How the Pandemic Shaped the Sustainability Story

Interview with Arthur Clarke, Director of Sustainability, HMTX Industries

Q: How has the pandemic influenced the sustainability conversation?

A: There are several ways in which the pandemic has influenced the sustainability conversation. While many of us have undoubtedly experienced some form of ‘Zoom fatigue,’ with the constant need to meet virtually rather than in person, there has been a general uptick in the ability and desire to collaborate with colleagues across the globe, including at conferences like Living Future and Greenbuild. This has brought about the benefit of gaining the perspectives and insights of those with different backgrounds and experiences, and thus learning of different challenges and approaches to the inclusion of sustainable materials in the built environment.

There have also been renewed and/or reinvigorated conversations about such topics as the use of antimicrobial additives in building materials; the benefits to and drawbacks from telecommuting as it relates to environmental health and human health; and the increasing need to tackle issues related to social equity and justice, as the pandemic has put in even greater contrast the harsh disparities between those with adequate or enhanced means and those without.

Q: Is there a change in expectations?

A: Although it was already headed in this direction for years, most industries have experienced an accelerated shift from sales at brick-and-mortar outlets to online retailers as a result of the pandemic. This shift has brought with it a growing expectation on the part of the consumer that a large amount of information should be readily accessible to help them make an informed decision: from product data and reviews, to installation/use manuals and sustainability-related attributes and certifications.

Also, with more of us spending time at home and away from work, conversations have begun in some corners of the building materials industry as to how to better promote to homeowners and landlords those programs that have been primarily designed for and/or traditionally marketed to A&D, contractors, and business owners. For example, how do we bring-home Declare® and the Health Product Declaration® Open Standard? How do we make them as well known and well used in the residential segment as programs like Energy Star?

Q: Are there changes in consumer awareness of sustainable practices?

A: Social justice and equity, key aspects of sustainability, have seen increased awareness on the part of consumers due to the number of stories that have come to light about the inhumane and unsanitary conditions faced by many essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis, such as workers in the meatpacking industry. While general conditions are different in the flooring industry, we can no doubt expect consumers to be more curious and critical about how we treat the workers at our factories and warehouses, and whether or not we’re being equitable and just in our treatment of them.

Therefore we encourage companies to participate in programs like JUST℠. Developed and administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), JUST is a tool by which companies can gauge the effectiveness of their policies and practices that relate to social justice and equity.

HMTX Industries was the first company to receive JUST labels for factories in China (and all of Asia) back in 2018 – labels that we plan on renewing by January 2022 under version v2.0 of the JUST standard. In April 2020, we became the first manufacturer in the world to receive a JUST 2.0 label, a label that encompasses our U.S. employees and operations.

Q: With sanitation and cleanliness top of mind, are there sustainable solutions that retailers should be suggesting to consumers when it comes to flooring?

A: The very first consideration should be in the selection process of the type of flooring to be installed. Retailers should be qualifying consumers as to the differences in hard-surface materials versus soft-surface materials and the impacts that selection can have. The types of cleaners and disinfectants change with different surfaces and with the manufacturer’s recommendations. The frequency of a cleaning, the use of entrance mats, the location of the home or business and the environmental conditions of the location, and the number of occupants (i.e., foot-traffic) all have long-term impacts.

That being said, we have not changed the types of cleaning solutions that we recommend for our products: pH-neutral cleaners, free of harsh chemicals. Our own brand of Prevail® cleaners fit this bill. Our recommended cleaning practices have remained the same as well, including the recommendation to sweep, dust-mop, wet-mop, and/or vacuum (without beater bar assembly) on a regular basis.

Q: With more people spending most of their time at home, there is an increased concern about indoor air quality. How does sustainably created flooring fit into the healthy flooring equation?

A: Programs like FloorScore® are relevant now more than ever because of this concern. Such programs ensure that independent certification bodies are verifying the claims made by manufacturers that their products contribute to good indoor air quality, and that the factories at which these products are made have quality-control procedures in place to help ensure that products are consistently meeting such standards.

Newer standards, such as ASSSURE Certified™, go a step further by addressing more than just indoor air quality. ASSURE not only incorporates FloorScore, but also places strict limits on heavy-metal content and orthophthalates in rigid core flooring (i.e., WPC and SPC flooring). This new program also requires that rigid core flooring meets the conformity and performance criteria established by the ASTM F3261 specification standard, including the criteria for residual indentation, dimensional stability, size and squareness, resistance to color change from heat and light, etc. In doing so, ASSURE can give consumers peace of mind regarding the content and quality of their rigid core flooring.

Due to the importance of these programs, all flooring products sold by HMTX Industries divisions here in the U.S. – Aspecta, Metroflor, Teknoflor, and Halstead – are FloorScore certified. Furthermore, all of the WPC and SPC flooring products sold by our divisions have been certified under ASSURE.

Q: Are there particular formats of flooring that are gaining traction because of increased emphasis on sustainability?

A: Hard-surface flooring has been gaining market share from soft-surface flooring for years, as the former enjoys quite a few advantages over the latter – including what most agree to be easier means of care and maintenance (keeping it clean). This trend will likely continue or even grow in pace as a result of the pandemic.

WPC & SPC flooring products are now the only type of resilient flooring products to benefit from a third-party verified standard that addresses indoor air quality, heavy-metal content, and orthophthalates. As the ASSURE Certified program gains notoriety, and consumers continue to expand upon their knowledge of such facets of product safety, these products will see an even greater surge in popularity.

On the commercial side, there’s been a slow but steady increase in the demand for chlorine-free resilient flooring. Our Teknoflor division – which focuses solely on the commercial segment (including healthcare, education, and institutional) – has been expanding its portfolio of these products. Their latest chlorine-free product- Teknoflor Nature’s Tile & Plank HPD – is the perfect complement in design and in sustainable attributes to Teknoflor Naturescapes HPD, a chlorine-free sheet product that was the first in the world to receive Petal certification under the Living Product Challenge.

Q: What role does design play in sustainability and incorporating biophilia?

A: Biophilic design had been integrated into resilient flooring well before it was conceptualized and its importance to human health had been documented. Flooring that’s affordable, performs well, is easy to maintain, and looks as authentic as hardwood or stone have long been the key selling points. Such designs, which have become more realistic as technologies have advanced, allow us to feel less disconnected from the natural world – especially as we’ve had to spend most of our time indoors over the course of the last year. These connections to the world around us – which biophilic design can help restore through the use of direct or indirect nature, and space and place conditions – allow us to feel a rekindled sense of tranquility, harmony, and even hope.