Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How the oil spill disaster may affect the flooring industry.... Will customers start asking new questions?

Like you, every day I am sickened by the sight and thought of the BP oil spill. I can no longer even look at the televised live feed showing oil spilling into the gulf. I can’t watch pictures of animals coated and drowning in oil or think of what is happening to the sea life, the ecosystem and the lives of countless people along the coastline. If only we could apply Ctrl Z  to life and undo our mistakes the way we can with a computer. I fear we will be living with the consequences of this event for at least the rest of my life.  That brings me to my thought today – which is to share an example of one way this oil spill might affect the floor covering industry, and especially retailers.

It seems natural that this disaster could heighten the collective concern about the environment. Maybe this disaster will cause some Americans to ask more or different questions about products they buy. Retailers may face some new objections as consumers try to avoid petroleum based products or ask about products that use less manufacturing energy. The answers to these questions are not readily available in most retail showrooms, but maybe they should be. In the very least, maybe this should be something that our product makers and sellers recognize as a possible emerging dialog.

Most types of flooring products have been analyzed and "scored." Data is stored and available for designers, builders and manufacturers to use. So the potential question of “What product type typically uses the least energy during manufacturing?” can be answered. The answers are based upon the product's Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

What is a Life Cycle Analysis?

A Life Cycle Analysis is a careful accounting and analysis of  measurable raw material inputs (including energy), product and by-product outputs and emissions to air, water and land - and they can be much more detailed.

One source of LCA data is through an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) maintains a data base with environmental and economic performance data for building products, including dozens of floor covering products. Their LCA considers 12 environmental attributes from fossil fuel depletion and indoor air quality to ecological toxicity and the impact of raw material extraction through product manufacture, transportation, installation and disposal.  Analysis is based on a uniform set of international guidelines and procedures published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Wood flooring has also been the topic of many studies in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In 2008 The National Wood Flooring Association Industry Research Foundation conducted a life cycle analysis of wood flooring in conjunction with the Consortium for Research on Renewable Materials (CORRIM) entitled: Life-Cycle Inventory of Solid Strip Hardwood Flooring in the Eastern United States.

The authors of this study also prepared a supplement in which they compared wood flooring to some other flooring products: How Solid Strip and Sold Plank Hardwood Flooring Stacks Up in Comparison to Alternative Floor Coverings.  They looked at air and water emissions, primary energy use and product service life. They concluded that hardwood flooring used the least amount of primary energy in manufacturing, had the longest life expectancy and used substantially less water in manufacturing than other products, with the exception of VCT. This graph shows their findings of Total Primary Energy Required to Manufacturer Selected Floor Coverings.

This same information is contained in the Hardwood Council's American Hardwoods and Life Cycle Assessment: How Selecting Materials Impact Our Lives.  Of course other product manufacturers may have energy savings protocols that could enhance or contradict this – and that should be part of their marketing story. 

For those who want to learn more background on this topic, perhaps a place to start is the 2009 white paper by Dovetail Partners: Life Cycle Assessment of Flooring Materials A Guide to Intelligent Selection. Among the topics covered are: Environmental Performance of Various Floor Covering Options; Performance Rankings (based on the NIST data); and Economic Performance of Various Floor Covering Options.  Even if you don't agree with their findings, you are farther ahead knowing about this study.

Certainly every manufacturer will have its own interpretation of data, and maybe some have funded their own LCA’s.  I hope they make the data available to their distributors and retailers. The point is, you have a right to ask for it.

It’s hard to say if this oil spill disaster will make us think differently about the products we buy and use or whether buying decisions will change.  As a consumer I know that when I am informed about the differences in products I am empowered to make better choices for me. I appreciate any retailer or supplier with credible information to share during my decision making process. As the oil spill spreads across our beautiful Southern coastline, I hope this post will prompt some of you to think about how you might overcome possible new objections and questions.  

Thank you for reading and please continue the discussion by posting your comments below.


Susan Negley is the Director of Communications for the Floor Covering Institute.


  1. Interesting article and one of importance, I think. Why would one compare Wool Carpet Tile instead of Wool Broadloom Carpet in this study? Is it to make the wood numbers look better? No doubt that Wool Broadloom Carpets are enviromentally sound, probably more so than any shown in this study.

  2. Charles, your point about wool carpet is a good observation. I believe the reason the study addresses carpet tile and not broadloom is because the data the study relied upon came from the NIST database which is primarily for commercial related products and did not likely have broadloom data. I agree that wool fiber has a very strong sustainability story that was not addressed in the study or this post. Thank you for reading and commenting. Susan