Asking flooring manufacturers about their commitment to the environment is like asking a proud parent to show you pictures of his kids. Only in this instance, the kids are all grown up and off recycling on their own. One of the most under-reported stories about our industry is its long-standing commitment to minimizing the impact of flooring on the environment. Mannington chairman Keith Campbell summed it up pretty well when he recently told NFT, “The ‘green’ movement has been on our radar screen since before it became a popular and politically correct thing to do.”

That’s not just true for Mannington; that is the case with all the proven leaders in our industry. So wide ranging is Shaw’s involvement in environmental concerns that it recently established a branding initiative called “The Shaw Green Edge” to better communicate the story. Flexco has its impressive “nature friendly” product line, EnviroFlex. MAPEI has its far reaching “Green Innovation” commitment. Roppe markets its ground breaking Eco Effects brand. And let’s not over look the Carpet and Rug Institute’s noble efforts to encourage sustainability.

The list of flooring-related environmental initiatives could fill this magazine 10 times over. It’s a core value of our industry and it comes in many forms. A determined effort to recycle all carpet and underlay material, planting trees to replace what is harvested for hardwood and lowering the VOCs found in adhesives are only a few of the ways flooring has responded to the challenges. All of this has been going on for years and continues to gain momentum.

Certainly, there is a lot to be impressed by and proud of, but there has always been one seemingly inescapable barrier: oil-based fuel. It is not just the enormous costs for transporting huge, bulky flooring products all around the globe. A great many of our industry’s products can not be manufactured without mixing in a generous supply of fossil fuels. With oil costs rising and supplies ever dwindling, the search for a Plan B has become more urgent. Now, it looks like the answer may be emerging in a sleepy little town nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River.

It is there that Tate & Lyle, an 85-year old British firm that specializes in converting food into fuel, teamed with the huge chemical company DuPont to develop something for the flooring industry. Mohawk’s management had called on the  joint venture to help sever the petroleum ball and chain. After some serious lab work, a $100 million plant in Loudon, Tenn. will now use corn sugar to produce Bio-PDO, a key  ingredient for the carpet polymer DuPont Sorona. Until now, polymers were made using a petroleum derivative, which is why this stands as an historic breakthrough. At an event at the plant to launch the venture earlier this summer, the scientists who figured it out were honored by the American Chemical Society with a “Heroes of Chemistry” award.

It may have been the people in lab coats with pocket protectors who concocted this breakthrough, but if someone ever comes up with a “Heroes of  Floorcovering” award, I’d like to nominate Mohawk’s chairman and ceo Jeff Lorberbaum. It was under his leadership that Mohawk has been able to address a serious and long-term impediment to the manufacture of carpet. Beginning this fall, Mohawk will begin selling SmartStrand carpet using the bio-based polymer. Company brass assure that the performance and quality will not be compromised and that prices will be unaffected.

To be clear, the new bio-based approach is not entirely “green.” The manufacturing process still requires petrochemicals and it will be a long time before the technology completely replaces the old oil-based way. Still, as Lorberbaum observes, “This is allowing us to take the next step in environmental sustainability.”

Sustainability is a huge consideration, but there is another observation made by a colleague of Lorberbaum’s that sums it up as well as any. In talking about his company’s Eco Effects brand, Roppe chairman Don Miller made a seemingly simple comment that speaks volumes about his company’s philosophy on the environment: “We are accountable for all the resources we use,” he said. That is something Mohawk and many others in flooring seem to understand. It is also a mentality that should be a mantra for every company-and every human being-on the planet.