Hardwood flooring is still the leader in premium flooring, and is unlikely to lose its headline status anytime soon. However, there is a growing number of alternatives to wood, with varying levels of sustainability.
There are at least three factors to consider in rating the sustainability of a flooring product (or many other products). Look for raw materials that are generated in a sustainable and renewable manner. Also consider the chemicals, products and processes involved in manufacturing the raw materials into floorboards. Finally, consider the life expectancy of the product, and the likely future of the product. If a product must be replaced after a few years, and can’t be repurposed, it gets a lower sustainability rating.
For hardwoods, look for products that are approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), which certify sustainably managed forests. Also consider flooring made with little to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and minimal processing. Also balance the lifespan of the flooring with the lifespan of the tree. A slow-growth species may last forever, but it also takes forever to replace in the forest.
As to a few of the hardwood replacements, here is the hierarchy of sustainability, from darkest to lightest green.
Materials: One good alternative to new hardwood flooring is reusing another old hardwood floor. Reclaimed or salvaged hardwood flooring is literally a recycled product, and one of the only green ways to get old-growth wood, particularly rare or extinct species such as American Chestnut.
Manufacturing: A true reclaimed flooring shouldn't involve much energy or other inputs other than the transport energy to get the flooring from the old warehouse or barn into your living room. However, watch out for distressed hardwood flooring, which is new hardwood flooring beat up to look. If you go with distressed, follow all the same rules as above for hardwood flooring.
Lifespan: Some reclaimed flooring has lasted well over a century and should last several more lifetimes. If they are ever stripped, they will biodegrade — of they can be reclaimed once again.
Materials: Another variation on hardwood planks is engineered wood flooring. This typically has up to 10 layers of wood glued together — a hardwood surface over layers of softwood and plywood. That's three types of wood to check for sustainable growth. Look for FSC and SFI certifications, and engineered wood with recycled materials.
Manufacturing: Some engineered woods are manufactured with formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals in the binders and glues, and may have high VOC levels.
Lifespan: Engineered wood is typically not as durable as hardwood planks, but it holds up better to changes in moisture and humidity. It should last for decades, but it can only be refinished a limited number of times, making it harder to reclaim and giving it a shorter lifespan.
Materials: Instead of cutting down trees, cork companies strip bark from cork trees to make flooring (as well as bottle stoppers, shoes and much more). The cork is renewed within about a decade. The trees continue growing, and sequestering carbon. Cork plantations are sustainably harvested in the Mediterranean, particularly in Portugal and Spain.
Manufacturing: The cork manufacturing process is also green. Several manufacturers make their cork flooring without any VOCs or solvents. Of course, there is energy involved in getting the cork from Portugal to the U.S.
Lifespan: Life expectancy is the weak spot in cork flooring's sustainability. Manufacturers promise a lifetime of durability, and there is a Chicago cork church floor dating to 1898 to verify their claims. On the other hand, many users complain about damaging parts of their cork floor with heavy furniture or appliances, and water. This means you will need to replace parts of the floor earlier than you might with true hardwood.
Materials: Bamboo is perhaps the trendiest green flooring option. To be sure, bamboo is not a tree, but a fast-growing grass that can be grown organically and harvested sustainably. However, there is a dark side. Bamboo is so popular that monoculture bamboo forests are crowding out native rainforests throughout Asia, damaging the native ecosystem.
Manufacturing: Bamboo fibers must be processed and pressed into floorboards and other products. While some sustainable options are available, many manufacturers use formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals as binders. Also, most of the bamboo must be imported from Asia, which involves embedded energy costs.
Lifespan: Again, bamboo manufacturers promise decades of value in a bamboo floor. Most products are too new to determine the true durability of bamboo, but many users complain about bamboo flooring easily getting surface scratches.
Materials: Wood composites are typically used for outdoor flooring as an alternative to cedar or other traditional hardwood for decking. Best known by the brand-name Trex, composite decking is typically a mix of scrap wood fiber and recycled plastic bottles or bags. Composite decking manufacturers proudly tally the tons of plastic diverted from the landfill.
Manufacturing: Again, you have to study your options to find composite lumber that is low in VOCs and other chemicals. Also keep in mind that the composite lumber remains mold-free because of embedded chemicals that may have side effects.
Lifespan: Composite decking companies used to claim their products are no-maintenance. After a class-action lawsuit, they scaled back the promise to low-maintenance. The decks tend to fade, and may not offer the promised decades of durability. Unfortunately, the composite wood is not as recyclable as its components, and it may not biodegrade.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of flooring options. There are dozens of tile options, including some unique and creative green products such as recycled leather and waste coconut shell tiles, as well as a variety of stone, linoleum and vinyl products.
It is hard to generalize about these products, but it's a fairly safe bet that most stone is natural, but has plenty of embedded transport energy. Vinyl flooring is typically a weak environmental choice, as most vinyl is made with petroleum products and other chemicals. Linoleum, on the other hand, is typically made with natural and renewable inputs and minimal toxins.
For the most part, we didn’t cover these choices in detail as hardwood alternatives because they are more often used in kitchens, bathrooms and other spots where hardwood is less popular. It’s also hard to generalize about carpet and laminate, which are very popular flooring options.
Steve Graham is a Networx writer.