Flooring needs a clear set of sustainability standards

Green building is far from a new concept. But in a world permanently altered by the pandemic, the focus on sustainability in the building supply chain is increasingly expanding beyond efficient use of energy and natural resources to encompass the health, wellbeing and productivity of the people within the buildings.     

In a new era of conscious living, people want to understand whether the places in which they live, socialise and work are fit for purpose, sustainable for the future, and positively impacting their health and wellbeing – concepts which are all intrinsically linked.  

Flooring designed to maximise natural light for instance – measured by its Light Reflectance Value – not only has a positive impact on occupant mood and mental health but also increases energy efficiency within the building.  With sustainability and wellbeing seen as key to future developments in the flooring industry, robust standards are increasingly needed to enable a new environmentally-focused production model.

Sustainability and the circular economy

The longevity of flooring materials and ensuring products don’t need to be replaced regularly, remains vitally important and as a result has seen focus shift from ‘products that are used’ to ‘products that can be reused’. This has led to the industry adopting more ways to upcycle materials to create new flooring solutions, as well as ensuring these new products can ultimately be recycled.

Carpets, for instance, can be manufactured using ECONYL® regenerated nylon, which is made from waste products such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, old carpet and industrial plastic. Waste is cleaned and recycled back to its original purity before being processed into carpet yarn and used for new flooring. The resulting material can be recycled infinitely, without ever losing its original quality, in a sustainable closed-loop regeneration process. Not that long ago such an approach would be seen as novel and experimental but today we find this and similar environmentally-friendly practices becoming more prevalent.

Cork is another material being successfully used to make flooring products more sustainable. As a raw material cork is naturally sustainable, as no trees are felled when it is stripped. It is estimated that for every ton of cork produced, cork oak forests absorb around 73 tonnes of carbon dioxide – helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change – so it is understandable that the material is rising in popularity in both residential and commercial application.

Cork flooring products also retain the ability to store carbon dioxide throughout their entire lifecycle. As a result manufacturers are building on the natural sustainability of cork by recycling cork products, even burning production-line dust to generate biomass energy and power factories, ultimately achieving a carbon negative footprint.    

The new approach of human-centred design 

As the concept of sustainability continues to give greater consideration to health and wellbeing, there is an increased focus on how flooring can reduce noise pollution, maximise natural light and improve indoor air quality. Cork, for example, isn’t just carbon neutral, it also reduces acoustic noise by up to 50%, significantly enhancing busy spaces such as multi-storey office buildings, schools, healthcare facilities and hospitality venues. 

Understanding the impact chemicals within building materials have on human health is also becoming more prevalent in the public’s consciousness, and flooring suppliers are responding by creating more products free from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in line with current UK and EU indoor air quality standards. Take luxury vinyl tiles for example; although such material may not immediately sound like a sustainable option, this flooring can now be made without phthalates, meaning it has very low VOC emissions and can contribute to healthier, cleaner indoor air quality. When combined with an inherently long lifespan and recycling options, vinyl flooring is becoming an increasingly sustainable option. 

Setting the standard for sustainability

A strong focus on sustainability, and the broadening of its remit to include health and wellbeing, are positive signs, but making sustainable flooring products an integral part of building processes is not a one-tick-in-the-box exercise. It can be challenging to ensure all participants in complex supply chains adhere to the same standards, from the sourcing of raw material right through to production and distribution.

A verified Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), which is an objective report into what a product is made of and its environmental impact across the entire life cycle, is one vital way to gain more transparency into flooring supplies. An EPD could form the basis for a clear set of industry standards and already feeds into other environmental accreditations such as the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). But demand from the buyers is essential for these efforts to become established industry standards; in turn this requires education, in form of accredited CPD,  around the processes behind the production of flooring products, enabling buyers to select suppliers and manufacturers committed to sustainable practices.

Click here to watch a video explaining EPDs…

Demand for healthier, more sustainable indoor environments is driving a new era in building design. The flooring industry is already taking steps to deliver sustainable materials and solutions, and to ensure these promote the wellbeing of building occupants. Ultimately clear, industry-wide standards need to be put in place and adhered to, to serve the dual purpose of minimising environmental impact while positively influencing health and wellbeing.   

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