Let’s start with running a “green” business. Businesses are making marketing hay out of good standard business practices which qualify as “green”. Here’s the secret: reduce waste wherever you can and be more efficient and productive. For any good business, that’s an ongoing effort especially when impacted by a sudden increase in costs, like fuel. Consume less and steer your purchasing of operational necessities towards responsible products. This is stuff your mother told you: shut the door, turn off lights when not using them etc. etc. Anyone, like myself, who grew up with parents who lived through the Great Depression, started getting their “green” education early on.
As far as being in a “green” business, there are several challenges, beginning with the basic question: what is “green”? “Green” has replaced “natural” as the most abused word in the English language. Everything is “green” these days. Mr. Clean became “green” last Tuesday, I think. What constitutes green (I’ll dispense from the quotation marks from here on in) is different from person to person.
Eco-friendly flooring is pretty easy to figure out. The material should satisfy some fundamental criteria: renewable, biodegradable; non-toxic; leave a small footprint in production and transportation; long life cycle; low maintenance; contributing to an environment that does not harbor or promote potential allergens. Surprisingly few building and flooring materials satisfy all or even most of the above… but some do. If grown in a responsible and sustainable manner, wood, cork, and bamboo pretty much cover all the bases. Cork and bamboo are easier to evaluate since they have a limited growing range and are not biodiverse. Recycled wood flooring, from wood that has been used for a previous purpose, is the best you can do from an ecological standpoint.
Cork is a finite harvest of the bark of the cork-oak tree. Overharvesting will kill the tree. Cork ‘s growing range is limited to a Mediterranean climate, and the cork used for the production of flooring is typically industrial by-product of the bottle stopper industry. Cork flooring is durable, comfortable, fire resistant, and has excellent sound attenuating properties.
Bamboo, a grass and not a tree, is considered a green product because of its short growing cycle. Once harvested (like a lawn), it does not require re-planting. Only one of the more than 1500 different bamboos that grow worldwide is used for flooring, and it’s native to China. Although the popularity of Bamboo flooring has driven some inferior product to market, if properly prepared and produced, Bamboo performs like a hardwood floor.
Wood is the most widely used eco-friendly building material with nearly 40% of industrial demand now satisfied by plantations. Plantation-grown does not necessarily translate to earth-friendly especially if the plantation requires unhealthy herbicides and pesticides, and/or if it replaced a diverse forest. Sometimes wood is more difficult to evaluate as forests yielding species appropriate for hardwood flooring occur all over the world with different criteria constituting responsible silviculture. Social, political and economic conditions and pressures are as diverse as the forests, compounding an already dynamic issue. Competing land use, like pasture and agriculture, are huge contributors to forest degradation around the world. Some people depend on the endorsement of a recognized environmental group to verify sustainable timber practices. The Northeast deciduous forest has been harvested at a surplus for the last 100 years. Properly managed forests can sustainably provide for the world’s increasing demand for wood.
Recycled wood flooring is probably the greenest choice out there. The most popular and available is Longleaf Pine, a native American specie overharvested to commercial extinction by the 1930’s. At one time, the Longleaf Pine forests occupied nearly 90 million acres along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Oak and Hard Maple are also routinely available. If the time is available to de-construct an old wood building so the timbers can be recycled into flooring, it saves the wood from the landfill and provides the customer with a an authentic piece of American history. In most cases the trees that were made into these timbers were standing when the Pilgrims landed.
Rubber flooring can include primarily recycled material as can other hard surfaces like recycled glass tile. These are among the many products manufactured primarily for commercial applications that are now being routinely considered for the home. Marmoleum and Linoleum (both are brands) are familiar eco-friendly composites of wood flour, cork, linseed oil and other natural materials. They have natural anti-static and anti-bacterial properties and are durable enough to withstand high traffic activity.
Since green has become popular in mainstream culture, many claims are made including so-called “improvements” to environmentally devastating products, thereby putting them in the company of legitimate eco-friendly materials. Renewable, biodegradable, non-toxic, low energy consumption, and durability… these are the cornerstones of eco-friendly flooring products, and those products are widely available at competitive prices.