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A solid generation into the LEED program–created by the U.S. Green Building Council in the early 1990s, with at least one certified project in all 50 states by 2004 and 230,000 certified residential units plus 78,600 commercial projects as of 2016–much has been accomplished and much has been learned. But along the way of good intentions some unforeseen consequences have proven to be problematic.

Specifically, the drive to reduce greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions and our overall dependence on fossil fuels netted out with tighter building envelopes. These snugly-fit windows and doors and high R-value insulation significantly cut energy use, reduced GHGs and saved building owners money.

So problem solved, right? Well, not exactly.

Energy efficiency as an ultimate value can mean reducing ventilation, particularly in poorly designed or mismanaged structures. That in turn reduces the air exchange rates (air coming in from the outdoors) within those buildings. This coincides with a time when people spend more time indoors—our information-intensive economy has us working on screens of all types more often.

What occupants are exposed to in these interior environments can have a negative impact on their health. The substances they are breathing, and sometimes touching, include formaldehyde, ortho-phthalates (including that in polyvinylchloride, PVC, found in vinyl sheet flooring), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Older homes might still have asbestos in insulation, paints, and floor tiles. The average American home contains about 10 gallons of synthetic chemical products, with higher concentrations in newer homes with newer materials present.

True to the nature of evidenced-based thinking, green advocates and their respective organizations are coming to terms with these problems. Creating a healthy indoors while improving upon the global environment aren’t mutually exclusive ideas; science and technology have overcome much larger, much more perplexing problems. We should be able to make floors, carpeting, walls, insulation, and furniture that are healthy for the earth and its inhabitants.

The journey of one company–Tarkett, a global leader in innovative and sustainable flooring and sports surfaces—illustrates this new wave of innovation around healthier indoor environments within the context of sustainable structures. The company’s carpets, vinyl, linoleum, rubber, wood, and laminate products are sold in more than 100 countries. They are used in hospitals, schools, hotels, offices, housing, retail environments, and on sports fields. Covering 1.3 million square meters per day, the company feels it has a great responsibility to provide a healthier product underfoot, the places where children play and learn, where adults work and heal, and where families go about their daily lives.

Why Tarkett has taken a leadership role in this regard might be due to several things. A single family is the majority shareholder and they have demonstrated patience in longer-term product investments. The company also has a history of environmental awareness and a vice-president of sustainable strategies and planning who personally “gets it.”

Adding Value, Changing The Game

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Diane Martel is Vice President of Environmental Planning and Strategy for Tarkett North America, responsible for driving the company’s sustainable messaging, programs, initiatives, education, training and industry awareness. As Vice President of Environmental Planning and Strategy, Martel serves as an internal and external spokesperson working with all divisions of Tarkett North America to develop and implement an environmental strategy and action plan and to ensure message penetration across the industry.

Diane Martel is that sustainability planning VP. She’s held this position in the company’s Chagrin Falls, Ohio headquarters (between Cleveland and Akron) for about seven years, but has been working in marketing for the company since January 2001.

“Personally, sustainability was always important to me,” she says. At one time, carpeting and vinyl flooring went from the company’s mills and manufacturing plants to installations at customer sites—think of the thousands of square meters of product in an average size hotel or hospital—then, after eight or ten years of use, it was passed on to its final resting place in landfills.  

That line, the linear path, is now becoming a circle. Adopting the Cradle to Cradle Philosophy—“C2C” as authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, refer to it—Tarkett carpeting is now often retrieved and recycled.

The company’s European Desso unit, acquired in 2015, was the first carpet tile manufacturer to achieve C2C gold level certification from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, based in San Francisco. Made with EcoBase backing (from upcycled re-engineered calcium carbonate extracted by local drinking water companies), it contains a 100 percent regenerated nylon made from recovered materials that include post-consumer yarn waste from the company’s own plant. The Desso “take back” program of retrieved (discarded) carpeting was enabled by a proprietary separation technique called Refinity, which separates yarns and other fibers from its backing, creating two separate materials for recycling (the bitumen backing is sold to the road and roofing industries in Europe).

