Treading Lightly

April 1, 2003
Dan Harrington

Eco-friendly wood flooring.

Real wood floors have been a popular choice since shortly after humans first set foot indoors. Offering durability, beauty, warmth and a wide range of design choices, wood gives nature's guarantee that each floor is a one-of-a-kind work of art. Wood floors are also easy to clean, keeping occupants healthy by warding off dust, germs and other uninvited guests. For an increasing number of homeowners and designers, however, concern is growing about the environmental costs of selecting wood as a flooring material. Much of the hardwood flooring sold today comes from destructive logging operations in threatened rainforests or from similar practices here at home. The world's forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and demand is growing for products that help to conserve the precious forest ecosystems that remain.For many years, environmentally-conscious consumers had only one truly eco-friendly alternative to regular hardwood flooring: reclaimed wood from old buildings. Reused in its original form or remilled from deconstructed timbers, "recycled" flooring offers a way to alleviate pressure on our standing forests. Recent growth in the reclaimed market has made a wide variety of domestic and tropical species available.While reclaimed wood can provide antique character and the superior quality of old-growth timber, reclaimed wood's relatively high cost puts it beyond the budget of many consumers. (Unfortunately, it is still more expensive to reuse old wood than it is to cut down trees!) The obvious choice from an ecological standpoint can become a difficult one when it actually comes time to buy.
Certified Wood
Luckily, a more affordable choice exists for those who seek the benefits of wood flooring without the environmental costs. Over the last 10 years, "forest certification" has emerged as a means by which consumers can verify that their wood came from an ecologically well-managed forest. Purchasing wood from certified forests helps to promote sustainable forestry and puts market pressure on traditional logging operations to improve the way they manage their lands. Studies have shown that over the long-term, sustainably-managed forests yield more wood of higher quality than those that are clear-cut and replanted, while also leaving intact ecosystems able to support wildlife and species diversity.Currently, there are several forest certification systems in operation, but the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is recognized as being most credible by the environmental community worldwide. The FSC is independent, non-profit and international, and maintains strict environmental and social standards. Other certification systems are generally government- or industry-backed and, unlike the FSC, do not provide a means by which buyers can verify that the wood that they have purchased actually came from a well-managed forest. Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, Australia and several other governments promote wood that is "certified" under national programs, but their environmental criteria and level of enforcement do not compare to the FSC system. Currently, the U.S. Green Building Council recognizes the FSC as the only legitimate forest certification program. In Europe, where demand for environmentally-friendly products far outpaces America, FSC-certified wood now represents a substantial portion of the market. (Visit for further information.)While the availability of FSC-certified flooring is increasing rapidly, it can still be a challenge to find exactly what you want. Certain types of wood are not available because they are threatened or endangered, or because they are found only in areas dominated by more harmful logging practices (primarily African and Asian forests). While you won't find FSC-certified African mahogany, Phillipine mahogany or Merbau, you will find options ranging from familiar domestics like cherry, maple and oak to exotic tropicals like Brazilian cherry (Jatoba), Southern chestnut (Cumaru), and Bloodwood (Massaranduba).There was a time when FSC-certified wood was substantially more expensive than common-market material, but that has changed, especially in the last one to two years. The total area of forest now managed under the FSC's criteria is on a steady rise, both here and in the tropics, and prices have fallen dramatically. While you can still expect to pay a small premium for many types of wood (generally FSC-certified material is within zero to 15 percent of common-market prices), certified suppliers are now matching non-certified companies on many items. One problem that persists is the relatively small number of distributors stocking FSC-certified wood, meaning that your flooring may have to be shipped from further away. (Call the Certified Wood & Paper Association [(503) 224-2205] for help in locating the closest suppliers of FSC-certified flooring in your area.)Increasingly, suppliers of wood flooring and other wood products are responding to customers' environmental concerns by making false or misleading statements about where their wood is coming from. They might claim that it comes from a sustainably-managed forest or a tree plantation or from a forest that would have been destroyed anyway to make way for grazing and agriculture. But don't take the suppliers' word for it. The timber industry is resistant to change, and "greenwashing" has become rampant. The only real way to know that you are getting an environmentally-sound product is through independent, third-party certification such as that offered by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). With reclaimed wood or bamboo, the environmental attributes are clear, but with new wood, try to seek information from someone other than the company that is selling it.Many contractors will try to go around your request for FSC-certified wood. It is important to demand that the contractor provide verification that the wood he/she has purchased is genuinely FSC-certified. Some flooring suppliers have gotten certified under the FSC's Chain of Custody (COC) system, which gives them the right to buy and sell FSC wood, but that does not mean that everything they sell is FSC-certified. A copy of a COC certificate is not enough. The supplier should provide one, but should also provide an invoice that lists the FSC-certified status of the product in the individual line item. If the line item doesn't say "FSC," the wood is not genuinely certified. (For help in specifying FSC-certified wood, visit Bamboo RevolutionIn addition to FSC-certified and reclaimed wood, bamboo flooring has emerged as one of the fastest-growing sectors of the wood flooring market. Reaching maturity in just four to six years (as opposed to hardwood trees, which take 50 to 200 years), bamboo is popular not only for being rapidly-renewable, but for its beauty and durability as a flooring material. Harder than oak, bamboo flooring is affordable and comes in a variety of looks that can fit into almost any design esthetic.A word of caution: not all bamboo flooring is the same. Responding to skyrocketing demand, some manufacturers and their importers here in America have flooded the market with inexpensive, poorly-made flooring. Often sourcing from several different small mills, these companies can fall victim to a variety of mistakes that are possible in the bamboo flooring manufacturing process. Poorly-handled or immature raw material, low-quality locally-made adhesives, and irregular milling are some of the avoidable problems that threaten to unjustly tarnish the reputation of bamboo as the durable, stable flooring material that it is.When shopping for bamboo flooring, look for companies that have been selling it in this country for many years, and ask specific questions about how and where their flooring is made. Ideally, find a supplier that sources from just one mill that uses modern equipment and imported adhesives and finishes. But don't be afraid—a quality bamboo floor will outperform many traditional hardwoods, can be installed in a wide variety of flooring applications, and is a great way to help conserve our forests.Other AlternativesIn addition to bamboo, palm and cork are wood-like flooring products that are growing in popularity. Recovered from coconut and palm oil plantations, palm has an exotic appearance and exceptional stability in service. Made from the bark of ancient trees, cork offers excellent acoustic qualities, feels soft underfoot and is resistant to dents. There is some debate about cork's "eco-friendliness," as increased demand has reportedly pushed suppliers into harvesting the bark on shorter rotations (thus damaging the trees), but some cork flooring is made exclusively from waste recovered from wine-cork manufacturing.The size and number of suppliers of sustainable flooring products is growing everyday. Prices are now very competitive, products are milled to standard industry formats and established companies offer warranties and service that match the best mainstream brands. Buying "green" wood flooring does not mean sacrificing beauty, quality or affordability. The choice is yours.Dan Harrington is architectural sales and marketing coordinator for EcoTimber. A pioneer in the world of sustainable wood products since 1992, EcoTimber offers a wide range of domestic and tropical FSC-certified, reclaimed, bamboo, cork and palm flooring products. For more information, visit

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