services Administration, other agencies, and government contractors drafted a set of environmental purchasing guidelines and held more than 30 listening sessions and discussions with external stakeholders to collect feedback.  Common themes heard by the Agency included the need for greater clarity in the marketplace regarding standards and ecolabels and the opportunity to leverage the federal government’s purchasing power toward sustainability goals.

Assessment categories

The draft guidelines would provide criteria to assess environmental performance standards and ecolabels in four categories:

  1. Process for developing standards.  This category would include items such as openness of participation in developing the standards, how voters in standards development are selected, whether there are funding conflicts, and how standards are updated.
  2. Environmental effectiveness.  This covers aspects of the standard or ecolabel that support the claim of environmental preferability.  Specific criteria include comparison with other similar products/services, the measurability of the environmental performance, whether the product/service’s full life cycle was considered, and whether all ingredients are disclosed.
  3. Conformity.  This category is mainly concerned with the structure and procedures of the body that assesses the conformity of products/services to the criteria specified by the standards and ecolabeling program.  For example, are the bodies independent from those entities for whom they are conducting the assessment?  And, is the conformity assessment body free from undue commercial, financial, and other pressures that could compromise the confidentiality, objectivity, or impartiality of its process and decisions?
  4. Management.  This addresses the organizational and management practices of an ecolabeling program.  For example, programs are expected to define and document the policy, objectives for, and commitment to quality.  Also, the program is expected to have a policy and procedure to resolve complaints, appeals, and disputes.

Possible pilot project

In addition to proposing the guidelines, the EPA is considering developing a limited pilot project to test the actual application of the guidelines, particularly with regard to environmental effectiveness. 

The EPA will accept public comment on the proposed guidelines until February 25, 2014. 

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