Architecture & Design spoke to Premium Floors Australia’s national product and technical manager, Kendall Waller, about the multiple facets of sustainability, ethical sourcing and the pros and cons of various flooring materials.
As the national product and technical manager, you’re obviously in a position where you’re conscious of sustainability’s importance. What does sustainable design mean to you?
For us as flooring manufacturers, sustainability predominately [refers to] wood-based panels, [and] is two-fold. There [are the] legislative requirements for sustainability, such as Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act, and there’s a social responsibility element as well.
The Act puts in place a fairly substantial legislative requirement for us to determine and assure ourselves that all of our wood products are sourced sustainably from regions all over the world. This could include Europe, South-East Asia, the US and of course Australia, and we take that legal responsibility very seriously. What’s involved in that is the fairly involved task of cross-referencing all our sources worldwide, from logging right through to finished goods. It can be a complex web at times because you’re often sourcing goods that have already gone through multiple stages of processing. So that is the legislative requirement for sustainable design for us as a flooring manufacturer.
Secondly, as an organisation [that operates] globally, we take social responsibility very seriously. That starts with our sourcing, and with our manufacturing processes being energy-efficient and low-wastage. [On a global level], we have a program we call LEAN, which focuses primarily on reducing waste and saving energy throughout our manufacturing across Australia, Malaysia and all our manufacturing sites in Europe and South America. We are also very active with a certification body called [the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification] (PEFC).
Of course there’s also the economic element. Whenever we introduce energy efficiency – whenever we maintain responsible workplace practice with regards keeping our teams happy and healthy – at the end of the day that always has an economic upside. That’s another element we always focus on.
Regarding the design of homes and construction, we have to be very mindful of [current] trends in sustainability and sustainable features [relevant to] the products we manufacture. This has become far more relevant over the last ten years regarding everything from thermal resistance values, to percentages of recycled content, to emission profiles for indoor air quality of the products we produce. None of these elements are optional anymore; rather, they’re key elements of sustainable product design and development. No longer can we produce a product just because we think it looks good. All of these factors have to be considered from the ground up.
As you mentioned from the perspectives of legislation and social responsibility, Premium Floors have placed a fair amount of emphasis on PEFC and ethical sourcing. Have you found that a higher percentage of PEFC-certified timber floors have been specified as a result?
[Laughs] Wow, I would like to think so. Regrettably, there is a mass-commoditised market – in my view – for apartment and high-rise development living in this country, where every last drop is squeezed out of every cost element of every apartment and every interior fitting. I regret to say that in that area, there is virtually no merit given to sustainability when it comes to selecting indoor furnishings like wood-based flooring. Ironically, wood flooring, and particularly oak flooring, is almost exclusively sought for this multi-residential living.
Why? Because these are considered natural, desirable and optimal for resale value. The irony is that although they choose it because of its natural qualities, elements around sustainability and ethical sourcing are really given very little consideration in terms of the selection of the product, the certification of the product, the sourcing of the product, and other elements like emissions profiles, where they’re manufactured, labour practices and so on. Unfortunately, this lack of concern is occurring on projects where we are tendering multiple thousands of square metres of wood flooring. I’m afraid that this discussion around sourcing, certification and sustainability is a distant issue for this mass market of apartment developments that we’ve seen in the major cities in the past ten years.
Now, there is a place for ethical developments that set a much higher bar for sourcing and sustainability. They are inevitably in the minority, and they tend to be a niche. So for the most part, I’m afraid that in the mass commercial market of these commercial apartment manufacturers, we don’t see it.
Would you say that’s one of the primary challenges you’re facing right now in the area of sustainable development?
I would say it’s a big one. They love their oak flooring in these apartments, and as a result oak has gone from zero to hero. However, when we’re talking about oak sourcing, the World Wildlife Fund makes a very strong case that half of the oak flooring sourced from China is sourced from illegal Russian logs out of central and eastern Siberia. We’re seeing massive, unprecedented volumes of illegal oak flowing out of Siberia into Northern China. We participate closely with the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act, and we help the government body policing it, but I’m afraid to say they’re on their back foot attempting to mitigate the flow of this illegally-sourced lumber into China.