Stateside the other units of Tarkett, its Tandus Centiva division in particular, also close the circle with carpet recycling centers in Georgia (the Tandus Centiva Environmental Center) and Alabama (Florence Recycling Center). A third party certified the Dalton facility in 2010, but in fact it’s been in operation since 1994. In the time since it first opened, more than 284 million pounds of postconsumer carpet and waste has been diverted from landfills. The company even has a sample-return program coordinated between sales associates and customers.

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Half of all Tarkett plants have closed water circuits that circumvent the need for fresh water. There is zero production wastewater as a result of recycling process water and the elimination of certain wet processes. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF TARKETT

Nearby, also in Dalton, is the Carpet American Recovery Effort (CARE), a consortium of carpet manufacturers that include the Tandus Centiva division, several states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency as well as several non-governmental groups. The goal is to tackle the challenges of carpet recycling across the entire country, as the national infrastructure to do so is in an embryonic stage at best, dependent on individual dealers and mills.

But again, the goal to reduce landfill use cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Martel repeats that sustainability is an innovation driver, but that the impact of flooring materials on human health warrants a great deal of attention as well. “The EPA has told us that indoor air is three-to-five times worse than outdoor air,” she says. It’s a problem not entirely caused by the floor covering industry, but enough so that Tarkett (and its competitors, a bit later in time) have responded by removing the most worrisome components.

Those product ingredients include ortho-phthalates. The substance is believed to be an endocrine disrupter, with adverse effects on human reproduction. It’s also found in wall coverings, sheets, automobile parts (cables, wiring), gaskets, medical devices, toys, food packaging materials, coated textiles and garments with printing, sports equipment, leather, shoes, and furniture. Most of these industries are responding to concerns on some level. Toys, food packaging, and carpeting get most attention due to the close interaction each has with humans, children in particular.

Another ingredient removed by Tarkett is biocides, which are designed to reduce growth of mold, often with formaldehyde as the key ingredient. Off-gassing of formaldehyde in carpets and other building materials becomes apparent when temperatures are above 72 degrees, when humidity rises above 50 percent, and especially if doors and windows are closed in those conditions. Not enough evidence exists to definitively say formaldehyde is toxic to human, but rat and mice studies show long-term exposure causes nasal cancer. At high levels, evidence suggests that formaldehyde can cause myeloid leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer.

That is enough to convince many countries and manufacturers to remove this and other biocides from the company’s product cycle. “This was done in the spirit of destruction,” says Martel. “We help build people-friendly places. Removing these components helps distinguish us as providers of good, healthy materials.”

This Is a Long-term Strategy

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Indeed, the company was able to distinguish itself in the marketplace by being among the first to remove ortho-phthalates and biocides from its carpeting, beginning in 2011. It wasn’t until four years later that all three of the major, national building products retailers – Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards – told their suppliers and customers that they would phase out phthalate plasticizers in vinyl floors by the end of 2015.

In the mix of what prompted this was a 60 Minutes story in 2015 on retailer Lumber Liquidators. The investigative journalists found that composite wood flooring from the retailer, with 360 stores in 46 states selling a billion dollars annually of hardwood flooring made in China, entirely failed to meet California’s stringent formaldehyde emissions standards. A federal-level investigation by the Centers for Disease Control—the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry—concluded in a 2016 report (Possible Health Implications from Exposure to Formaldehyde Emitted from Laminate Flooring Samples Tested by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, March 22, 2016) that “the amount of formaldehyde released could cause health symptoms in residents…symptoms include an increase in breathing problems and short-term eye, nose, or throat irritation…symptoms are more likely to occur at lower concentrations for people with pre-existing health conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” It further stated that “the lifetime risk of cancer to be between 6 and 30 extra cases for every 100,000 people” due to formaldehyde exposure.

