Pictured here is Wicanders’ Series 100 cork plank flooring, from Amorim Flooring.

A collective sigh of relief may best describe the sentiments of the cork flooring industry these days. At a time when many areas of flooring are struggling, cork is finally shedding its niche product image and stepping squarely into the mainstream. Manufacturers say the rise in popularity can be explained with one word: Green.      

Those eager to advance the category point out that cork may be the most environmentally responsible product imaginable. Unlike hardwood, the flooring is made by harvesting bark from an oak tree--leaving the lumber intact. The bark grows back over time, and can be harvested again and again with little impact to the tree or the environment. The cycle yields a product that is naturally sustainable; and that, manufacturers in the category point out, has become a huge selling point.

They add, however, that the cork category still needs to distinguish itself from the growing array of competing products that use Green mostly as a market ploy. The tactic, sometimes referred to as green-washing, has complicated the buying process for consumers who want flooring produced with a minimal impact on the environment.   

“Our challenge is to emerge, from the green-washing surrounding us, as the Greenest flooring product in the industry,” says Ann Wicander, president of WE Cork

AvantGarde, from WE Cork, is offered in thirteen designs and features the Greenshield finish for extra durability.

To that end her company plans a multi-pronged approach to better market WE Cork’s Green benefits to distributors and end-users. She says the new marketing plan will be introduced to the trade during Surfaces 2009 at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, Feb. 3-5.

Wicander adds that, while cork is becoming more popular, the industry still needs to do a better job of telling “the whole cork story” – especially the Green angle -- to consumers. Additionally, she says cork’s growing success is attributable to advances in design that make the product look less “corky.” “Most important to the success of our sales has been the development of new visuals that offer looks for most tastes.” She notes, for example, the company’s leather-look Gibraltar, slate-look Tuscany and bamboo inspired Nairobi.

Randy Gillespie, an owner of Expanko Cork, paints a similar picture. He says the surging popularity of Green products has been a shot in the arm for the cork segment. “Cork is produced from 100 percent pre-consumer waste,” he explains. “It is biodegradable, naturally reduces step sound and sound transfer, plus it’s antifungal, antimicrobial, hypoallergenic and resistant to pests like termites.”

The task ahead for cork flooring makers, he says, is to educate consumers on the different varieties of cork flooring available. Solid, homogeneous cork flooring, for example, is made using the same material top to bottom. It can be sanded without losing its color. The other widely available type of cork flooring is veneer, which is often used in floating floors. A veneer floor offers greater design flexibility, but because it is an engineered floor with a cork visual as the top layer only, it cannot be sanded, Gillespie says.

According to Gary Keeble Jr., marketing manager for USFloors, educating retailers on the benefits of cork flooring has been a priority for his company.  He adds that it appears to be paying off as consumers become more aware of cork’s attributes and aesthetic versatility. Updates in the segment, including narrow widths, beveled edges, improved finishes and more exotic looks, are helping to bring cork into more people’s homes.

Spinato cork flooring from Expanko is an example of the company’s hand-crafted veneer looks.

“We see continued and accelerated growth as we continue to communicate what an exceptional, unique and sustainable flooring option cork is,” says Keeble, whose company produces the Natural Cork line as well as other sustainable floors. “The consumer demand will continue to rise as more and more consumers begin to see cork as a natural alternative to floors such as laminate and vinyl.”

Not surprisingly, he adds, the Green movement is having a major impact on both retailer and consumer interest in cork flooring. “We have seen increased activity on our website, naturalcork.com, during the course of this year,” he says, adding, “Flooring suppliers with sustainable floors such as cork are weathering this downturn better than those without sustainable products.”

Another big selling point is the use of formaldehyde-free finishes in the flooring, says Paulo Nogueira, managing director of Amorim Flooring, which makes Wicanders cork flooring. “We changed production to eliminate the formaldehyde from our cork using technology developed by BASF,” he says. “We also made changes in the finish allowing our cork flooring to have a natural embossing and different applications of color.”

Amorim has invested more than $40 million to upgrade its manufacturing facility with the latest equipment and technologies, he notes. In addition to increased production capacity, the company also lowered the VOC levels in its products.

The finish on cork flooring is also a top priority for Capri Cork, says marketing and design director Margaret Buchholz. “Our tiles are pre-coated with three coats of commercial-grade water-based matte polyurethane and do not require additional site-applied finishes,” she says. “Capri also applies an anti-curl treatment to the back of all glue-down tiles.”

Cheryl Matthews, manager of Nova Distinctive Floors, says her company has reformulated its water-based polyurethane finish for “60 percent higher wear resistance and 100 percent higher scratch resistance.”

She adds that Nova’s cork flooring is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures the company practices responsible forestry management. Additionally, carrying FSC certification can help “lend valuable points to LEED projects,” she says, adding that the designation helps differentiate the product from other floors that claim to be Green.