Hardwood flooring is a natural material derived from a renewable resource. But just how sustainable is it? Very, according to The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA).
In fact, NWFA president and CEO Michael Martin referred FCW to two lifecycle inventories the organization commissioned in 2008 and 2010 that found both solid and engineered wood have a lesser environmental impact than any other flooring category.
“A wood floor — and a wood cabinet, a wood chair or a wood picture frame — continues to be an environmentally friendly material, even during its service life,” explained Martin. “An average hardwood tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, and up to 1 ton by the time it reaches maturity [according to research by North Carolina State University]. That carbon continues to be sequestered when the tree is harvested, and the lumber produced is converted into other end uses.”
Starting at the source
A lot happens from tree to floor — it’s estimated that forests cover about 30 percent of the world’s land mass, as noted by the World Bank. And Mike Snow of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) shared only 25 percent of the world’s wood supply is actually sustainably certified. But this isn’t necessarily a problem.
Instead, what’s important is ensuring that whatever hardwood is being removed is equally being replenished. And that largely depends on where the wood is coming from in the first place.
“There are big differences between temperate forests and tropical forests, and the majority of [deforestation] is happening in Brazil and Indonesia,” noted Snow. “It has nothing to do with the forestry industry. It’s all about changing the economic use of the land. For example, in Indonesia, the rainforests are disappearing because they’re being burned down to create palm oil plantations.”
In the U.S., though, responsibly harvested wood is the norm. Science, or measurable data, plays a critical role in showcasing how American hardwood is some of the most sustainable around.
“We can actually calculate the renewability of any quantity of any species,” said Snow. “When we talk to architects about putting down 500 square meters of white oak flooring and they ask how many trees we had to cut down for that, we’re able to refer them to our life cycle assessment tool.” The online tool allows architects, designers and end users to find out quickly, based on the amount and scope of flooring used, how long it takes that wood to grow back in the U.S. For example, 1 m3 of two-inch thick lumber of American red oak takes about .57 seconds.
Floors for life
Wood floors have the potential to endure for decades, sometimes lasting hundreds of years and, all the while, storing the same amount of carbon it did as a tree. Hardwood floors are about as ecological as a purchasing decision can get, echoed Don Finkell, past chairman of the board of the Decorative Hardwoods Association (DHA).
“Most other products are coming from a petroleum-based raw material that is not renewable and I’m pretty sure isn’t carbon neutral. As long as you’re dealing with hardwoods that are sustainably harvested, and essentially all North American hardwoods are, you’ll have a sustainable floor,” added Finkell, noting it’s vital to review manufacturing overall, from the way the wood is cut, dried, stained and transported.
Yet the amount of carbon stored by wood almost always offsets about every step, even the emissions released as it's milled and dried. Shipping American wood to Europe, Asia or Australia barely impacts wood’s overall carbon footprint, according to research conducted by the AHEC.
And when a hardwood floor eventually does make its way into the home, that carbon remains stored , even as it’s sanded, refinished or stained time and time again.
“If you properly take care of wood floors, they last longer than carpet or vinyl, which typically have to be replaced multiple times,” said Finkell. “Nylon 6,6 can be recycled more easily, but it still takes a lot of energy to do so. With wood, you can recycle it or grind it up and use it for something else. Many suppliers will grind excess material into mulch and use it as landscaping or to burn as fuel. Although you have to cook the logs to be soft enough to peel, if you’re making that energy out of wood waste, [it creates] a pretty closed loop.”
It’s a response supported by Karen Righthand, director of sales and marketing at SCS Global, a leader in third-party certification and co-developer of FloorScore. “Wood’s end-of-life scenarios are more favorable than other types of flooring, especially flooring that combines multiple materials like vinyl. Hardwood floors can go and go,” she said. “But you have to be sure that it’s coming from a managed forest.”
What to look for
Certifications are not only a stamp of approval, but a quick way for retailers to differentiate products, especially as demand for environmental, health and safety information heightens at the end user level. “Third-party verification is essential today,” stressed Righthand. “It gives customers peace of mind that we’ve done the testing, we’ve dug into the formulation and the verification because it’s really hard to do.”
At the end of the day, there isn’t one program that evaluates the overall sustainability of a floor — these qualities are generally viewed singularly rather than holistically. And, depending on location, energy or water consumption may be more important than the other.
Righthand advised retailers to look for verified HPDs and EPDs, as well as FloorScore and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). But in some countries, especially the U.S., pursuing FSC-certification isn’t always feasible or logical. There are over 50 criteria, including the use of pesticides and habitat protection, all of which have to be met to pass.
“FSC is the world-wide gold standard for forestry certification programs, which is why the NWFA consulted with them to develop [our Responsible Procurement Program (RPP)]. The FSC logo is easily recognized throughout the world,” offered Martin. “Achieving FSC certification is a lot of work. Most forests in the U.S. are privately owned, and most are just a few hundred acres in size. This creates some challenges … and can be expensive. RPP was developed to help companies achieve FSC certification over time ... and is verified through independent third-party auditing [by SCS Global] .”
Why wood wins
“Wood will endure,” said Finkell. “Hardwood is a renewable resource that sequesters carbon and lasts a long time. The DHA wants everyone to play by the rules, but you have people trying to cheat and misclassify to avoid a duty or a tariff.”
To avoid this, Righthand suggests asking questions and tracking where the wood is sourced from. But, more often than not, hardwood is the safest, most sustainable bet.
A prime example: indusparquet
Indusparquet specializes in the production of exotic hardwood, specifically from Brazil — one of the most at-risk woods in the world. But Dan Gold, director of architectural sales for the company, noted sustainability is a top priority for Indusparquet and is integrated into everything it does.
“As a company, we have certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Floor Score and LEED certified up to 4.4. All of our engineered products that use glue also have the Carb 2 stamp and, by law, we are Lacey Act compliant,” he explained.
But Indusparquet also goes above and beyond that by having a zero-waste policy in place. “Any lumber, regardless of how small, nothing in our factory gets discarded. We make flooring as narrow as two and a quarter, and anything thinner than that we recycle into a tabletop program where we glue thin strips of wood together to create tables,” added Gold. “Smaller pieces are also used for cutting boards or trophies. Even smaller than that, we sell our wood chips and splinters to a company that reuses them for heating and fuel.”