Sinking Ships

We only have to look at some of the UK Government’s climate decisions: the recent u-turn on the ban of sales of new petrol and diesel cars until 2035, its commitment to building the first new deep coal mine in over 30-years, and the planned expansion of drilling for oil in the North Sea; to see that our reliance on fossil fuels is not heading in the right direction. It’s a shame, as the situation is desperate and now is the time to make the choices that will protect our planet’s future. It is pain at a time when few of us can afford it, I am only too aware of that, but it will be a lot worse in the future, and a lot harder, if we don’t take the right choices today. And that’s before you consider the lost economic benefits of becoming a frontrunner in renewable energy and that, as things run out, simply, they get more expensive. There are reasons for and against in every scenario, but the fact remains that taking steps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and resources is a positive thing.

The world’s resources, including fossil fuels, are running out and as the population grows and the planet heats, the pressure will only become more intense. Water and food will become scarcer, rubbish will continue to pile up, and it will become harder to sustain communities, then countries and eventually, civilisation itself within the earth. Combined with the relentless growth of a linear economy, where financial strength seems the only marker of success, we are set up for failure and on a collision course with making our planet uninhabitable in the way we’ve become accustomed. Dystopian sci-fi movies now seem less like fiction and more like accurate prediction, unnervingly so (for me at least).  

If we continue to extract fossil resources from the earth at our current rate and set financial growth as the principle of a company’s and economy’s success, we’re doomed. No matter what anyone says. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that finite resources can’t support infinite growth. Ultimately, there must be a move towards reducing extraction and finding success in balancing the needs of mankind with the preservation of the earth.

But over 300 words in, what has this got to do with flooring? Well, flooring manufacturers across the world are companies just like any other and need to take ownership of the impact they have. They have to be making the hard choices now to guarantee long-term future success (their own, as well as that of everyone on the planet). But how many of them are actually doing so. Very few I would argue. Saying you’re ‘more sustainable’, is quite different from actually being so. The truth is, becoming a sustainable business means considerable and hard changes to the way products are made and a rethink of the values deemed to be principles of success. It’s not just a case of whacking up a few solar panels and claiming you use green energy, It’s about a long-term vision over short-term financial growth. Linear models of non-renewable and fossil resource consumption and profitably through growth are just not sustainable.

Let’s take polyester carpet as an example. Polyester is derived from oil and so considered a fossil resource. Every square metre of virgin polyester used comes from a resource that will, one day, run out – current predictions put that day in about 47-years’ time. So, is a manufacturer of virgin-grade polyester carpets particularly sustainable? No. Its products are made from a resource which will run out. However, does this make polyester a bad product from which to make carpets? No, also. It’s a resource that can be recycled multiple times with little or no degradation and where degradation does occur, it can be rectified without having to add more virgin resources.

The difference between being sustainable and not, is about the approach you take.

You can continue to make ‘recyclable’ polyester carpets from virgin grade polyester and maybe introduce a percentage of recycled material – which is often downcycled from plastic bottles (rPET) and can be slotted almost straight in to current production – but this doesn’t really solve the problem. What still stands is a carpet made from fossil fuel derived polyester (and probably a few other materials) that will be sent to landfill or downcycled with energy recovery. The likelihood of it finding its way back to a new carpet from the same factory is effectively zero, so to make its replacement, more virgin polyester is used and the linear process of resource consumption continues unabated. The manufacturer can claim it’s making ‘recyclable’ carpets with ‘recycled content’, so that looks great on the website or on a social media caption, but this is just greenwashing.

Unless a manufacturer has a way to return that carpet back to the factory from where it came (or at least a recycling partner that will give you the raw material from it back) and has a way to recycle it, they are simply paying lip service and not addressing the issue at heart. They are not really acting sustainably. Even if they do have a ‘take back’ programme, just how much of that material actually ends up going into a new carpet? The backing of another product is not the same – this is downcycling – and how much of it goes to energy recovery, road furniture or other lower value products?

Yet the ability to entirely recycle polyester carpet back into new carpet does exist today: Louis de Poortere has just released its Ecorugs in 100% polyester (the label and backing included), and German manufacturer Object Carpet is set to launch a 100% recyclable polyester wall-to-wall carpet in partnership with Niaga. The innovation in these products is to make every single part of the carpet from the same material, so it can be easily recycled and won’t be contaminated by other materials.

Also a process must be established to make sure the carpet can be returned and processed back into new carpet. Object Carpets and Louis de Poortere have both adopted a QR code approach on labelling that allows them to control returns and reuse or recycling so that the journey towards a circular production model can begin in earnest. Yes, it’s costly but it’s also absolutely necessary if a manufacturer is practising what they are preaching. While most companies are at the beginning of this circular journey to product and resources, in time it has the ability to lessen the company’s drain on resources and that’s a good thing indeed. Better to start now or tomorrow, then to give the can another kick in the hope that a newly discovered wonder material is going to solve all the problems.

Manufacturers simply can’t rely on (or blame) infrastructure or expect Government to solve the problems for them, they must own up and take responsibility for their own impact and there’s nowhere better to do that than in the product. It’s just not acceptable to blindly go on churning out new products without thinking how to reduce impact on resources or the environment itself. And if that means having to change materials, production and operational practices in the short-term, so be it. Investing in renewable energy, more efficient production and offsetting emissions are an important part of the balance for sure, but these have to come alongside proper investment in better (sustainable) products too. After all, the world really doesn’t need another grey carpet, it needs solutions.

What’s needed is manufacturers to actually realise that it’s all getting a bit late in the day and to make significant changes to the way they run businesses. Commitments to reducing footprint through more efficient manufacturing and moving towards Net Zero are all well and good, but if they are burying their head in the sand about the product itself, then it’s really quite meaningless. A resistance to getting to the heart of the situation may be better for quarterly reports and short-term profits at the moment, but it will be unsustainable in the long-run and could ultimately be a reason for demise. They’ll only have themselves to blame if you ask me.

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