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What Makes a Floorcovering Sustainable?

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Maya Henderson

In today’s marketplace, there is a plethora of product certifications, labels and declarations that manufacturers and builders use to communicate a product’s value to clients. However, owners, product specifiers and building occupants all have different interests and motivations. Just as each person’s background and experience varies, so do their beliefs when it comes to sustainability. The good news? Studies show we are all becoming more aware of and concerned with issues surrounding social and environmental health and sustainability. Making use of product labels, including declarations and certifications, is one way to make more informed choices; however, deciphering the claims behind the label can be challenging. So where to start?

Everyone is interested in obtaining the most healthy and environmentally friendly products, but the criteria used to achieve these lofty goals must be defined and measured before any manufacturer or specific product can truthfully make these proclamations. Should a product be climate neutral or contain no volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? Should the product be made of 100 percent recycled material or be 100 percent recyclable? Many are looking for a mix of these sustainable attributes. Having a more holistic and informed understanding of a product’s known or potential impact allows you to exercise your personal value system when making a selection.

Conducting a self-assessment is the first step to fully understand and reconcile your values against the product’s sustainability claims. Am I more concerned with the potential impact to my health? Are the ingredients in this product sourced responsibly? After understanding yourself and what you are looking for in product sustainability, consumers should look to question the claims put in front of them. What definition of product health is this claim based upon? Who is responsible for validating this claim? Does this claim fully address the sustainability attribute I am most concerned with?

Certifications

A design team tasked with creating a space centered on human health would have their pick of product certifications and declarations to rely on. Health Product Declarations (HPD), Cradle to Cradle Certified or Declare are just a few amongst many other first, second and third party claims available when choosing a floorcovering. When deciding which to subscribe to, you want to be sure that your product certifications or labels actually address concerns commonly understood to be associated with human health, such as indoor air quality or building material ingredients.

Certifications like CRI Green Label Plus or Cradle to Cradle work to address the issue of human health, either in whole or in part. Once the tools available to make the correct assessments have been identified, the next step is to understand what each certification or declaration is bringing to the table. Ask questions of the manufacturer and certifying body to be sure you are clear about their definitions, criteria and methods. For example, Cradle to Cradle assesses a floorcovering’s chemical ingredients without listing them publically, which gives buyers insights about sustainability and product health while honoring the privacy concerns of vendors.

Be sure you identify with the goals and objectives behind the organization and the standards they set for the products. Essentially, you want to educate yourself as much as possible about the makeup of the certification or declaration you decide to utilize.

Committing time and energy to better understand the work or health and environmental claims is the best way for anyone to arm themselves against greenwashing. The vague, “too good to be true” or indefinable claims that are appealing to the less informed are quickly evident to the designer, owner or user that understands the basics of product claims.

Manufacturing

Besides certifications, it is also crucial to consider how and where the floorcovering was manufactured. For example, floorcovering produced in a LEED-EBOM Gold facility maximizes the operational efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts. The LEED-EBOM certification considers water efficiency, energy efficiency, whole-building cleaning, and maintenance, indoor air quality, recycling programs, and facilities, exterior maintenance programs, and system upgrades to meet green building energy, water, IAQ, and lighting performance standards. The LEED Green Building Rating System is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings.

Manufacturing facilities can also have sustainable factors like being supported by a solar array and renewable energy credits to ensure 100 percent of energy is renewable. In addition, ask questions to see if the manufacturer has the proper, updated equipment and optimized production schedules to increase efficiencies. Lastly, check if the manufacturer is committed to a program or sets goals to reduce electricity, natural gas or water use.

End of Life

So far, we’ve discussed the birth and life of the floorcovering, so now it’s time to contemplate its end of life. When a product reaches the end of its useful life there are essentially three options: reuse, recycle or landfill. Both product users and manufacturers have a role and responsibility to ensure products and their embodied ingredients do not become a detriment to the environment. Factors to consider when purchasing and/or discarding floorcoverings include material makeup, recyclability, secondary markets and user habits. Having an understanding of what your product is made of, and the associated reuse and recycling options associated with those materials, will allow you to source the best product with the lowest potential for entering the waste stream.

For example, consider what type of fiber the floorcovering manufacturer uses. Fibers like Nylon 6,6 typically excel at material reutilization because there are so many other applications for the polymer in flooring and other industries. And as with any type of manufacturer, ask if it has a reclamation program and what said program offers. Understanding if there is an existing infrastructure or marketplace for the reuse or reclamation for your purchased products will save you a lot of time when you are ready to discard it. Lastly, ask yourself, does this manufacturer include recycled content, post-consumer or pre-consumer, to help minimize the use of virgin materials?

While there are numerous factors to consider when choosing a sustainable floorcovering, the best place to start is looking at the product’s claims, like whether it is CRI Green Label Plus or Cradle to Cradle certified, considering the type of manufacturing facility and learning more about the company’s reclamation program.

Maya Henderson is the Sustainability Manager at Bentley Mills, California’s leading commercial carpet manufacturer.

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