Path to Positive: Tarkett’s Commitment to Optimization Includes Deep Understanding of Product Chemistry
Building company philosophies around sustainability is certainly a noble — and smart — goal. But it can’t be a sole driver if that company wants to ultimately survive in today’s economy. Flooring manufacturer Tarkett is proving that you can have it both ways, implementing global initiatives aimed at designing products for a positive impact on people and the environment, while simultaneously bolstering profitability.
In fact, Tarkett didn’t start its environmental efforts simply to be sustainable. But rather because it wanted to be innovative. Today, those initiatives drive R&D at every level and have redefined the core philosophies that influence operations from bottom to top and around the world over. The eventual result could be a completely circular economy of flooring products that are healthy, low-impact and infinitely reusable.
Tarkett’s path to positive began decades ago when it implemented its first recycling efforts in 1957. In 2006, the company embarked on its most ambitious commitment, developing the Four Pillars to Sustainability: choose to use good materials; produce flooring with materials that do not contribute to resource scarcity; ensure safer, healthier products that contribute to well-being in people-friendly spaces; and reuse and recycle products through participating in recycling or by actively recycling.
In 2011, Tarkett committed to following Cradle to Cradle principles with a purpose of better understanding the chemistry of its products and the impact of chemicals on people and on the planet. To date, 80% of its materials — more than 2,500 ingredients — have been profiled for hazards and exposure against 24 human and environmental endpoints by a third party, with a commitment of 100% by 2020.
“Our journey started way back, but intensified as we created this relationship with Cradle to Cradle,” says Diane Martel, vice-president of sustainability for Tarkett. “We feel very responsible for the health and well-being of people; our products live in interior spaces, and we want to make sure the overall impacts of those products are looked at and addressed.”
Evaluating products under Cradle to Cradle ensures that they contribute positively to the environment and to human health at each step of the product’s life, while supporting the development of the circular economy.
“We want to optimize our products so we can recycle them and really close the loop,” Martel says. “We think of things holistically, not just how they are manufactured, but also how we install and maintain them. Such as, can they be cleaned with a natural cleanser? Can they be upcycled for a continuous loop?”
Following Cradle to Cradle ideals and aligning values is one thing, but pursuing Cradle to Cradle Certification for products is even more challenging. Cradle to Cradle certification evaluates products under five attributes: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social responsibility.
As with most manufacturers, the most complicated hurdle for Tarkett was the material health category. Among the criteria is a list of prohibited chemicals, some of which are common among flooring materials, such as phthalates or formaldehyde. A product cannot be certified at any level if it contains C2C banned list chemicals. To achieve the highest levels in material health, all chemistry in a product to 100 ppm must be assessed by an accredited assessor and all ratings must indicate safe exposure for humans and the environment.
For Tarkett, ridding its products of chlorine, phthalates, formaldehyde and other Cradle to Cradle-prohibited chemicals came down to a major theme — optimization. The company gathered its suppliers and other parties to meet with the team and determine the safety of alternative options. “It required a commitment in the supply chain,” says Feliks Bezati, Tarkett’s Product Stewardship Director.
Linoleum was the first product Tarkett fully optimized, eventually achieving Cradle to Cradle Silver (no exposure to carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants). Linoleum already uses several natural materials, such as linseed oil and wood powder, but it also contained chlorinated pigments. Eliminating those chemicals required going back to square one: designing the product without pigments, then working with the R&D team and suppliers to optimize the recipe with non-chlorinated pigments that didn’t sacrifice appearance or performance.
“It does have an impact on the supply chain,” says Bezati. “For our R&D team, it’s not only about a product and new technology, it’s looking at the ingredients and making sure we have third-party assessment and then changing if needed. That’s where optimization of products happens … when you look at and select, at the design phase, healthy and safe materials that can be perpetually cycled.”
Next the company worked on developing non-PVC options for its carpet backing that would allow those products to achieve Cradle to Cradle certification, as well, and would increase their share of recycled content. The process began simply by making a list of different polymers and then grew more complicated as their properties were studied, with the team eventually zeroing-in on polyvinyl butyral (PVB). “It’s a difficult polymer to process and had to go through extensive R&D and years of engineering to develop a proprietary process and make it work,” notes Bezati.
The resulting product, ethos®, uses a pre-coated faced fabric material combined with a PVB backing; the PVB is sourced from the laminated interlayer of recycled auto glass. ethos® carries a Cradle to Cradle Silver certification.
Most recently, Tarkett’s iQ One resilient flooring achieved Gold certification, an achievement that requires meeting Gold in all five of Cradle to Cradle’s attribute categories. In all, the company currently carries 20 Cradle to Cradle certifications covering 17 product groups. In addition to ethos®, linoleum and iQ One, these include Parquet (Silver) and Johnsonite rubber flooring (Bronze). Tarkett’s Desso brand carries 12 Cradle to Cradle certifications, including Gold for EcoBase carpet tile backing and carpet tiles.
COMMITMENT TO CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Just as important to the process and central to Cradle to Cradle philosophy is closing the loop to create a true circular economy, and in 2011, Tarkett implemented a post-installation takeback program.
Recycling in the U.S. has always been a significant hurdle for the flooring industry and many others, due to lack of infrastructure and, simply, the sheer size of the country and location of manufacturing facilities. And for many contractors, recycling unused material is simply not a priority. “You have to have end user commitment and involvement in order to make an impact,” Martel says. This is increasing, particularly in the design and architecture community.
The company has adopted a closed-loop design process centered around their Four Pillars to Sustainability. It begins with quality materials that are positive to health and can re-enter production cycles. Second is smart use of resources in production, from using renewable energy to implementing closed water loops at manufacturing sites to using sawdust from production as an energy source. Next is creating people-friendly spaces with products that contribute to improved indoor air quality. Finally, and perhaps most visibly, is Tarkett’s ReStart program, which collects and recycles products and materials at the end of their useful life.
“This is a commitment from the company to embrace the circular economy and Cradle to Cradle principles,” says Martel. “For example, not only is ethos® made with good materials … but also at the tail end of the first-use phase we can recycle or reuse it.”
PROTECTING PROFITS, INFLUENCING THE INDUSTRY
While Tarkett’s commitment to sustainability and health are hugely admirable, they wouldn’t be possible – nor replicable – if the company itself doesn’t also make money. “Profit is not a bad word,” Martel says. “We want to be in business. We reduce as much as we can, but the goal is to be positive. In the business world, Cradle to Cradle has to be a financially sound decision.”
That profitability plays a role in establishing buy-in from the top-down, and that buy-in at every level is essential for pushing the Four Pillars forward and doing so successfully.
“Businesses will do the right thing because businesses think of themselves as corporate citizens. But when the business model also supports it, it makes it much easier for the C suite to buy in,” Martel adds.
For Tarkett, such initiatives translate from a business sense in three ways: in the short term, through brand awareness that the company is not only great to work with but also responsible, as well as through the internal pride of employees. Second is the idea of instilling innovation. In the long term, it’s about surviving. Relying less and less on virgin material will not only save money, but ensure continued production as raw material sources dry up.
It’s also meeting the needs and preferences of the current business climate: “The market is demanding it, and, eventually, the environment will force the issue.”
Case in point: Since the company removed phthalates from its vinyl flooring products, three major U.S. building product suppliers — Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards — have announced they will not sell flooring with phthalates. Says Martel: “We took a leadership role and saw the competition follow us and now it is a must in order to sell in the U.S.”