Sustainable manufacturing in the flooring industry

The scale of the environmental challenge is daunting, in Asia as in the rest of the world.  The flooring sector provides a case study of how companies are adopting new ways of thinking about sustainable manufacturing.

Statistics from the United States suggest that carpeting is replaced on average every seven years, despite usually having a guaranteed life of between ten and 25 years.  That means that a great deal of perfectly good carpeting is thrown away every year, simply because it looks outdated.

This issue is now of real concern across the carpet industry, whose larger companies are, for the most part, voluntarily addressing issues of sustainability.

Some carpet manufacturers are working on reducing waste at source by using “natural” materials such as wool or sustainable plant fibres – most commonly, sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute, or coconut coir.

For others, solutions include seeking out innovative ways of reutilizing someone else’s rubbish, such as using open-cell polyurethane foam in their carpet backing, a post-industrial waste from the automotive industry.

Taken together, these efforts have brought significant environmental advances – often from companies thinking laterally and working collaboratively.  For example, in the flooring sector, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles are now being recycled in their millions to make polyester carpet fibres.

In the last eighteen months, plastic bottles from the USA’s Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, have been sold to make carpet backing – in a mix of materials that also includes renewable soyabean and celceram, a refined material recovered from coal-fired power stations.

Our approach at Desso has been to enter into a partnership with the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), the brainchild of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ co-founder Michael Braungart.  We have worked with EPEA to first identify the “material health” of each component in our products; assess how each component can be recovered and recycled in a process of “material reutilisation”; assess energy and water usage and, lastly, examine our policies on social responsibility and fair labour practices.  We intend that all our products will be designed and produced according to ‘Cradle to Cradle’ design principles by 2020.

The approach works commercially as well as environmentally.  Our earnings (EBIT) rose nine-fold between 2007 and 2010, and Desso’s ‘Cradle to Cradle’ journey is now the subject of a case study by the London Business School.

In implementing ‘Cradle to Cradle’ we have, for example, introduced a carpet backing that can be entirely recycled back into carpet backing, and announced that 60 per cent of our carpet tile range will be made from yarn with 100 per cent recycled content.  Our energy consumption declined by 30 per cent over 10 years, we recycled 95 per cent of industrial waste and we have been proactive in terms of reducing our water consumption. All of this was accomplished within the context of steeply rising production.

We are also introducing ‘Take Back’ programmes to ensure that products can be recycled according to ‘Cradle to Cradle’ principles.  That will take time, and will be implemented first for carpet tiles with commercial customers. After that we will include our sports system products, followed by our woolen carpets – for which we are also working on a bio-degradable base made out of corn by-product – and then we’ll tackle the consumer market. We have also experimented with using natural materials, notably making yarn from bamboo.

‘Take Back’ in itself introduces a new concept that is alien to most manufacturing industries – the concept of a product of service.  Instead of the current paradigm in which goods are bought, owned and disposed of, products containing valuable technical nutrients will be reconceived as new products that new consumers will wish to purchase.

In that manufacturing scenario, consumers are effectively buying the service of that product for a certain period and then, at the end of its useful life, the manufacturer takes it back, takes it apart and reuses its nutrients to make new products.  Yes, we will still be in the business of selling products but, unlike now, we will retain responsibility for those products – to the end of their useful lives and beyond.

There are obvious benefits for all of us.  First, it makes good business sense because, without waste, companies save money from having to source valuable new resources and, second, with nutrients being constantly recycled, it diminishes the need to extract any more new materials.  That really does change the design of the world.

The sustainability journey that many in the flooring sector have embarked upon has lessons for other manufactures, in Asia as elsewhere.

The challenge for the manufacturing industry is to find that elusive balance between people, profit and the planet – the Triple Bottom Line that is at the heart of the environmental agenda.  But too often we have ended up concentrating on profit, with social or ecological considerations coming second.

‘Cradle to Cradle’ allows us to use the Triple Bottom Line as a strategic design tool and perhaps, as Braungart and McDonough suggest, turning that matrix on its head and considering corporate strategy as being about a Triple Top Line – a new starting point from which to design products and processes.

This commentary by Andrew Sibley is the second in a two part series on the opportunities for ‘Cradle to Cradle’ manufacturing. Mr Sibley is regional sales and marketing director for Desso, a leading European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass and sells in over 100 countries.

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