If we continue to use the earth’s resources in the same unsustainable way we do today, we will likely start running out of essential resources by 2052. Many consumers in the United States and worldwide are starting to take these warnings seriously, leading more of them to make conscious decisions to buy eco-friendly products.
In the flooring industry, companies are starting to realize that the future lies in ensuring that the products they sell are as eco-friendly as possible. While many enterprises are involved in genuine efforts to make eco-friendly flooring, there are all sorts of claims that make separating fact from fiction almost impossible.
When there is a lack of knowledge about what eco-friendly means, consumers can be misled by marketers through greenwashing (explained in greater detail later in this article). We have created this article to help consumers better understand claims made about eco-friendly flooring.
We aim to help you understand the meaning of eco-friendly flooring and its benefits. The bulk of the article will also focus on the terminology used when marketing different types of eco-friendly floors.
What Is An Eco-Friendly Product?
Before we look at eco-friendly flooring specifically, let’s start by clarifying what an eco-friendly product is. The term eco-friendly means that a product or action does not harm the environment. Several other phrases are used in the place of eco-friendly: earth-friendly, environmentally friendly, and green.
In an article published by the Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education, Robert Eduardo Cooper-Ordoñez, Aleix Altimiras-Martin, and Walter Leal Filho define environmentally friendly products as “market-oriented products that cause minimal environmental degradation and their production is linked to a product development process that is structured in a way that considers the impacts that can be caused to the environment throughout their life cycle.”
Cooper-Ordoñez and colleagues note that product development is drifting away from a past where environmental elements were considered only indirectly because the focus was mainly on cost, quality, and time targets. They argue that the socioecological conditions today are forcing product developers to incorporate sustainability aspects.
What About Eco-Friendly Flooring?
Now that we have a basic idea of what an eco-friendly product is, it’s easier to define eco-friendly flooring. The definitions above also show that a floor is not eco-friendly just because it is made from renewable or recyclable materials. It is also vital to consider the processes involved in manufacturing the floor, transporting it, ensuring its durability, and disposing of it.
Eco-friendly flooring is made from materials whose use does not upset the balance of ecosystems. Such an imbalance could lead to certain organisms becoming extinct.
If floors are to be deemed eco-friendly, they must be manufactured in a manner that does not involve the use of high amounts of energy or harmful chemicals. Eco-friendly floors should make buildings healthier. They are also renewable and can be recycled at the end of their life cycle.
Other issues that make floors eco-friendly may seem unrelated to the floor itself. For instance, carpet is known for its warmth and insulation, which could reduce the amount of energy used for air-conditioning. If more people use less energy for air-conditioning, less fuel will be burnt to generate power.
It's vital to be conscious that even though a material can be environmentally friendly in one aspect, it may not be in other aspects. For instance, while the carpet we mention above may help a room retain heat, the processes involved in manufacturing or installing it may offset those gains by using more energy than what would be required if another material that does not retain heat was used.
Does Eco-Friendly Flooring Provide Benefits?
Eco-friendly flooring presents many benefits. The first is that such floors are designed to cause as little harm to the environment as possible. This means that if you choose this type of flooring, you are playing your part in preserving the environment and the limited resources in it. You are showing your commitment to creating a healthier climate and supporting the use of sustainable materials.
When a floor is genuinely eco-friendly, those who design, manufacture, sell, and install it are careful about the materials they use. This ensures that toxic materials that may negatively impact the health of humans, pets, and other organisms in the environment are minimized.
Eco-friendly products go through a robust quality check to ensure they meet the standards they purport to live by. Because manufactures and installers of such floors understand that they have to meet these stringent quality checks, they make every effort to ensure that their products are of the highest quality.
The U.S.-engineered hardwood products maker, FromTheForest.com, suggests that “When it comes to constructing homes, businesses, and other buildings, incorporating environmentally friendly options can add value to the property for years to come.”
General Environmental Benefit Claims
Environmental benefit claims by manufacturers and sellers of all kinds of goods have been snowballing over the last few years. This is a reality noted by Evan Klonsky, who writes for Inc.com.
Klonsky quotes the marketing group TerraChoice which says that “Ninety-five percent of consumer products claiming to be ‘green’ over the past year  were in some way vague, deceptive, or misleading.” The same organization indicates that environmentally friendly products on the market increased by 73% in 2020.
Klonsky notes that “The chief concern is with vague tags like Earth-smart or nature-approved that don’t have any scientific evidence behind them.” The challenge with such equivocal terms is that even though they may sound impressive, they are hard to verify because no consumer would understand the attributes of an earth-smart product or how a flooring product gets approved by nature.
From Klonsky’s views above, it can be concluded that genuinely eco-friendly products use specific claims rather than general ones. He also says that any environment benefit claims should be made in a language that the consumer understands.