Which is not the kind of publicity a retailer and its vendors want to increase market share. Lumber Liquidators is pursuing a turnaround strategy, but its stock price is one-sixth of what it was before the 60 Minutes story ran with net losses of $60 million in 2015, down from a net income of about $80 million in 2013.

Tarkett doesn’t wait for a news organization to evaluate its products. With so many formulation changes, striving to create the most people-friendly products possible, it uses a third-party testing agency to validate its case. The company contracts with Dr. Braungart’s Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) to test full recipes of product ingredients that check for problematic interactions and to create an Environmental and Health Statement (EHS) that is subsequently made available to customers. The EHS differs from other declaration documents in that it ascertains where chemical hazards combine with likely exposures to create potential threats to both the environment and human health. Just as important, it is graphically designed to provide transparency in an easy-to-read way.

“This is a systematic approach to testing our ingredients,” says Martel. “Every recipe goes through testing. It’s looked at in terms of how the chemistry affects the end user as well as workers in the supply chain.”

EPEA and Tarkett now layer on an additional evaluation and analysis known as a Material Health Statement (MHS). It assesses and discloses raw materials according to their Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number; it screens for chemicals with a hazard rating under the Green Screen List Translator; it also performs a C2C material assessment over the product lifecycle, including an analysis of human health impacts; and, it can involve reformulation to achieve an optimization of all these factors.

Of course, this adds cost to the process. But it’s a cost with benefits. “When we moved out of ortho-phthalates in 2011 to people-friendly products, most of our competitors were not there yet,” continues Martell. “We tend to invest with a long-term vision. When retailers like Lowe’s and Menards required phthalates be removed, it was a market shift that we anticipated.”

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Tarkett strives to use renewable and abundant sources in their products. To illustrate creative thinking on the recycling side, they reached outside of carpeting to find a polymer that can be recaptured from disposed automobile windshields and safety glass. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF TARKETT

The company takes an even longer view with regard to its affect on the environment and its own supply chain. Martel explains that by building a recycled content capability and infrastructure, it positively affects the company’s own business sustainability.

“We see recycled content as a resource,” she says. Broadening the perspective, she describes the projected growth of global population and the challenges that will create. “There will be nine billion people living in 2050. The middle class will grow from 300 million today to three billion then. That’s a lot of people using a lot of resources. We are currently borrowing from the planet’s future in our resource use. There is great risk in depending on finite resources. We are responsible to our employees to be in business in 20 years.”

For a shorter-term way to think about that, it helps to consider that the majority of ingredients in flooring materials are petrochemical in origin. Oil price volatility can make or break an enterprise, so it’s understandable if Tarkett wishes to smooth that out with circular, C2C practices. The company’s Desso unit expresses this clearly in their corporate responsibility web page: “Our reliance on fossil fuels is not only unsustainable in the long term, but also makes us vulnerable to economic shocks now,” it says, going on to quote economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who is a senior advisor to the European Union and author of 20 books on scientific and technological change: “When fuel costs rise, all the other prices across the supply chain go through the roof, because everything’s made of fossil fuels: fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, construction materials, synthetic fibers, power, transport, heat and light.”

The Desso statement also speaks to raw material scarcity, speaking of the finite nature manufacturing inputs: “We simply don’t have an endless supply of raw materials in the earth—copper, phosphates, zinc, oil and the like—with which to continue the economic growth rates of the past century. At present, about 80 percent of waste from consumer goods, whether packaging, clothes or shoes, ends up in incinerators, landfill, and wastewater. Yet there is commercial value to be gained from finding recycle-and-reuse business models, which could amount to $700 billion in consumer goods material savings every year.

Even better if those practices win the company eco-minded customers.

