The concept of sustainability had not reached the floorcovering industry in 1992. Sustainability was first defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987 but it took several years to impact the flooring business.
During the early 1990s, many companies had aggressive environment management systems (EMS), but none had taken the steps necessary to move EMS from a tactical management tool into a strategy that integrated sustainability as part of the overall business strategy. This time was one of regulatory compliance and cost containment. The focus was on conservation of resources, energy consumption and costs, water consumption and processing, and compliance with clean air acts. No one was looking at sustainability as a driver for the industry over the next 20 years. However, change was inevitable as the industry leaders began the journey toward sustainability that thrives today.
The landscape of sustainability began a rapid transformation in the mid-1990s. Companies began to publicize their efforts in environment impact reduction and publicly share their goals of environmental stewardship. During this period of time, meaningful steps were made in educating the industry on the impacts that materials, processes, transportation and reclamation had on the environment. Many organizations attempted to use sustainability as a marketing tool. The greenwashing associated with these efforts resulted in the creation and implementation of standards by which products could be rated as sustainable. Through these times of rapid change in the sustainability arena, the floorcovering industry was positioning itself as the sustainability leader in the interiors product segment.
One of the early drivers that brought focus to the need for a deeper understanding of products and their impacts was the concern over indoor air quality. This issue brought the flooring industry together in an effort to dispel false information and to instill confidence into the marketplace that flooring was not a contributor to sick building syndrome. From this effort, standards for indoor air quality were developed. These were leading standards for the interiors industry. In later years, this success contributed to the cooperation among manufacturers in crating sustainable flooring standards. These holistic product, manufacturing and social responsibility standards served as a template for numerous other industries. Today, most flooring has been subjected to some type of environmental measure – a lifecycle assessment study (LCA), an environmental product declaration (EPD), or some of the many other certification and standard evaluations.
Another watershed moment for the industry was the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) introduction of its LEED green building certification. This standard and others to follow reinforced the market’s demand for sustainable products. Today, many of the products manufactured provide all the credits available to flooring under these standards.
Leading manufacturers realized that just making sustainable products was not enough; the manufacturing of these products must also be made utilizing sustainable practices and processes. The adoption of ISO 14001 as a leading measure of manufacturing facilities became standard. Resources were committed to the development of new processes for manufacturing to reduce the environmental impact that manufacturing bore. Products changed from heavy weights for performance to lower weights with tighter constructions. A key tenet of sustainable products – make more with less and make products that last longer – became commonplace. The industry realized that you cannot make green products in brown factories.
While the key focus of the industry was on sustainable products, manufacturing and processes, it was realized that tons of potentially valuable resources were being landfilled at the end of a floorcovering’s useful life. The challenges of transformation of products engineered to perform for extended life to products engineered to perform for extended life to products with components easily separated and recovered were many. The industry continues to work on the transformation of materials that meet the requirements of performance, cost and ease of reuse/recycling. Through the leadership of the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), the carpet industry sought alternative uses for products that were reaching the end of their useful lives. Since CARE’s beginning in 2002, more than 2.3 billion pounds of carpet had been diverted from landfills in the U.S. Not only has CARE been influential in the diversion of carpet from the landfill but by doing so had helped fuel a new industry to recycle and renew old carpet.
During the last decade, the triple bottom line had been adopted as the overall approach to sustainability by leading companies. The phrase was coined by John Elkington in his 1997 book, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. The triple bottom line is a balance of environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability. The approach towards sustainability to include more than environmental stewardship has expanded the boundaries of sustainability for every company. Now we must mange the social responsibility challenges along with environmental impacts, all while being fiscally responsible. Companies are rising to the commitment to be good neighbors as well as creating jobs. Using the triple bottom line idea allows industry to balance doing good with a cross-sectional approach.
As we look into the future, sustainability will continue to be an important part of the product and manufacturing landscape. It is proven that with sustainability filters in place, products can be produced more efficiently, materials can be chosen that are better for the environment, and it has also been shown that green products and manufacturing do not have to cost more. As we continue our journey toward sustainability, predicting what is around the next corner is difficult, but the flooring industry had proven it is up to the challenge and will continue to lead in sustainable practices.
Twenty Key Elements in Flooring Sustainability
- Bio-based Content
- Green Energy (solar, wind, hydro, etc.)
- Recycled Content
- Third-party Certifications
- Cradle to Cradle Philosophy
- PET Reuse
- Landfill Methane
- CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort)
- Closed Loop Recycling
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
- ISO (International Standards Organization)
- Rapidly Renewable Materials
- LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments)
- Green Installation Systems (click systems, LokDots, water based adhesives, TacTiles)
- Waste Reduction
- Waste Water Reuse
- EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations)
- Local Manufacturing