Discovery from Milliken’s Contract Division features sustainable design in high-performance carpet.

Carpet makers are on a mission: they want to save the world. Minimizing their environmental footprint has become the new benchmark of forward-thinking corporate leadership in virtually every area of the flooring business. Those involved say it can be a costly, uphill struggle at times, but the evidence suggests consumers are responding.

The market for sustainable carpet, backings and cushion is booming. With environmentally friendly LEED (Leadership in Environmentally Engineered Design) certification and the U.S. Green Building Council’s GreenBuild conference becoming increasingly mainstream, the sky - quite literally - is the limit. But creating products from recycled content - the fundamental standard of sustainability - is only half the story. While “thinking green” has long been the mantra of environmentalists, these efforts are leading to another type of green: money. Carpet makers say they have also been able to trim energy costs due to closer scrutiny on the manufacturing.

“It’s imperative for all of us to take care of the environment,” says Frank Endrenyi, vp technology and sustainable development for Mohawk Industries. He notes that there are three reasons why going green makes good business sense. “It involves environmental responsibility, economic viability and social equity.”

For its part, Mohawk has been a leader in sustainable products, recycling 3 billion plastic bottles a year for use in the company’s polyester EverStrand PET carpets, recently launching Encycle sustainable carpet backing, as well as using DuPont Sorona fiber in its SmartStrand branded products. The Sorona fiber is currently made using polypropylene, but plans call for the fiber to start being made with a bio-based corn sugar derivative later this year. Mohawk is also looking into alternative energy, including the possibility of using “yellow grease,” better known as chicken fat, to completely power at least one of its plants.

“These are not pie-in-the-sky innovations,” Endrenyi stresses. “These are tangible.”

Flooring maker Shaw Industries is also at the forefront of sustainability. The company recently rolled out EcoLogix sustainable carpet cushion and EcoWorx Performance Broadloom backing. But the flooring maker may be best known as an innovator of cradle to cradle processing. Cradle to cradle takes steps to ensure that, not only do products use recycled content, but that they return to the plant at the end of their lifecycle to be made into new products. “With any products that we launch, we want them to be cradle to cradle,” says Jeff West, vp marketing for Shaw Contract Group. “That’s our goal.”

Launched in 1999 with the introduction of modular tile using Shaw’s EcoWorx backing, Shaw’s cradle to cradle approach has expanded to include a range of modular and broadloom products, including lines using EcoSolution Q fiber and EcoWorx backing. “A lot of the process in developing a cradle to cradle product lies in how we recycle it and how we reclaim it,” West says. “We are making products that not only perform but use materials that are easy to separate so we can process them again and again.”

EcoWorx Performance Broadloom backing from Shaw.

Another key to Shaw’s environmental approach is Shaw Green Edge, a marketing initiative that addresses the company’s environmental programs, with an eye on the company’s cradle to cradle process.

“It is important to each of us to care for the use of our resources and care for the planet,” says Kathy Young, Shaw’s director of creative services. “It is an important part of who we are at Shaw and for our dealers to share the leadership in their local markets.”

Milliken & Co., another big flooring maker, says it has come up with many ways to help the environment. Not only does the rug and carpet maker create products using recycled content, it plants trees at company sites and uses palettes for shipping instead of waste-producing cardboard boxes. The company has also distinguished itself with its “No Carpet to Landfill” pledge.

Bill Gregory, Milliken’s director of sustainable strategies, says that consumers have come by their interest in sustainability, well, naturally.

“We are seeing growth in all segments related to green issues as coverage has expanded to mainstream media,” he says. “As consumers become more informed, products that offer green benefits and have less impact on the environment increase in appeal,” he says.

Not surprisingly, going green presents its own challenges to manufacturers. According to Catherine Minervini, vp design for upscale carpet maker Bentley Prince Street, becoming sustainable has to be a total commitment. Otherwise, she says, it doesn’t make fiscal sense.

Mohawk’s Encycle sustainable carpet backing for modular carpets. The PVC-free carpet tile is made using three thermoplastic layers designed for complete recycling and no separation.

“You can’t just change how a mill operates overnight. You have to figure out how to streamline your processes and create sustainable designs that are seamless with your brand message,” she says. “There’s an expectation for the brand and the aesthetic, and you have to take all of that into consideration. It has to be beautiful, because if it’s just ugly green stuff nobody is going to buy it.”

As with other carpet suppliers, Bentley Prince Street offers a reclamation program to divert waste from landfills, but the company says it is also on the lookout  for fresh ways to stay sustainable. These include basics such as using post-consumer recycled content in the packaging, all the way down to the unique: the Cool Carpet program. Through the program, consumers are essentially purchasing alternative energy credits along with their carpet, allowing Bentley to harness the power generated by wind farms, methane gas and other alternative sources to create their floors.

“We figure out the lifecycle cost of the carpet, then the customers can offset it,” she explains. “And people are taking notice. They love having an opportunity to help offset this, and to put some of the onus on themselves.”

PacifiCrest, the contract division of 43-year-old carpet maker Royalty Carpet Mills, is also finding innovative ways to renew, reuse and recycle. Among its many initiatives, PacifiCrest in 1996 became one of the first manufacturers to use reclaimed water in its plant. Additionally, the company uses steam turbines in its manufacturing facilities and has updated its production lines to reduce harmful emissions. And, of course, the manufacturer offers a wide array of sustainable carpets and backings for the commercial market, including the Ambiente HRC range of high-style carpet, using Antron Legacy High Recycled Content nylon fiber.

Fiber suppliers are also stepping up to the challenge. Both Invista and Solutia have reclamation programs in place to address consumers’ environmental needs. Among its many environmental programs, Invista offers the Antron Reclamation Program to ensure that all carpets using Antron fiber stay out of the landfill and find new life in post-consumer products. For its part, Solutia partners with business entrepreneurs to recycle and reuse Ultron commercial carpet fiber as part of the Partners for Renewal Program.