Aging with Grace: The Sustainability of Wood Flooring

Room with Wood Flooring
Photo Courtesy of NWFA

“Home sweet home” has been top of mind for people during the last couple of years.

At this point, you probably have heard about or experienced for yourself how spending more time at home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic only has called more attention to what is inside one’s home. The result has been that many people have not only wanted to improve the looks of their dwellings, but they also are concerned about their health and air quality, along with wanting to be surrounded by nature. All of these are good things for wood flooring.

According to the National Association of Home Builders’ Green Homes Smart Market Brief 2020, nearly 70 percent of green builders said a focus on green building was the right thing to do, and nearly 50 percent said they do it because they want to create healthier homes. Additionally, The Global Sustainability Study 2021 by Simon-Kucher & Partners found that “Globally, 85 percent of people indicate that they have shifted their purchase behavior toward being more sustainable in the past five years” and “more than one-third of the population is willing to pay more for sustainable products or services.”

These discoveries are nothing new for many wood flooring manufacturers and the green initiatives they have had in place for years. AHF Products, known for brands such as Bruce and Hartco, is NWFA Responsible Procurement Program (RPP) certified and has a robust product stewardship program. Matt Myers, senior manager of research and development for AHF Products notes that they sell more than 1,000 tons of sawdust weekly to be reused in a variety of products, including heating pellets, charcoal, animal bedding, and composite decking.

“In our view, wood floors are one of the most environmentally friendly flooring options available. Unlike some other flooring materials, the raw materials used to make them – trees – can regrow after they are cut down, which replaces the material that is used,” says Myers. “We know that wood floors can last for many years – we see wood floors in homes that are well over 100 years old! It ages with grace. And, if the wood does end up in the landfill after the end of its life, it is biodegradable.”

Selling the sustainability story across the supply chain has never been easier, as more research surfaces to further back up what the wood flooring industry has been saying for years. On the following pages, read more about new findings, initiatives, and why sourcing and compliance are more important pieces of the puzzle in today’s world.

Life Cycle Assessment

There is a new life cycle assessment (LCA) of solid hardwood flooring and prefinished engineered wood flooring. A joint effort between the NWFA and Decorative Hardwoods Association (DHA), the research was conducted by Coldstream Consulting to gain an understanding of the wood flooring life cycle and potential for impact reduction, and to allow for the development of industry-averaged environmental product declarations (EPD).

James Salazar, director of Coldstream Consulting, notes that EPDs are the standard for reporting on the environmental impacts of a product.

“EPDs are increasingly being incorporated as a bid requirement in project specifications and are the cornerstone for new buy-clean initiatives from the states and U.S. federal government,” he explains.

The research was cradle-to-grave, which included resource extraction, resource transportation, manufacturing of products, transportation of products, installation of products, use, disposal at the end of life, and potential benefits beyond system boundaries. Solid wood flooring production data was collected from 16 wood flooring manufacturers that produced a combined 172 million square feet in 2020. Solid wood flooring was considered to have a service life of 75 years, meaning it likely would not need to be replaced during the life of the building.

“The key takeaway of the LCA is the overall benefit of wood flooring as a renewable product,” says Salazar. “The renewability of forest products means that bio-based fuels are present throughout the production and substitute for fossil fuels.”

For example, it was found that the wood residue that is produced onsite was sufficient to produce enough thermal energy to run the boilers for kiln drying for all of the manufacturers who participated in this study.

“A significant portion of the biogenic carbon (approximately 90 percent) is also stored permanently in the landfill, which acts as a permanent carbon sink,” adds Salazar.

AHF Products Sustainability Chain Interior
AHF Products is doing its part in the sustainability chain in its plant in Beverly, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of AHF Products.

“Wood flooring is a unique flooring product from a sustainability perspective because it combines several positive attributes. The use of renewable energy, the ability to refinish and extend the service life, and the eventual permanent carbon sink created at disposal are all quantified in the LCA and EPD,” says Salazar.

The EPD is in the final stages of development and is expected to be formally verified this summer.

 

Also in progress is the 2022 Flooring Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA). It is being done as a partnership between several flooring trade associations (including the NWFA) and the Tile Council of North America (TCNA). This is an update to the previous report, which was published in 2005, and TCNA says it takes into account the changes and innovations that have occurred throughout the flooring industry.

AHF Products Sustainability Chain Exterior
AHF Products is doing its part in the sustainability chain in its plant in Beverly, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of AHF Products.

“LCCA is a powerful tool to aid decision-makers in evaluating all relevant costs of a given building system. Specific to flooring, LCCA allows the comparison of the aggregate of all costs associated with installation, maintenance, and potential demolition and replacement of various flooring products normalized to a common study period,” says Grant Davidson, standards development engineer for TCNA.

