Companies are taking a more proactive stance on sustainability issues—cutting their carbon footprints, adopting smart corporate governance strategies, and making other sustainably minded changes. They’re undertaking these initiatives for a variety of reasons, from changing consumer expectations to financial considerations. But while many companies are new to the sustainability party, Tarkett, a global flooring-supply company, has made sustainable design principles part of its corporate DNA for more than a decade.
Here, Roxane Spears, Tarkett’s vice president of sustainability for North America, discusses the company’s efforts to reduce waste streams, improve the environments in which consumers live and work, and how thinking holistically about sustainability can yield unexpected benefits.
How does Tarkett incorporate sustainability in its manufacturing process?
It’s really about focusing on the health of the people producing our products and the health of the people using our products. We follow the “Cradle-to-Cradle” principles for every product we design. Safety is one of our big pillars and missions as a company. Removing hazardous materials that our employees would have been working with every day creates a safer environment for them. Also, ingredients are different in their raw form in the manufacturing state versus their final form in a flooring product. Cradle-to-Cradle principles allow us to look at both ends of that spectrum, so we not only know what effect they’ll have on our employees during the manufacturing process, but also on the people who are actually going to live and work in the spaces where our products will be installed.
How has consumer demand played a role in Tarkett’s sustainability efforts?
Early on, Harvard University was developing daycare centers on campus and asked us about asthma- and allergy-certified flooring products. At the time, we weren’t even aware that was a possibility, so we researched it and agreed to have our products tested. They had never worked with flooring products before, so we became the first manufacturer to have asthma- and allergy-certified asthma- and allergy-certified flooring products. In that case, we didn’t need to do anything new—our sustainable processes meant we were able to reach new customers for our existing products just by getting that certification.
We’re also the only flooring manufacturer with phthalate-free products across our entire range of price points, styles, and surface types. We took that step when we saw research on the concerns with that ingredient about 12 years ago. And in the past five years, we’ve been getting requests for phthalate-free products. So it took consumers some time to be educated on that, but we believe it’s our responsibility as a manufacturer to push innovation ahead of what consumers are directly asking for.
Have you seen additional benefits on the cost side?
Cradle-to-Cradle manufacturing definitely provides some cost savings on our products. We have zero waste at several of our facilities, because the scrap that comes off our production lines gets reused in the product. So we don’t have to purchase as much new raw material, which helps reduce our overall manufacturing costs.
As part of our focus on people’s health, we’ve also focused on fossil fuel reduction. We’ve been moving a lot of our factories to renewable energy and going to closed-loop water systems to improve our environmental profile. Once we started working with renewable energy at our linoleum factory, we wound up generating more than we actually needed. So that provided a really nice return on our investment. Water is also likely to become scarcer as a raw material, so we know we need to look at our water use alongside our energy use. And I think it’s been a net positive for us to take a look at all our functions and get ahead of the curve on optimizing them.
What’s next for Tarkett’s sustainability efforts?
We don’t feel as a company that we can only focus on one small part of sustainability. Healthy materials are important, but so is climate action. So is reducing water usage for a factory. If we’re not doing that full-circle, holistic look at sustainability, we’re not going to really have that positive impact that we should be having on planet and people. It has to be holistic.
We’re also looking for partners we can work with to reduce waste streams. That is really growing. Our ethos Modular carpet product line is made from recycled PVB film from windshields and safety glass, allowing us to keep that film out of the landfill. Between 2004 and 2018, we reused close to 23,500 tons of PVB film from 22.8 million windshields.
Or, say you bring back a carpeting product that was installed 15 years ago. Even though we may not want to reuse parts of it in new carpet products due to what we know about the chemistry and ingredients, there are other companies [we partner with], such as asphalt manufacturers, who can encapsulate those ingredients and use them. So, we’re really focused on expanding that idea of a circular economy beyond a single industry.