By NCSS, NSF International

Sustainability can be challenging to define since there are many definitions being used in the industry. Some companies use green; others focus on the recyclability or material content of their products, and others are focused on investments in the community. Sustainable development is defined by the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development as development that “ensures that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”1 From a practical/useful approach, sustainability is described as a three-legged stool where the legs of the stool represent environmental, social and economic attributes of a product. By balancing these three types of attributes, the belief is that if the environment is considered, raw materials will always be available for production. If social wellbeing of workers and consumers of the product are considered, workers will want to work for employers and consumers will continue to use the product. And, as always, the economic value of the product and the manufacturing process need to be considered to ensure that the product meets the economic requirements that allow for economic sustainability of a company.

On October 5, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, which established “an integrated strategy towards sustainability in the Federal Government and to make reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a priority for Federal agencies.”2 As a result of this legislation, many government procurement programs, including the General Services Administration, have begun requiring an increase in the percentage of sustainable materials purchased. State and municipal governments have followed and, to meet the requirements set forth by the US government as well as market demand by consumers and retailers, many companies have embarked on the journey towards sustainability.

Many companies make marketing claims about their products’ sustainable attributes. Because so many claims have been exaggerated or misrepresented in the past, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, also known as the Green Guides.3 They apply to environmental claims included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials and all other forms of marketing, and to products, packaging, or services for personal, household, commercial, institutional or industrial uses.3 In order to reduce questions about a product’s environmental claims, many third-party verification programs have been established to set minimum requirements for sustainable products and verify those products meet the criteria they claim to meet. These ecolabels and verification programs have been created to define sustainability and set the standards for declaring a sustainable product. Verification programs, like the BIFMA level™ program for commercial furniture, define sustainability for their industry and provide third-party certifications to verify that the companies are meeting the requirements of the standard. GSA is also using ecolabels to verify and screen the products it is including on their purchasing schedules for sustainable products.

The water treatment industry is just beginning to develop these types of standards to define minimum attributes that products have to meet to be considered sustainable. There are a few different formats available to allow transparency and comparability of products, based on their environmental attributes. This column will explain the most effective tools being used in the marketplace.

Sustainability standards

Sustainability standards are based on multiple life-cycle attributes and are typically tiered to allow for multiple levels of achievement. Topics covered may include product design, materials selection, water use and conservation, energy and atmosphere, human and ecological health, social responsibility, and disposal and end of life. Sustainability standards have similar structure to US Green Building Council’s LEED standard for buildings. They have both optional and required parameters and recognize innovative processes and product design not covered by the standard. A sustainability standard allows a manufacturer to evaluate their product against the aggregate of single-attribute criteria for the product type and be recognized at a sustainability ranking that can be compared to other similar products.

Product Category Rules

Product Category Rules (PCRs) are defined in ISO 14025 – Environmental Labels and Declarations – Type III Environmental Declarations4 as a set of specific rules, requirements and guidelines for developing and reporting environmental data for one or more product categories as an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). In order for the life cycle to be comparable, the data need to be collected, calibrated and reported in a consistent way, which is defined in the PCR. The PCRs include instructions for gathering data about the consumption of resources, including energy, water and renewable resources, and emissions to air, water and soil.

Life Cycle Assessment

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an analysis of a product’s effect on the environment during each stage of the product’s life cycle. The analysis can be used to develop a baseline of product performance and pinpoint areas for improvement or conservation efforts. The ISO 140405 series of standards provides the framework for the performance of life cycle assessments. An LCA analyzes the life stages from cradle to grave and includes raw material production and selection; manufacture of the product; packaging and distribution of the product; use of the product and the disposal, reuse or recyclability of the product at the end of its useful life.
The following life-cycle impact categories may be investigated as part of the LCA:

  • Climate change
  • Depletion of stratospheric ozone layer
  • Acidification of land and water sources
  • Eutrophication
  • Formation of photochemical oxidants
  • Depletion of fossil energy resources
  • Depletion of mineral resources
  • Hazardous and non-hazardous waste

Environmental Product Declarations

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) summarizes the results of the LCA and contains the criteria defined by the PCR. The standardized reporting requirements outlined by the PCR enable comparison of EPDs for different products within a category. For example, a purchaser may compare the environmental attributes of two treatment devices of the same type to select a product for a particular use. An EPD may be independently verified by a program operator. Similar to certification to a standard, verification of the EPD proves the data is collected in accordance with the applicable PCR. EPDs are posted publicly by the company and/or the program operator.

