Sustainability & Millennials: The Future of the Hardwood Flooring Industry is in Their Hands

Photo courtesy of Emily Morrow Finkell.

Look around where you are sitting or standing right now. See if you can spot a cloth shopping bag, a collection of used aluminum cans, or a reusable water bottle.

Now, look around a little harder, and you’re likely to see even more evidence of sustainability (or what most people think sustainability involves). Not to suggest that today’s newest consumers don’t know or understand sustainability; in fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. The definition of sustainability has expanded and evolved since the early days of the cradle-to-cradle discussions in the design world as well as the floor covering industry. Today, it includes ideas such as carbon footprint, “farm-to-table,” and even checking hidden labels to see the country of origin where our products are sourced and manufactured.

Next, consider how frequently you’ve seen headlines or heard references made to the millennial generation. This generation is known as the next frontier for brands who seek to connect with their spending power. According to recent statistics, millennials spent approximately $200 billion in 2017, and studies have revealed their willingness to spend more on “sustainable” brands.

According to an op-ed article in the Business of Fashion and the State of Fashion Report by The Business of Fashion (BofF) and McKinsey, “nearly 90 percent of people surveyed believe they will help create more sustainable products by convincing businesses and governments to change existing practices…and would be willing to boycott a fashion brand if it was not sustainable.” What this means to our floor covering industry is not yet known, but we should certainly be paying attention. Not only are they our future consumers and homeowners, but they are also our future workforce, employees, and business leaders.

Today we have emerging professionals coming into the workforce with multiple degrees, who are determined to live differently than their parents, and are less motivated by wealth and more motivated by health. Whether they identify as millennials or “HENRYs,” this generation’s biggest challenge is discerning truth in advertising from fiction. HENRY stands for high-earners-not-rich-yet and could be the most important customer segment that you’ve probably never heard of.

According to a Forbes article, American 26-Year-Olds May Be Retailers’ Target, But Only One Segment Is Prime: The HENRYs, by Pamela N. Danziger, “The 26-year-old millennials on the road to affluence, called HENRYs, are the customers whom retailers really need to zoom in on. That would be the 20-25 percent of those 4.8 million 26-year-olds who are at the top of the income distribution, or the 1.2 million earning more than 75-80 percent of their peers.”

The article goes on to say, “Those aged 26 are smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation, ‘the group of 93 million comprises people born roughly between 1980 and 2000.’ By comparison, the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964 and numbering 78.8 million at their peak, have now declined to 74 million according to the latest census. Millennials, aged 17-37, are vital to every brand’s future, as they are ‘entering prime spending years as they buy homes and make improvements. Their outlays are growing as more of the generation moves into adulthood.’ Their importance will only continue to grow up till about age 50 when their household spending is expected to peak, according to spending wave research conducted by Harry Dent. That means from now until about 2040, millennials will be the key consumer segment driving the U.S. economy.”

This May, my daughter, Mary, traveled with a select group of Furman University students who spent three weeks studying “Slow Food Italy” on a small farm in Sora, Italy. She explained that we should seek out food that might take longer to grow, but is cultivated without harmful chemicals, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Using the methods of our grandparents rather than mass-producing food is our best bet for quality health as well as the refined enjoyment of flavor and dining experiences. These students not only studied food, nutrition, and farm-to-table methods, but also visited the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They examined the seeds, the plants, the animals, and the preparation of each as well as the effects on our health.

Thanks to her explanation of what many U.S. fast food companies do to potatoes in order to make perfect french fries, I can no longer mindlessly enjoy them. As she described her own purpose in Slow Food Studies as a Health Sciences major, it occurred to me that the study of slow food is a movement going on around us all and represents a broader shift in how our younger generations are seeing the world and how they view quality living. Take the same concept of mindful eating, and apply it to mindful shopping for fashion and the home.

So many companies, for example, those who produce food, fashion, and flooring, have murky marketing campaigns that create an impression of being sustainably made. It often is hard to see through the smoke and mirrors, and as an industry, we do have a responsibility to make sure we are all being honest about what we make and how we make it. We all get that warm, fuzzy feeling when we do business with companies that have been recognized for responsible stewardship. Sometimes we come to find out, though, that some of these labels have been misrepresented. Seeing the abuse of a trusted certification such as FSC, for example, it’s hard not to become confused and a little cynical.

The hardwood flooring industry can so easily be compared to our food industry here in the states. While we enjoy a vast variety of options of super cheap and super-fast foods, we are paying a price that cannot be seen or felt right away. We are bringing materials into our homes that might be inexpensive and readily available as a DIY product, but it’s important to ask yourself: “how long will it look good, how long will I want to keep it, how long will it last?”

What if we could convince the HENRYs to save up for hardwood flooring that doesn’t have to be replaced, will look good for decades, and actually adds to the overall value and appeal of the home?

Why wouldn’t they fall in love with premium hardwood flooring rather than loathing the cheap base-grade flooring we feel we must have as first-time homeowners? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we considered our flooring as much as we do other things in our lives? It would make our homes more valuable in the short- and long-term, and help to make our indoor air quality better with low to zero VOC hardwood. Plus, the floors will last a lifetime, which truly makes it a sustainable material.

I personally think the future is in wonderful hands and I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future leaders when I spend time with my young adult children and their friends. They are smart, kind, and very savvy. They’ve had unique life experiences, they’ve worked hard, and are now entering the world filled with both knowledge and “heart.” And, so that you know, they also are wiser than you’d think. This generation will make an impact on our industry, so now is the time to listen.

Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer and CEO of EF Floors & Design LLC in Dalton, Georgia, a provider of hardwood floors and home furnishings, and NWFA design contributor. She can be reached at

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