As the idea of “green buildings” gained momentum in the mid-90s, the flooring industry began looking for ways to make operations less harmful to the environment and to develop environmentally benign products. In some ways, these companies were ahead of the curve as far as interest from most facility executives was concerned. Today, however, floor covering manufacturers report more interest in green goods growing, although firm statistics are hard to come by. “The increase in interest and awareness has been stunning over the last three years,” says Ross Leonard, director of architectural and design marketing with C&A Floor Coverings. “Before, when you would get requests for proposals from large corporate end users, sustainability rarely emerged. Now, it’s the rule.”
As interest grows, so does the knowledge that many facility executives and design professionals bring to their purchases. It used to be that a manufacturer could call a product “green,” and no one would probe to find out exactly what the claim meant.
That’s no longer the case. Architects, designers and facility executives are asking more targeted questions and refusing to take assertions on faith. For instance, they may ask whether the amount of recycled content in a product has been verified by an independent testing authority. “The architect and design community is becoming much more astute and more knowledgeable,” says Mark Ryan, manager of environmental initiatives with DuPont Commercial Flooring.
They’re also looking at the environmental impact a product has throughout its life cycle. They’ll consider the raw materials, the way in which it’s manufactured, and the ability of end users to recycle it. The goal is to minimize a floor covering’s overall “environmental footprint.”
Facility executives, along with other interested in the environment, sometimes distinguish between “green” and “sustainable,” says Chip DeGrace, vice president of creative strategies with Interface Flooring Systems. “Typically, green products tend to be more focused on raw materials. Sustainable has a wider definition.” In addition to containing environmentally friendly raw materials, sustainable products typically wear well.
Samuel Bracken, vice president of marketing with the Mohawk Group says, “The first thing we can do to enhance or minimize the environmental footprint is to create products with a long life cycle.”
Several factors are behind the increasing interest in green products. One is the government. “The demand surge is being led by the government, which is committed to greening their facilities,” says Dominick Tulk, technical development manager with Amtico. What’s more, several states are considering tax incentives to firms that choose environmentally preferable products in their buildings.
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Green Building Rating System also plays a role. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a set of standards used in rating buildings’ environmental performance.
Earning a LEED certification is like receiving a stamp of approval for a building. However, the benefits of meeting the criteria go beyond simply feeling good. Environmentally benign products improve indoor air quality, which should lead to fewer absences and enhance productivity, says Casey Johnson, national sales manager with Forbo Linoleum Inc.
There’s also concern about the risk of a lawsuit alleging that an employer or landlord failed to provide a healthy working environment. That’s one reason interest is growing in chlorine-free floor coverings. While there is still debate on the issue, some in the environmental community argue that chlorine found in the environment can harm humans’ endocrine system.
Even so, some building owners are opting for alternatives to chlorine-filled products. For instance, at least one company manufactures carpet tile with both a PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, backing, and one without. Although the PVC-free product was only introduced about three years ago, it now accounts for about 60 percent of the company’s sales of carpet tile backing.
Environmentally friendly products that require harsh cleaning solutions aren’t as much of an environmental bargain. As a result, facility executives are increasingly interested in learning how indoor air quality is affected by the cleaning process, says Geoff Greeley, director of training and technical services, Host Racine. “There’s more interest in products that have no fragrances, or no additional fragrances, because the fragrances can trigger reactions.”
Equally important, manufacturers have developed a number of green products that perform on par with — if not better than — their less environmentally friendly alternatives. As a result, facility executives should not have to sacrifice performance or cost in order to go with an environmentally preferable product. “Experts in sustainability have come to the realization that to be a credible product, it has to make business sense,” says Frank Hurd, vice president with The Carpet and Rug Institute. “The product has to be competitive price-wise and performance-wise.”
One product that has attracted growing interest is linoleum. While linoleum currently accounts for just about 1 percent of the total commercial flooring market, sales of it are rising at about 5 percent annually, says Randy Gablehouse, general sales manager with Armstrong World Industries, Inc.
Linoleum is environmentally friendly on several counts. Linoleum is made from renewable, biodegradable materials, including linseed oil, cork and wood powder, and jute. Should the product end up in a landfill, it will biodegrade. On a cost basis, linoleum typically is comparable to the middle to upper range of sheet vinyl, say manufacturers. Commercial purchasers can expect to pay about $3.50 to $4.25 per square foot, installed.
In addition to being durable and recyclable, sustainable products are manufactured in ways that do as little harm as possible to the environment. Many floor covering producers have reduced the impact their manufacturing processes have on the environment. Over the past decade, carpet manufacturers have reduced their electric consumption by 70 percent per square yard produced, and their use of water by 40 percent, says Hurd of the Carpet and Rug Institute.
In early January, the Carpet and Rug Institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding with eight states, in which the group agreed to work with industry, government and non-governmental organizations to divert 40 percent of the carpet now going to landfills by 2012. It’s an ambitious goal, Hurd acknowledges. For 2002, less than 4 percent of carpet is expected to be diverted from landfills.
A number of other flooring manufacturers also have taken steps to reduce the impact their manufacturing processes have on the environment, including ISO-14001 certification and a waste water treatment plant that returns the water to the environment, cleaner than it was to begin with.
Once a floor covering leaves the factory, just how much energy does it take to get it to its final destination? The less energy, of course, the better for the environment. For instance, carpet tiles that are backed with a polyolefin, rather than a polyvinyl chloride polymer, require about 40 percent less backing, by weight. That means that one truck trailer can transport about 7,500 yards, versus 4,500 yards of the PVC-backed carpet.
Manufacturers also are reducing the amount of floor coverings headed to landfills by being more efficient in the way they install flooring products. For instance, at least one company offers an electronic layout system that allows designers to figure out how to most efficiently cut and place floor covering.
A floor covering’s design also can contribute to product longevity. If a floor covering is going to go out of style and need replacement within a few years, it’s not going to be as helpful to the environment as a style that remains pleasing for 20 or 30 years.
Some designs allow facility executives to use the floor covering more efficiently. For example, some carpet tiles have a design that allows them to be installed randomly. The random design also allows for less waste during installation, as patterns don’t need to be matched.
Eventually even the most durable flooring product needs to be replaced. More manufacturers are working with commercial customers to help them dispose of the product in a way that’s not harmful to the environment.
For example, at least one carpet manufacturer will purchase back from end-users and recycle vinyl-backed carpet; the price at which they’ll buy the carpet varies with current inventory and freight costs.
Even when a floor covering can’t economically be recycled back into carpet, manufacturers often can give it new life in another application. For instance, nylon carpeting often can be made into plastic used in auto parts, says Ryan of DuPont.
Down the road, more green innovations are likely to occur. Several companies are working to develop fibers and plastics from renewable resources, such as corn or soybeans.
While carpet and floor covering manufacturers have made significant strides in improving the environmental footprint of the products they make, they’re not stopping. “The sky’s the limit,” says Steve Bradfield, vice president of environmental development with Shaw Industries. “We don’t know where we can take the technology, but we don’t think we’ve seen the end of the rainbow.”
Karen Kroll is a business writer who covers real estate and facilities issues.