The research assesses 18 flooring types, including solid wood flooring and engineered wood flooring. The full report will be released by TCNA later this summer.

Refinish Instead of Replace

There are a number of environmentally friendly options for disposing of wood floors at the end of their service lives. However, wood flooring can last well beyond 100 years when properly maintained. Solid wood floors can be sanded and refinished numerous times during their service lives, and even can be adapted to any décor and style changes without having to be replaced.

System Boundaries for Solid Strip Hardwood Flooring Production in the Eastern U.S.
System Boundaries for Solid Strip Hardwood Flooring Production in the Eastern U.S.

A 2019 study by the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL), focused on understanding the environmental impacts of refinishing compared to replacing wood or resilient flooring materials in commercial buildings throughout Sweden. Bona, headquartered in Malmo, Sweden, was invited by IVL to participate in the 12-month study. Titled “Increasing Resource Efficiency in the Swedish Flooring Industry Through Floor Refinishing,” it was a cradle-to-grave assessment.

“The findings were clear – refinishing a wood floor is more sustainable than replacing the flooring material,” says Kirk Roberts, senior vice president of strategic development for Bona AB. “In fact, refinishing a wood floor saves 79 percent more carbon emissions than replacing the flooring surface and offers a 95 percent savings in energy resources.”

Bona Wood Floor Results IVL Report
Source: Bona Wood Floor Results IVL Report

To view the IVL report, visit BONA.COM/EN/ABOUT-BONA/SUSTAINABILITY/IVL-REPORT/.

Roberts believes this is a tremendous selling point to homeowners, along with the other benefits of wood, such as the natural look and feel, beauty, and being sustainably sourced.

“We find that education is key. Many floor owners don’t realize that refinishing is a possibility or that they can transform a floor (color, texture, sheen) just by refinishing,” he explains. “As part of that education, we know that floor owners are asking about sustainability more often, particularly the millennial generation, so leveraging the findings of the IVL report and other research can offer hard proof of the benefits of refinishing a wood floor.”

“The wood flooring industry has a strong story to tell when it comes to sustainability. We just need to share it more often and highlight some of the newer developments in research and product development that is making wood floors an even more sustainable option for home and building owners.”
— Kirk Roberts, Bona AB

To increase the awareness that refinishing is not only for solid wood floors, the NWFA Engineered Wood Flooring Refinishable Program recently was developed. The program is a voluntary certification program designed to identify engineered wood flooring products with wear layers thick enough to be refinished, and to produce a list of certified refinishable wood flooring products to aid manufacturers, distributors, specifiers, and end-users in their decision-making processes.

Part of the reason the NWFA wanted to establish this program was to further educate consumers about the science of sustainability.

“No home investment has a better or easier science-based story to tell than wood flooring. It comes from a tree that can be regrown. And, today, we can even calculate how quickly a wood floor can be regrown in the United States. It will take seconds to grow a new 1,000 square foot wood floor,” says Michael Martin, president and CEO of NWFA. “We need to share that story with consumers, and help them understand engineered wood flooring can provide some of the same sustainability benefits as solid wood flooring.”

For additional details about the program, read our NWFA Launches Engineered Wood Flooring Refinishable Program article.

Sourcing and Compliance

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, the sourcing of wood products is under an increased spotlight. Keith Christman, president of the DHA, notes that in 2021, Russia was the third-largest source of U.S. hardwood plywood imports, with a total volume of more than 567 million square feet worth more than $334 million.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)’s Board of Directors suspended trading certificates in Russia and Belarus, and blocked all controlled wood sourcing from the two countries. This means wood and forest products from Russia and Belarus cannot be used in FSC products or be sold as FSC-certified as long as the conflict continues. The U.S. government suspended normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. Additionally, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine requested that the European Union ban the import of Russian forest and wood products.

Couple Dancing on Wood Floor
Photo Courtesy of NWFA.

“FSC has withdrawn certification for Russia and Belarus. Wood from these countries presents significant legal and reputation risks,” says Christman. “Most birch plywood material is likely to be originally from Russia, so clear documentation from other sources is needed. Large amounts of birch plywood are imported from Vietnam. Russia is likely the source for this material.”

He continues, “Selecting U.S. grown and manufactured wood flooring products provides additional assurance and simplifies compliance. Studies have shown that U.S.-grown hardwoods are at very low risk of being illegally harvested.”

Elizabeth Baldwin, environmental compliance officer for Metropolitan Hardwood Floors, says the bottom line about compliance in our current times is that companies need to do it.

“There are too many companies out there, at every stage of the supply chain, who are not asking the questions they should, who are not thinking critically about their supply chain,” she says. “You have to make informed choices and dig in deep. For example, how do you know this mill is doing what they say they are doing? Part of that vetting comes in reviewing their third-party oversight – but do you feel secure about that? You have to keep checking.”