What Types Of Claims Are Greenest?
With so many environmental benefit claims and over 450 eco-labels attesting to varying levels of product eco-friendliness, it can be a considerable challenge to make sense of the claims and determine which claim is the greenest. By greenest, we mean the types of claims that are friendly to the environment the most.
To make things easier for consumers, The Federal Trade Commission has produced a document known as Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly known as the FTC Green Guides. These guides were first published in 1992, and the latest iteration is from 2012.
The Green Guides contain guidance in three basic areas:
- General principles applying to all environmental marketing claims.
- How consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these claims.
- How marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.
Based on the FTC Green Guides, we can now understand the elements that make a type of floor green. Therefore, if a type of floor meets all or most of the criteria we discuss below, it becomes the greenest.
You will find many floor manufacturers saying that the materials from which their products are made are sustainably sourced. But what does this mean? It means that the material is grown, harvested, and used in a way that does not threaten the future existence, the ecosystem, or the livelihoods and health of the communities where the resources come from.
The London-based environmental health consultancy, Elemental Green, gives examples of what sustainably sourced flooring materials are: “That would include hardwood flooring sourced from FSC certified forests, or wool carpet from ethically-raised sheep, or cork which can be recycled or harvested from trees without harming them, or tile made using recycled materials.”
Non-Toxic and Free Of
“Non-toxic” and “free of” are some of the most common phrases you will see on many products that claim to be environmentally friendly. This implies that a type of flooring was manufactured without the use of harmful chemicals. In most cases, the manufacturer will say that the manufacturing did not use volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).
Synthetic materials like paints, solvents, and gasoline are examples of materials that release VOCs.
But how do you know whether the floor or the way a floor is manufactured is free of toxic substances that could harm the environment or human and animal health? Elemental Green lists some green product databases that consumers can consult. Examples include Cradle To Cradle, Sustainable Minds Transparency Catalog, and Health Product Declaration Repository.
The FTC Green Guide says that when claiming that a product is non-toxic, it’s vital to indicate whether this applies to both humans and the environment.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines carbon offset as “any activity that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases.” For instance, a company may sponsor the planting of trees that absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide it produces when it manufactures, transports, or installs flooring.
FTC Green Guides provides clarity to help consumers understand how to interpret claims related to carbon offsets. The FTC advises “marketers to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their carbon offset claims, including using appropriate accounting methods to ensure they are properly quantifying emission reductions and not selling those reductions more than once.”
Made from Recyclable or Renewable Material
One way of ensuring that we don’t always go back to nature to make new floors is to recycle the material we have already used for making existing floors. This is why you will hear many floor manufacturers and retailers saying that their floor is made from recycled materials or can be recycled.
While any company can claim that a type of flooring is recyclable, the FTC Green Guides advise that such a firm has to qualify its recycling claims. According to the same guides, the marketer's responsibility is to indicate how widely available recycling facilities are in the area where the product is sold. It stipulates that claiming that such facilities are available to a “substantial majority” should mean at least 60% of the consumers.
On the other hand, a product made from renewable materials or resources is manufactured from raw materials that can be made quickly using natural processes. For instance, bamboo is a renewable material because it can be grown and harvested within a short period. Growing bamboo doesn’t require the use of pesticides, which can be harmful to the environment.
Compostable and Biodegradable
The terms compostable and biodegradable tend to be used interchangeably. However, when you read the FTC Green Guides, you will understand how to interpret environmentally friendly claims made using these terms.
The Green Guides say that a product is compostable if there is proof indicating that ‘‘all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost … in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or a home compost pile or device.”
On the other hand, the FTC Green Guides stipulate that anyone claiming that a certain material is biodegradable should show “competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature, i.e., decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.’’ The phrase “short period” means that “the entire item will fully decompose within one year after customary disposal.”
Resorting to Greenwashing
Pressured by consumers progressively becoming more environmentally conscious, many businesses are resorting to a concept known as “greenwashing.” Greenwashing involves claiming that a product is eco-friendly when, in reality, it is not. It also involves overplaying an environmentally friendly element of a product and downplaying its harmful effects on the environment.
This article has identified ways you can use to validate claims from floor manufacturers and retailers. If any company makes claims without providing evidence, then the claim is likely to be untrue. The same applies to companies that run with meaningless phrases like “Earth-smart” or “nature-approved.”
When it comes to which claim is greener, the answer lies in the ability of the entity making the eco-friendly claim to produce evidence to support their assertion. Therefore, a type of floor may be strong in one eco-friendly aspect and still not be eco-friendly. As a result, the phrase eco-friendly flooring should be looked at from a holistic perspective involving the source of the raw materials, the manufacturing processes, transportation, the way the floor is installed, and what will happen when it reaches the end of its life.