Flooring is a product that most people take for granted until it needs replacement. Yet, because of the sheer volume at which it is specified and its ensuing environmental impacts, flooring vexes eco-conscious building professionals. The desire to go green sometimes is thwarted by confusion about how to measure the true impacts, environmental and otherwise, of the products being used and specified. As every new-construction and rehabilitation project involves a sizable purchase of various flooring products, building professionals may find themselves inadvertently engaging in greenwash simply because the budget does not allow time to perform due diligence for each product. Sometimes it is tempting to take the easy route and rely only on a vendor’s marketing information. This approach can prove to be shortsighted, however. By creating a system that can be employed each time you have a new project, you can save time and ensure best practices in green purchasing. An efficient and effective green-flooring specification system allows you to factor in many considerations, including the type of building, use of the space involved and the client’s aesthetic preferences. This type of actionable process involves multiple steps, including identifying product function, measuring green attributes and reviewing product-evaluation tools.
Identify Product Function This crucial first step entails identifying the function the flooring will serve. Sustainability is just part of the overall picture. Intended application, product quality, durability, cost and style are essential considerations, as well. With intended application, life expectancy and sustainability in mind, key factors to assess are the placement of the flooring product and anticipated foot traffic.
Having identified these aspects, it is possible to balance green attributes with other performance qualities relative to this particular application. For example, if you choose the most environmentally responsible flooring for a lobby space but it lacks the durability to withstand heavy traffic, it likely will need to be replaced more quickly, thus making it less sustainable in the long term than a more durable, somewhat less environmentally friendly product. You can apply the same concept to color and style; selecting a trendy look may be less sustainable than choosing a product that will withstand several style changes.
Measure Green Attributes
You also should determine how you’re going to measure the level of "green" attributed to the products being considered. You might use a life-cycle approach that assesses all exchanges of a product with the environment throughout its full life history or you might employ a chemical-screening approach that focuses primarily on compounds used and emitted. Alternatively, you might apply a single-attribute method that focuses exclusively on a sole characteristic, such as recycled content. That said, it is important to balance the method you choose. By looking only at single attributes, it is possible to miss the big picture. This includes things like durability, as mentioned previously.
Yet when focusing on multi-attributes or life-cycle assessment, you may miss preferable characteristics of a single attribute. This may sound confusing, but it will be most clear when you have identified product functionality and project goals. For example, looking at 20 to 30 environmental attributes of a paint product might distract from the most prominent issues, such as offgassing of VOCs.
Whichever method you choose, it is important to assess the product with language set forth for product evaluation and certification by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization or Washington, D.C.-based American National Standards Institute. Looking for and using commonly accepted terms will help you confidently evaluate and recommend a product and ensure its environmental integrity. Review Product-evaluation Tools
You will want to review all the product-evaluation tools relevant to flooring and learn what each does and does not do so you can select products that correspond with the objectives of the building owner and goals of your green-building team. A word of caution: No single tool meets all situations. In fact, drawing upon one or several favorite tools to use for every project can be like fitting a square peg into a round hole. The misapplication of a tool may lead to inappropriate product choices in the short term and higher costs in the long term. It is best to develop a thorough understanding of all resources available so you can use the ones most appropriate for your specific project.
Environmental product declarations have the potential to provide relevant product-performance information about all types of flooring. EPDs will not be populated broadly until manufacturers submit their information for third-party validation, which is a requirement of ISO Standard 14025, Environmental Labels and Declarations. Once EPD systems are richly populated with products, they will provide specifiers and purchasers with a single source for diverse product-performance information and will list the third-party certifications a product has met. It is important to become familiar with the reputable resources available, including the following certification programs and tools:
Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability software, developed by the Gaithersburg, Md.-based National Institute of Standards and Technology, compares the 12 environmental impacts identified by the Washington-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board for many products, including most types of flooring. Visit www.bfrl.nist.gov/oae/software/bees for more information.
This program from Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Systems certifies low-VOC emissions. Go to www.scscertified.com/iaq/floorscore_1.html to find out more.
Forest Stewardship Council
Minneapolis-based FSC promotes the socially, economically and ecologically responsible management of the world’s forests via certification. To learn more, visit www.fscus.org.
Gaia Product Profile
The Green Standard, Chapel Hill, N.C., has launched a system in the U.S. to support manufacturers in developing and posting their own EPDs, which, when certified, are placed in the profile. To learn more, visit www.thegreenstandard.org.
The Marietta, Ga.-based GREENGUARD Environmental Institute developed its product certification program for low-emitting interior building materials, furnishings and finish systems. Check out www.greenguard.org for more information.
LCA is a holistic tool/assessment that evaluates the potential environmental burdens throughout a product or system’s complete life cycle. To find out more, visit www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/lcaccess/lca101.html.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International offers NSF 140, a carpet sustainability standard promoted by the Carpet and Rug Institute, Dalton, Ga. It is available online at www.nsf.org/business/newsroom/pdf/Sustainability2.pdf. In addition, NSF 332, “Sustainability Assessment for Resilient Floor Coverings,” is available at standards.nsf.org/apps/group_public/download.php/57/NSF_332-07.pdf.
Market Transformation to Sustainability, Washington, developed Consensus Sustainable Product Standards for multiple environmental, social and economic benefits throughout the supply chain. Visit www.sustainableproducts.com/mts/smartstandards.html to learn more.
Sustainable Forestry Initiative
Arlington, Va.-based SFI offers a program to certify wood and paper products from well-managed forests backed by a third-party certification audit. For more information, visit www.sfiprogram.org.
Getting the Word Out
The last piece of the puzzle is to share with your entire company and all stakeholders what you’ve achieved by using a systematic approach to specifying flooring products. This helps build value, competitive advantage and social responsibility for your firm. For instance, as a product’s carbon footprint is a subset of its LCA, you can compare that to the carbon footprint of an industry-average product you might otherwise have selected. This will enable your architectural or interior-design firm to quantify progress in meeting the goals of the Washington-based American Institute of Architects, Washington-based American Society of Interior Designers, Chicago-based International Interior Design Association or another professional organization.
If water conservation is a particularly important issue in the region where your project was constructed, let the local media know how much water you have conserved through your flooring choices. The flooring may be cleaned via innovative water-free methods or manufactured with a low-water-consumption technology. Similarly, share with the building owners and tenants the improvements in IAQ achieved.
Furthermore, in the context that interior products, like flooring, are replaced from five to 10 times during the average 50-year lifetime of a U.S. commercial building, your customers and prospects will see your system for evaluating and specifying products is a meaningful contribution to a sustainable future for all. As the 19th-century French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin noted with prescience, “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope.”
Deborah Dunning is founder, president and chief executive officer of The Green Standard, Chapel Hill, N.C., a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance global sustainability through the ways products are developed, selected and disposed of at the end of their useful life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul Firth is vice president of technology for The Green Standard, where he developed an ISO-compliant environmental product declaration system for the U.S. market, as well as provided manufacturers with education, technology and training about life-cycle assessment. He can be reached at email@example.com.