The Green and Sustainable Flooring Choice

Hardwood Floors: The Green and Sustainable Flooring Choice

By: Daniel Perkins, Ph.D.

If trees are cut down to make hardwood floors, how is that “green”?  The fact is that hardwood floors are actually the most green option in flooring, compared to linoleum, vinyl, and carpet (both wool and polyamide).  It may seem impossible at first, but let’s consider the fundamentals of what makes a floor green.  The most green flooring - by definition - should require the least energy and resources to manufacture, maintain, and retire (or recycle).  Science and industry have developed a standard way to determine this aspect of ‘greenness’ called a life cycle analysis, or a cradle-to-grave analysis.  Environmental impact in a life cycle analysis includes elements of air emissions, water consumption, service life, energy use, recyclability, and the renewable nature of raw inputs.  Consistently, hardwoods come out on top in this life-cycle analysis when compared to all other flooring types.  Interestingly, polyamide carpet may require 10 times more energy than hardwoods to manufacture.  Wool carpet can easily require even more than that. 

The life cycle analysis leads to the concept of the carbon foot-print, a metric of what makes a flooring type green.  Simply put, the carbon foot-print of flooring is the total carbon emissions caused by the life cycle of a product (related to life cycle analysis).  Now, back to the idea that cutting down trees is a green alternative for flooring.  Trees used in production of hardwood floors are considered carbon ‘storages’, meaning that carbon is essentially trapped in them.  This carbon is not released until it is retired, which could be up to 100 years if cared for.  In between time the flooring could be recycled or reclaimed to avoid destroying it and releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.  No atmospheric carbon is stored in carpet and other petroleum-based floorings.  In reality, because the service life of other floorings is inferior to that of hardwoods, their carbon foot-print increases even more because they must be replaced, resulting in higher energy production energy corresponding carbon emissions.  Hardwoods inherently store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it could cause undesirable greenhouse-like effects.  In addition, forests used for flooring timbeFoot Print r are generally managed in a way that new, young trees replace harvested trees.  If hardwoods were selected more often, it may actually reduce the overall carbon emission contribution from flooring to the atmosphere.

Providing a consistent supply of timber (new trees take the place of harvested trees) while also providing habitat for wildlife and other non-timber forest uses is called sustainable forest management.  Hardwood is a sustainable and renewable material, unlike petroleum based flooring such as carpet.  The renewable nature of hardwood floors in an important element of why they are considered the most green choice.  So, not only does hardwood flooring have a lower lifetime cost compared to all other floorings, but it the responsible and green choice as well.