“In our view, wood floors are one of the most environmentally friendly flooring options available. Unlike some other flooring materials, the raw materials used to make them – trees – can regrow after they are cut down, which replaces the material that is used.”
— Matt Myers, AHF Products

The International Wood Products Association (IWPA) and NWFA partnered earlier this summer to host Due Care Week at the NWFA headquarters in St. Louis. Baldwin, with her co-instructor, Adam Scouse from Benchmark International, facilitated the sessions, which covered everything from basic customs topics to supply chain management, risk assessment/mitigation, and completing the Lacey Act declaration. There were deeper dives into Formaldehyde Emission Regulations compliance, as well as an intensive look at conducting different audit types and structures.

HFM AugSept22 final Page 42 Photo Collage
Photos Courtesy of NWFA

For anyone who was unable to attend, the event will take place again next year, and additional resources may be found at iwpawood.org or via Baldwin’s “Beyond Green” blog on hardwoodfloorsmag.com. Plus, IWPA’s online learning platform soon will offer modules covering compliance topics.

“Sustainability starts with legality. Focusing on sustainability and legality isn’t something you do casually or just by putting a pretty green leaf on your website,” advises Baldwin. “Companies need to make deliberate and sometimes difficult choices, and to do that, they have to have the knowledge. Education leads to better decisions, which will lead to better corporate behavior and a better world.”

Telling the Story

Small Child on Wood Floor
iStock ©

With all of these developments regarding sustainability, how can the wood flooring industry better spread the news?

“The wood flooring industry has a strong story to tell when it comes to sustainability,” says Roberts. “We just need to share it more often and highlight some of the newer developments in research and product development that are making wood floors an even more sustainable option for home and building owners.”

To Myers, the message to consumers should be that hardwood floors are made from a renewable resource and can last for generations.

“Being transparent with the consumer is key. This can include sharing marketing materials that demonstrate a company’s commitment to sustainability, as well as clear labeling on products,” he says.

“Unlike homeowners of a few decades ago, who had fewer options, today’s environmentally conscious consumers don’t have to sacrifice the look, feel, and durability of wood underfoot. In fact, this sustainable flooring comes in all the popular species: white and red oak, hickory, maple, ash, birch, and cherry. And it doesn’t cost a fortune.”

Roberts is leading a new NWFA task force on sustainability, which will focus on coming up with ways to promote wood flooring’s green benefits. Look for initiatives and tools you can use from this group in the months ahead, including additional materials for the NWFA’s “Real Wood. Real Life.” marketing campaign.

“We’re in this together. Sustainability isn’t a contractor issue, a distributor issue, or a manufacturer issue – it’s an industry issue and, therefore, important that we all come together to do our part,” notes Roberts. “From decreasing carbon footprint to encouraging healthier products and systems (for example, waterborne finish or dust containment systems), we can all make a difference.

Are You Seeing Any Trends in Sustainability Right Now?

Stack of Lumber
Photo Courtesy of NWFA

“I think there may be three big trends. One, there is a slowly growing anti-plastic movement. That’s good for the wood industry, of course. The second would be an increased interest in transparency. This is not just in wood – for example, LEED wants glue manufacturers to list their recipes. The third would be the increased legislative focus on deforestation, which impacts not just the wood industry, but also palm oil and coffee and many other products. I pick these three areas to highlight because they could all lead to new regulations or have other direct impacts on business/industry flow.”

– Elizabeth Baldwin,
Metropolitan Hardwood Floors

“There is an accelerating trend toward selecting products that reduce climate change, especially in government projects and commercial. Wood flooring, including engineered and solid wood floors, store carbon while in-use, reducing climate change.”

– Keith Christman,
Decorative Hardwoods Association

“Because of the collective journey we’ve taken these past couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been spending more time at home, and issues like where a product is made, what it’s made of, its life cycle, etc., have heightened our awareness of using products that not only look natural, but are natural. This trend only amplifies the importance of hardwood’s inherent attributes, from its durability to its long lifespan, and the ability to refinish or refurbish, not to mention the value it adds to a home monetarily.”

– Matt Myers,
AHF Products

“Sustainability has seen a significant shift during the past few years. What once was a trend or an added benefit to a business or product has now become core to how the hardwood flooring industry operates. Of course, wood has always been a sustainable building material. Yet the industry is now looking at the full picture of how we are working with wood from the sustainable nature of the refinishing process to the products used to care for the floor after it has been refinished or installed.”

– Kirk Roberts,
Bona AB

Libby White Johnston is the publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at libby.johnston@nwfa.org.

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