It was my last day in Hangzhou after a whirlwind week attending the China Wood International conference and touring factories. My wallet was filled with Yuan-the pink and purple Chinese currency bearing the stern but benevolent face of Chairman Mao. I had not gotten around to spending most of what I brought over and the prices were irresistible. But what to buy? With the exception of a Harry Potter book translated into Chinese I saw virtually nothing I could not find back home. Saving money is always nice but I wanted something unique, something special, something you could only get in this part of the world. It turns out, I quickly learned, China is well past that.

As far as the North American flooring industry is concerned the 6,500 miles that separate the east coast of China from the west coast of America might as well be a few exits down the freeway. The factories I toured were modern, squeaky clean facilities. They were beehives of activity and models of efficiency. The workers seemed to take great pride in what they were doing. There was a lot that seemed odd to my American sensibilities: the language, the customers and endless rows of old beat up bicycles parked outside (Then of course there was the food: copious and delicious but often indecipherable.) The packaging on the boxes being used for wood flooring was familiar enough. Brand names common on this side of the Pacific were prevalent. In fact much of the writing was in English-not just in the factories but on the streets. China’s manufacturers, for the most part, have looked past the rapidly developing domestic demand in China in favor of foreign markets, especially the U.S.

Production-wise China seems to be firing on all cylinders. The Summer Olympics are slated for Beijing next year and business is booming. The BBC, for example, recently identified the oil company PetroChina as the largest company in the world. Its estimated market value of $1 trillion is more than twice that of the No. 2 company on the list, Exxon Mobil. China’s growing clout was evident nearly everywhere I looked from the construction sites that are nearly ubiquitous to the determined and sharply focused executives I met during visits to five factories. The message they wanted to send back with me to the U.S. was they stood ready to meet the demands of the US flooring market whatever direction it goes.

As mission statements go that sounds great. But what about the environmental concerns that have become so prevalent in our industry? While there are certainly flooring companies in China that have attempted to set themselves apart by addressing this growing concern-as a whole, this  nation of more than 1 billion people has a lot of work to do on this issue. Consider the comments of one of the speakers at the conference, Yao Changtian, of China’s National Forest Product Industry Association. While he urged the “Virtuous development of [the flooring] industry” in the next breath he lamented the “contradiction between economy and ecology.” Through I was listening to him through an interpreter he seemed to be suggesting it was an either/or proposition. U.S. manufacturers will tell you that is a very outdated mindset.

And what about lag time? One American distributor working the show floor said product he could get in a matter of days in the U.S. take weeks to arrive from China. “And when they do show up, too often it is not what you expected.” On the product level, many manufacturers seem so determined to produce flawless product that they end up with hardwood flooring that is visually indistinguishable from laminate. And remember, China has so decimated its forests that its role in flooring is to import raw lumber from other countries and craft it into flooring. So essentially China’s chief selling point is efficient production facilities and inexpensive labor. If the countries supplying the raw material figure out how to do that on their own what will that mean for the future of China’s flooring business?

Yes there was much to digest during my week in China. I did hear one rather encouraging statistic about the future of our industry. During a highly informative presentation about industry trends, Stuart Hirschhorn, of Catalina Research, wanted to give a sense of the potential that exists: If everyone in the world bought a 4’x 5’ piece of flooring-roughly the size of a small area rug-he calculated that that would translate into 139.6 billion sq. ft. In any language, that is a lot of flooring.