Shades of Green

Steve Bradfield and John Stephens

The Environmental Movement Meets the Carpet Industry


The carpet industry is, by now, well-known for talking about sustainability. We see it in ads and marketing literature, and hear it from sales representatives. It's an unending stream of, "We're the best in environmental stewardship." A question we often get is, "How do I know what is real and what is greenwash?" The single most helpful tool that would increase specifier understanding of what manufacturers are really saying is a universally recognized glossary of environmental and technical carpet terms. The Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI) actually went through the exercise of debating this and produced a glossary acceptable to most of the industry. But it has yet to find a suitable platform for universal adoption.

So, without a common language, how do you "navigate green?" Plenty offer help, from manufacturers to third-party certifiers, but it is wise to keep in mind that, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, every organization views sustainability through its own unique set of filters—and so do you. Motive may be a good place to begin your evaluation of what is "green." In 1994, Ray Anderson of Interface, focused attention on environmental issues in the carpet industry. Since then many other companies, including Shaw, have made sustainability a high priority.

Define and Prioritize Values

In order to make specification decisions you have to prioritize what is most important to you in evaluating products, and the same holds true in terms of assessing environmental impact. While certainly not mutually exclusive, several basic categories for product evaluation and comparison may help.

Priority on Recycled content

The LEED™ Green Building Rating System standards reward recycled content. Recycled content would seem to be straightforward, but it rarely is. LEED makes only one quality judgment in material recycled content by placing a higher value on post-consumer recycled content. It looks at individual products only long enough to establish their LEED value based on percent recycled content by total weight and material price. It sums the value of all the materials in the building and awards one or two points based on predetermined percentages of total material value achieved for the total of all materials.

Evaluating Material Environmental Impact

If a manufacturer puts 50 percent recycled content into a product collection, is it making a meaningful impact reduction? Maybe, but face fiber recycled content may not tell the entire story because recycled materials may be claimed in surprising ways. "Mass balance" allows a manufacturer to concentrate its recycled content into a particular yarn system or product collection. That doesn't mean every product it makes can have 50 percent recycled content. If you want to compare environmental impacts, ask for annual pounds recycled versus total pounds processed. This will give the most practical picture of material impact the recycling program is having.

Material Recovery and Recycling

Was the material truly designed to be recycled for generations to come? The term we borrowed from the book Cradle-to-Cradle is "technical nutrient." The material stays in a nutrient loop forever, never to be landfilled or downcycled. Shaw designed thermoplastic polyolefin EcoWorx® backing from inception to be recycled in a cradle-to-cradle loop of rebirth. Other manufacturers have developed processes to recycle post- consumer PVC back into more PVC carpet backing. A material system design can also include issues like embodied energy, looking at both quality (renewable energy sources) and quantity (using less energy).

Material Health and Safety

Has the material and manufacturing process been evaluated for impact on human and ecological health and safety? The acceptability of any material type varies with the level of public debate. For example, as a specifier you have the opportunity to select PVC alternative products today. Material assessment methods, such as the MBDC Protocol developed by Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough, provide assurance that product materials and processes have been analyzed and optimized for health and safety. The Carpet & Rug Institute's Green Label program is another way to be certain a carpet product has low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with any newly manufactured material.

Environmental Marketing Claims

This looks at tangible commitments companies have made to reduce environmental impacts in material procurement, manufacturing, marketing and the distribution of their products. Start with a company's environmental policy statement. Does it have a formal environmental management system (i.e., ISO 14000 or its equivalent)? Are its environmental claims clear and credible? Third-party certification is not mandatory, but the truth is. Look for investment in sustainable infrastructure; you'll gain insight into a company's near- and long-term strategies.

This is not an exhaustive listing of all the complex environmental issues facing fiber and carpet manufacturers, however it does establish a framework allowing you to ask questions and expect answers from those providing you with flooring solutions. There is, unfortunately, no magic bullet, no Web site that you can access to get complete, accurate and relevant information to compare all carpet options. Knowing what is important to you and what questions to ask your suppliers are the key to making specification and purchase decisions that best serve you, your clients and the environment.

Steve Bradfield is vice president of environmental development and John Stephens is vice president of market development for Shaw, the world's largest carpet manufacturer. Shaw produces and sells carpet, rugs, ceramic, hardwood and laminate flooring for residential and commercial applications throughout the world. Shaw's commercial brands include Shaw Specified Commercial, Patcraft and Designweave. A subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., Shaw is headquartered in Dalton, GA.