Sustainable Flooring: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Options

Sustainable Flooring Guide: In recent years, sustainability has become a popular term across many industries: from automobiles to energy, agriculture to architecture – the list goes on. The term sustainability, however, has seen its meaning diminished through frivolous overuse. Sustainability is very real, and we’re here to separate the truth from the buzzword: with a focus on flooring.


By Andrew Johnston

Flooring is a key component of any construction or home improvement project. While hardwoods, carpets, and even concrete (depending on the part of your house) have dominated homes for a long time, they are accompanied by a host of sustainability concerns. Over the last decade and change, the flooring industry has worked diligently to develop products that are safe for the environment and people alike.

A few sustainable flooring options have become the front runners for eco-friendly considerations: organic carpet, linoleum, and alternative hardwoods such as bamboo and eucalyptus. These categories are illustrative of a variety of different sustainable initiatives: Sourcing Organic Materials, Developing Durable and Resistant Products, Limiting Hazardous Emissions, and Recycling and Reusing Products.

wooden flooring in home with nature views

What is Sustainability?

Before delving into the finer details of sustainable flooring, it is important to understand what sustainability is in essence.

Broadly speaking, sustainability is about the symbiosis between human and environmental interests. The movement strives to assimilate eco-friendly practices while compromising as few conveniences of daily life as possible. As climate complications worsen on a global scale, however, there arises an increasingly urgent need for compromise.

The most reductive scope of sustainability distills this vague concept into actionable causes: primarily, shifting industries towards organic substances while closely controlling the quality and quantity of inorganic materials.

As you may know, there is more to flooring than the immediate surface under your feet. Modern floors are often composed of dense layers to improve durability or ease installation and maintenance. Hardwoods, for example, can contain polymer cores independent of the wood material. Additionally, finishes and sealants can be utilized to improve scratch resistance, water resistance, and other durable properties; however, these substances can contain harmful levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) if they are not routinely tested – more on that later.

With a general understanding of sustainability in tow, we are now equipped to consider how these initiatives align with various types of flooring.

Sourcing Organic Materials

Organic carpet flaunts one of its benefits in the name, but what does it mean to be organic?

Modern carpets are typically made from synthetic fibers such as nylon or polyester – whereas organic carpet is made of wool or assorted natural fibers. Wool carpeting is particularly resistant to spills and stains compared to its contemporaries due to its natural density. The latent sustainability of natural materials goes beyond their resistances; rather, they can be repeatedly harvested.

These carpets derive their eco-friendly value from the replenishable nature of their raw materials: wool is collected by shearing sheep rather than manufacturing synthetic fibers. These materials are highly biodegradable due to their naturalistic qualities, so both their acquisition and demolition have limited impact on the environment.

It is important to pare expectations here, for organic is not synonymous with replenishable. Traditional hardwoods, such as oak or cherry, take decades to regrow, and the harvesting process consumes the entire plant – down to the roots. The turnover on these trees is lengthy and strains the earth of the forests where they are farmed due to continuous upheaval.

Bamboo has risen as an efficient alternative to both of these issues. Moso bamboo, one of the most common strains for manufacturing floors, replenishes in as short as five to seven years. The harvesting process is more of a trim than a chop – meaning the stalks are cut down without uprooting the original plant. Not only does this help expedite the replenishing process: it also is a relief to the land.

When searching for sustainable flooring, it is important to critically consider the source of materials. Something can be organic while taking an enormous toll on the environment. This is just one of many deceptive ways that the sustainability tag can be improperly co-opted.

Developing Durable and Resistant Products

As indicated with wool carpeting, a key component of sustainable flooring can come in the form of durability. This quality extends beyond the scope of organic materials as well.

You may remember linoleum from the checkerboard floor pattern of your kindergarten classroom or any kitchen you set foot in, in the 1950’s. While exhibiting plastic-like qualities, linoleum is, in fact, all natural: it is derived from linseed oil, wood fillers, and resins. In recent years, however, it has been overtaken in popularity by a synthetic counterpart – vinyl.

Modernized as “luxury vinyl plank” (LVP), vinyl came to prominence due to its affordability and flexibility. It is considerably cheaper than linoleum, and it comes in a wider array of colors and styles – for those who aren’t intending to play Wizard Chess in their kitchen. Vinyl has the added benefit of waterproofing compared to the water-resistant nature of linoleum.

The greatest detraction against vinyl, thus, is its lack of sustainability. While linoleum may be lacking appeal style-wise, it is an organic compound that is recyclable, biodegradable, and outlasts vinyl significantly. Many flooring experts expect a 10-year lifespan from vinyl flooring; linoleum lasts an average of 40-years, by comparison.

The appeal of resistance in various types of flooring can come at the expense of sustainable initiatives, but these qualities do not have to remain entirely disparate.