Why Being First Matters  

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Smart business practices (with a long-term view) aside, legislation might well drive some–or a lot–of carpet recycling. The California Carpet Stewardship Bill, law AB 2398, mandates landfill diversion by imposing an assessment of 20 cents per square yard of carpet sold in the state. The funds generated are used to support and incentivize development and markets for products made from recycled carpet, to underwrite the collection and transport of used carpet in rural counties, and to educate the public about the program, why it is needed, and its benefits.

Very often what is created in California spreads to the rest of the country. The technological hurdles that must be overcome to build the infrastructure for recycling carpets there can be instructive elsewhere. Also, economies of scale will undoubtedly be achieved that make all of this more affordable. But in all likelihood, the companies that succeed the most under regulatory requirements are those companies that understand and embrace the larger goals thoroughly and early.

And, they will have a strong market advantage. Jonathan Klinger, Tarkett’s chief marketing officer, joined the company only in late 2015, drawn to its innovative culture and belief in sustainability. “There’s a tremendous alignment and shared passion here,” he says. “Innovation is tremendously important, not just in the products but in service, the program, and the customer experience. It’s the only sustainable way to deliver value.”

The Tarkett group of companies has tactically proven this is the direction where they are headed. Diane Martel says this goes higher than marketing and research and development. The company set goals for the year 2020 and beyond, based on four innovative drivers: smart material selections, resource stewardship, recycling, and creating people-friendly spaces with products.

Material selection—supply chain management by another name—is at the core of these four drivers. While recycled inputs, as described above, make up an increasing share of materials, for the time being there still need to be raw sources. The company strives to find renewable and abundant sources as well. And to illustrate creative thinking on the recycling side, they reached outside of carpeting to find a polymer that can be recaptured from disposed automobile windshields and safety glass.

Resource stewardship, the second innovation driver, looks at different inputs: water, energy, waste, recycling, and emissions. A good example is the Tandus Centiva division production facility in Florence, Alabama, where the manufacturing equipment has achieved a circular economy with water; in fact, half of all Tarkett plants have closed water circuits that circumvent the need for fresh water. There is zero production wastewater as a result of recycling process water and the elimination of certain wet processes. They also inventory GHGs for all manufacturing facilities, showrooms and offices. On a per-square-yard basis, GHGs were reduced by 15 percent since the baseline year (2006).

Recycling, the third driver, is a hugely important and (as discussed) an intensive focus of the company. An additional measure of its effectiveness is how less than 0.1 ounce per square yard of manufactured goods escapes the recycling process and ends up in a landfill. The Tandus Centiva division can also take back old vinyl flooring at the Florence, Alabama recycling facility.

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But perhaps people-friendly spaces stands a bit higher in innovation priorities, because this is the sole touch point with end users over years of use. This is more than a marketing claim: a number of different certification organizations provide third-party validation of the Tarkett products. Certification from the Carpet & Rug Institute Green Label Plus program ensures that both carpet and adhesives conform to indoor air quality requirements of California Section 01350, a statute under the state’s green building codes. FloorScore certification is set by the same California statute, as does the GREENGUARD certification of adhesives. The structure of Tandus Centiva carpets with a Powerbond Cushion minimizes the need for chemical cleaners, and provides an added thermal benefit to reduce energy costs.

What it all amounts to is flooring materials at the safety level of food packaging and “mouthable toys,” (a term the U.S. EPA uses to describe children’s toys that might end up in their mouths), and very low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Much of this work is done by the company’s 180-person research and development team, based in Wiltz, Luxembourg, plus technical staff in 24 regional centers and application laboratories in 14 countries. Overseen by a scientific council, the company partners with universities and other third parties to develop new ideas.

So much of what is happening with healthier interior products, flooring in particular, gives us plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future. Products are considered in relation to each other, as are product ingredients. There are teams of people working on proprietary products at Tarkett, while the industry as a whole seems to share an interest in sustainability in every way possible.

So how do Tarkett employees think of competitors copying what they do? “We think of our selves as a thought leader,” says Jonathan Klinger. “We consider copying a point of success.”

And perhaps that is what the USGBC had in mind all along.


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