And inevitably, we get shot to ribbons on price. Not so much because of the certification, but because [other company’s products are] illegally sourced, they come in at about half the price of legally-sourced material. It’s a huge challenge trying to get specifiers and commercial builders to find some value in sustainably-sourced and certified products. It’s an enormous challenge.
On a more positive note, how long has Premium Floors been looking at sustainability as a key pillar of your product messaging? Can you talk us through some of the milestones you’ve reached?
This organisation started as a private partnership in 1981. At that stage, we were called Premium Cork. The company was built on cork flooring – probably the most sustainable wonder story of any floor covering. The trees grow for hundreds of years; the bark is harvested every nine years. It’s the best naturally occurring insulator in the world and it’s the poster boy for environmentally sustainable flooring. We still have a passion for and a belief in cork. Regrettably the market for cork flooring has waned, as this onslaught of wood flooring has taken on the business in the last twenty years.
After that, what was probably the next big benchmark for us was a move into the Unilin group, which occurred about six years ago. We were acquired by Unilin Worldwide and the bar for sustainability and our focus on certified products became much stronger. [Unilin is a] very close partner [of] PEFC and [has] set down an internal framework for sustainability. [This framework] has really raised the bar on the requirements for us. The introduction of the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in Australia has certainly brought about a higher level of work in order to comply with that, even if results in the market probably aren’t what we would like to see.
How does cork and certified timber compare with other flooring types, such as laminate, vinyl or bamboo?
Cork is a native variety of southern Europe and it’s really very hard to beat because we don’t even cut trees down. We remove the dead bark and the trees grow for hundreds of years. That bark is harvested every nine years so it really is a wonderful story. In fact, the removal of the bark aids the growth of the tree and the trees actually become enormous when the bark is harvested on a regular basis. If you don’t harvest the bark the trees remain a little bit stunted – it’s a bit like a lizard shedding its skin in many ways.
Then you move onto wood-based panels – which includes wood-based flooring as well as laminate flooring – which uses a wood-based core material. That’s where the PEFC certification comes in, as does sustainable sourcing and the sequestration of carbon. That’s what we ensure in the manufacture of wood flooring. We use PEFC-certified core material in all our laminates and PEFC-sourced materials in all of our wood flooring.
On the other hand, there’s a big move towards vinyl-based products. While not without its benefits, there is a well-documented issue of toxic plasticisers in vinyl flooring. These toxic plasticisers, known as phthalates, were banned in the US in 2009 in children’s toys and in Australia in 2011. Regrettably, they still are used in very substantial quantities in vinyl flooring products. These are endocrine disruptors; they’re known to be toxic. So this has been a big area of concern with vinyl-based flooring. With Quick-Step, we make sure to manufacture all of our vinyl completely free of any toxic plasticisers. [Instead we depend] on a bio-based soy plasticiser.
[Other] issues for vinyl [relate to] indoor air quality, healthy living and sustainability. With our PVC flooring and vinyl flooring, it’s 100 percent recyclable. Approaching zero waste in the manufacturing process is also an upside in terms of its energy usage and raw material use. If you look at wood flooring, for example, it’s very common to achieve waste levels of up to 30 percent or more. So there is an upside, although it’s true to say it does not have a particularly good environmental profile.
This whole issue of toxic plasticisers has been a huge one, and it’s seen certain markets in the world – like the Nordics and others – where the uptake of vinyl has been extremely low because of the concerns around these toxic plasticisers. All floor coverings have their issues, and you can’t afford to ignore them – regardless of what you’re manufacturing.
There’s no one flooring type that will ever be suitable for every purpose.
Yes, there are strengths and weaknesses with each category. We supply flooring across many different services, from residential and multi-residential to commercial and multi-use buildings. And no, I wouldn’t be recommending one product to suit all. Vinyl has its strengths: it’s extremely tough, it’s quiet, it’s soft, and it can be a good choice in certain types of applications where I would not put wood flooring. On the other hand, laminate flooring is extremely colourfast, extremely tough, very low emission, and now waterproof. There are a lot pros and cons with all of the products across the board. It’s definitely not one size fits all.
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