Enter: bamboo flooring. Traditional and alternative hardwoods alike rely on what is known as the Janka Scale to evaluate their toughness. In short, the test measures the amount of force required to embed a steel ball into the material. Common hardwoods such as oak, hickory, and maple rank between 1,000 and 2,000 for perspective. One of the toughest traditional woods – cherry – has peaked around 3,600; comparatively, strand-woven bamboo and eucalyptus regularly score from 4,000 to 5,000.

Beyond impact resistance, bamboo is a naturally resilient material. It is technically a grass – not a wood – which enables it to resist more moisture than traditional hardwoods. This does not make it impervious to water, for no wood-adjacent product is. Coupled with common polyurethane finishes, however, the product can avoid damage from modest spills and accidents for hours on end.

sustainable flooring made from wood at an outdoor eatery with seating

Limiting Hazardous Emissions

Relying heavily on polyurethane can be a slippery slope: this qualifies as a VOC on account of its potential for emitting toxic amounts of formaldehyde. Not only is this dangerous for the environment – it can be incredibly harmful to humans, pets, and plants alike through extended exposure.

VOCs can originate from products far removed from flooring. Paint thinner, cleaning products, pesticides, glues, and permanent markers are just a sample of common products that can emit these volatile chemicals. That said, this should illustrate how common the presence of these are and how they can be harmless in small quantities.

No, this is not an endorsement for sniffing Sharpies; however, we refer to these harmless quantities as “trace amounts.” Essentially any product containing chemical compounds can be dangerous in high volume over a long period of time. Trace amounts are unavoidable with synthetic products – even if they contain organic compounds too. Synthetic carpets, polyurethane finishes, and vinyl planks are examples of where flooring and VOCs intersect.

Formaldehyde occurs naturally, so it is even liable to appear in organically-sourced materials such as bamboo, eucalyptus, or wool. The goal is to limit and regulate the amount.

High volume of VOCs in flooring can be especially dangerous, for it’s impossible to have a home or commercial space without a floor. You will certainly be around these materials all the time, and regulations exist to combat the occurrence of off-gassing: a process through which VOCs become gases at room temperature and pollute the air. Luckily, a number of regulatory committees have emerged to control these emissions. CARB Phase II, FloorScore, and OSHA are just a few of these standards and regulators that certify the quality and safety of flooring.

Recognizing sustainability as the symbiotic relationship between human machinations and environmental protections inherently invokes these principles of safety and regulation. A critical factor of developing sustainable flooring comes in adherence to these standards – not only for the sake of humans but the environment as well.

Recycling and Reusing Products

The unfortunate consequence of durable, synthetic finishes is that they can render bamboo flooring unrecyclable. Bamboo itself is highly biodegradable, but the compounds found in some flooring finishes may not be.

Solid-strand bamboo flooring is made from compressed fibers of bamboo, whereas engineered bamboo flooring contains various layers of polymers and other materials. While these polymers are primarily made up of limestone or other naturally-occurring materials, the inclusion of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) amongst other compounds reduces the recyclable properties of these types of floors – not to mention the polyurethane finish.

It is important to consider the composition of materials when labeling a product as sustainable flooring. This is not to say that engineered bamboo is deprived of sustainable aspects: as we have acknowledged the replenishable nature of its crucial component. The greater presence of VOCs and synthetic materials impacts the recyclability of the product above all.

Wool, on the other hand, is incredibly biodegradable; furthermore, the carpet can be scrapped and the wool reused for another purpose. Linoleum admittedly has fewer reuses, but it is biodegradable and otherwise recyclable.

Dispelling Sustainable Appropriations

When seeking a sustainable flooring option for your home or commercial project, there can be a lot to consider. Recycling, for example, can be such a distant concern that it is out of sight, out of mind when shopping for floors.

The symbiosis of sustainability, however, is rooted in compromise for sake of the environment. Inevitably, your sustainable initiatives are your own: meaning you have the autonomy to decide what compromises you are comfortable with. No flooring, no matter how organic or regulated, is perfect for the environment – or else it would be outside rather than in!

Emissions are a critical concern because it pertains to your own safety, but durable, organic, or recyclable initiatives are in the eye of the beholder. At the end of the day, sustainable flooring can be more than a trendy buzzword, but it requires a decent bit of legwork to verify. If you are looking this deeply into sustainability to begin with, then it’s likely that it’s worth the effort to research. As for how to turn these ideas into actions: well, to each their own.


About the Author

Andrew has worn many hats throughout the course of his career: this time, as a writer! Once a live music promoter, he shifted his focus to sustainable initiatives due to a vested interest in environmental issues. He is currently utilizing his promoting and writing toolkit to market sustainable building products. He continues to keep up with music in his free time – writing, playing, and producing. Always open to new writing opportunities, you can connect with him at andrew.j@ambientbp.com