Benefits of PCRs and EPDs

By taking these steps, manufacturers can define their products’ market position compared to their competitor’s products and respond to increasing demands for environmentally sustainable products and transparency in environmental claims. EPDs are recognized globally and by LEED Green Building Rating System as a preferred reporting tool. In addition, collection of LCA data identifies areas for improvement of a product’s environmental attributes and adoption of more sustainable operations and business strategies. Customers can easily compare products based on their environmental attributes using data that is standardized and transparent.

Sustainability standard compared to EPDs

Sustainability standards often reference EPDs and award points for an EPD that is third-party verified. These points may be used by manufacturers to reach higher levels of achievement specified in the sustainability standard. Sustainability standards may also award points to manufacturers for collecting life-cycle data and showing improvements in various life-cycle impact categories compared to a baseline level. Some examples of the life-cycle impact categories commonly included in sustainability standards include greenhouse gas reductions, use of renewable energy and water conservation. Sustainability standards go beyond the scope of environmental attributes to include social responsibility, community engagement and economic attributes, while the PCRs, EPDs and LCAs focus primarily on the environmental impacts of a product.

While these two types of environmental claims are different in their execution and content, they both have important impacts for the water industry. In other industries, both types of labels are being accepted and recognized in purchasing specifications and green building schemes. EPDs may have the edge in global recognition, as the EU and Asia are well ahead of the US in terms of development of PCRs and EPDs. Sustainable product standards can provide a grading or ranking of products, which may be important where end users do not yet have the understanding to adequately interpret life-cycle information in comparison of products. Industries should consider whether one or both types of labels are important as their industries evolve to meet market demands for more sustainable products.

Within the water industry, there are already some programs that encourage more sustainable products, including:

  • US EPA WaterSense Program for water efficient devices and equipment(6)
  • US GBC LEED voluntary standards recognize water efficiency and water reuse.(7)
  • IAPMO Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement(8)
  • International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code (IgCC)(9)
  • US EPA Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Sustainability Policy(1)0
  • International requirements of RoHS,11 REACH,(12) WEEE(13)
  • PCR for water infrastructure developed in Europe(14)

Water sustainability goals

Many companies are initiating sustainability initiatives within their organizations via single-attribute measurements, such as energy conservation, recycled content of their products or water conservation. The ultimate goal is to bring water initiatives and sustainability together, providing manufacturers the tools needed to create more sustainable products. This may be achieved through lean manufacturing processes using better materials and generating less waste. As a leading sector in performance and quality measurement, the next logical step is to incorporate comprehensive sustainability measurement tools. Tools may include standards, protocols, product category rules or other guidance programs, which will promote sustainable performance in the water industry.

In 2012, NSF will be building partnerships in the water industry to bridge the gap between performance and quality standards and sustainability initiatives. Please join us in learning more about how NSF can help you on the path toward sustainability. There will be a meeting on February 22, 2012 at NSF’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI to discuss these topics in greater detail and provide a forum to allow you to provide feedback on how we can assist you on the pathway toward sustainability in the water industry.


  1. UN Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, December 1987.
  2. Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. October 2009.
  3. US Federal Trade Commission. Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.
  4. ISO 14025: 2006. Environmental labels and declarations – Type III environmental declarations – Principles and procedures.
  5. iSO 14040:2006. Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Principles and framework.
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). WaterSense Program.
  7. United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Standards and Rating System. 2009.
  8. International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement. 2010.
  9. International Code Council. International Green Construction Code (IgCC).
  10. US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Sustainability Policy.
  11. European Parliament and of the Council. Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS). Published 1/27/2003. (Directive 2002/95/EC).
  12. European Parliament and of the Council. Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). Published 12/18/2006. (Regulation No 1907/2006).
  13. European Parliament and of the Council. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Published 1/27/2003. (Directive 2002/96/EC). <

Emilia-Romagna Development Agency (ERVET). Water distribution through mains (except steam and hot water) Product Category Rule. Published 9/27/2011.

About the authors

NSF International’s National Center for Sustainability Standards was formed in late 2010 to highlight its work in developing multi-attribute sustainability standards for products and services. NSF, as a program operator, has developed PCRs for institutional furniture and flooring products. NSF works with leading regulators, scientists, engineers, public health and environmental health professionals, and industry representatives to develop transparent, consensus-based standards. Contributors to this article include Director of Standards Jane Wilson ([email protected]), Sustainability Standards Specialists Maureen Sertich ([email protected]) and Mindy Costello ([email protected]). All authors can also be reached at (800) NSF-MARK.


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