What is the Most Eco Friendly Flooring?
When pressed, the Home Flooring Pros chose cork as their number #1 environmentally friendly and sustainable flooring option. That said their are several other worthy contenders for you to consider, so please read on.
Conscientious consumers have several great choices for floors that are eco-friendly, green and the better choice for the future of our world. In this flooring guide, we’ll help you select the best green flooring option for your home and learn how you can do your part to protect our fragile environment.
The great news is that, with the environment high on everyone’s agenda these days, flooring manufacturers have invested and developed many different environmentally friendly flooring products; so whether you prefer the classic look of hardwood or alternatives like rubber, there’s a version out there that will allow you to make a “green” choice.
But before we look at all the eco flooring options, let us consider the different factors that define whether or not a product is good for the environment.
The key considerations are: whether the flooring material is renewable or sustainable, what the carbon footprint is in terms of getting the product to the market, what is involved in the manufacturing process (that is to say, if there are harmful chemicals involved) and if it is being produced in a way that is damaging the local economy or people.
As you can imagine, it is sometimes difficult to find products that fulfill all these criteria at once. Luckily some flooring industries have created industry specific accreditation programs to ensure that these values are upheld. So let’s now have a closer look at the best eco-friendly flooring products and see how green they actually are.
Here are 12 eco-friendly floors for you to consider with links for quick navigation:
- Cork Flooring
- Bamboo Flooring
- Reclaimed Hardwood
- Sustainably Harvested Hardwood
- Rubber Flooring
- Natural Stone Tiles
- Recycled Glass Tiles
- Leather Tiles
- Wool Carpet
- PET Carpet
- Sisal, Jute, Hemp, Seagrass and Coir
Cork is the ultimate natural, renewable flooring resource and its green credentials are pretty hard to beat. Cork flooring is actually made from the outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree. When the bark is harvested it is effectively stripped off in layers; the tree isn’t cut down. It continues to grow and the bark is renewed and can be harvested again about 9 years later.
This unique “regeneration” aspect means that the tree can be harvested as much as 20 times during its lifespan. Furthermore, the largest country producing cork is Portugal, where stringent laws ensure that cork oak trees are protected and harvested responsibly; other Mediterranean countries where cork is produced also have similar strong environmental protection laws.
Of course, that is in some ways countered by the carbon footprint involved in transporting cork from the Mediterranean to Northern America – but that footprint is a lot smaller than bamboo (which is mostly grown in China). It’s also worth bearing in mind that typically you can refinish cork floors at least once, although please check each product to confirm.
A further advantage of cork is that it also enhances your personal environment because it is naturally hypoallergenic, making it a great choice if you suffer from asthma or dust related allergies; plus it has excellent insulation properties – both for heat and sound – and is naturally fire retardant.
The only real drawback with cork is that – for many – its aesthetic has a rather earthy or folksy feel, making it quite a personal choice which doesn’t appeal to everyone. Even if you decide against a cork floor you can always make use of cork underlayment for your flooring project.
Additional Reading: Basement Cork Flooring
Bamboo, however, is a member of the grass family. It grows very, very fast – it is rapidly renewable. So in contrast, bamboo needs as little as 3 years of growth before it can be used for flooring. Plus, it is the stalk alone that is harvested while the root remains in the ground where it starts growing once again, so no replanting is required.
On the down side, there is a lot of variety in the quality of bamboo flooring – it really does pay to do as much research as possible and buy best quality. Bamboo flooring is an engineered product, so buyers should also check to ensure that it has been engineered with no added urea formaldehyde and finishes that do not give off toxic chemicals.
A further consideration now, is that as bamboo flooring has become more popular, environmental activists are warning that bamboo plantations are not always being managed sustainably. Increased demand has allowed for unscrupulous suppliers to engage with intensive farming methods, deforestation and the use of toxic chemicals to increase yields.
If you’re set on buying bamboo, do a lot of research, read reviews of the best bamboo flooring and ask a lot of questions from the supplier before making a decision. Read our post about bamboo flooring installation cost for more information on pricing.
I’m sure you’ve heard the three R’s of environmentally friendly policy: reduce, reuse, recycle? Well, using reclaimed hardwood for flooring pretty much fits the mantra perfectly!
Unlike cork or bamboo, there is no growing time or potentially harmful farming methods to be concerned about: reclaimed hardwood is either directly recycled from the flooring of old houses or barns, or old wooden beams are hewn into strips and reused as flooring planks. Furthermore, reclaimed hardwood is usually sourced locally in the USA, so there’s a much smaller, reduced carbon footprint involved in transporting it to site.
Finally, timber merchants that sell reclaimed hardwood are often local, private enterprises, so you have the added benefit of being able to support local industry. You can also find reclaimed hardwood on listings websites such as Gumtree, Craigslist or eBay and buy direct from private individuals.
And if you’re renovating an historic property or just love the aesthetic of ages-old wood, then reclaimed hardwood flooring is the prefect “green” choice. The only downside is that reclaimed timber is still relatively specialist, so you may find it pricier than new hardwood flooring that is being produced on a larger, more cost-effective scale.
Sustainably Harvested Hardwood
Whilst brand new hardwood flooring might not be exactly as brilliant for the environment as reclaimed hardwood flooring, there are ways to make sure that the hardwood brand you choose is doing as much as possible to limit their impact on the environment.
Opting for hardwoods that are sustainably harvested is the first thing you should check. In the USA, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) oversees a certification program that ensures the hardwood comes form a forest that is properly managed and harvested so that both the local economy and ecosystem is protected. As it is an international organization, the FSC also certify hardwoods from outside the USA.
FSC certified wood can be used for both solid and engineered hardwood. For both types you should also check that surface finishes are free from toxic chemicals; and that engineered hardwoods are formaldehyde-free. Always look for manufacturers “green” credentials – the best brands are very proud of the standards they maintain.
Though it seems rather contemporary in its appearance, linoleum flooring was first produced well over 150 years ago! In fact its first incarnation was invented n 1855 by Frederick Walton, who then went on to refine the process further, patenting his process in 1863.
This entirely organic flooring product is an excellent choice for the environment for many reasons. Firstly, it is made from a clever composition of natural occurring and abundant materials: linseed oil, rosin, wood flour (a wood industry by-product), cork flour, ground limestone, jute fiber and pigments.
Secondly, with advances in modern finishes, it is more durable than ever and can easily last for 40 years if it is properly looked after. And finally, one of the best things about linoleum is that it is entirely biodegradable.
However, whilst most linoleum flooring is manufactured on-site at local factories, some of the composite materials do have rather a long way to travel – for example, jute is mainly farmed in India and Bangladesh – so the overall carbon footprint for linoleum is not entirely ideal.
Also to consider is the fact that, thanks to its excellent anti microbial, dust repellent and easy-cleaning properties, linoleum is often used in commercial and public buildings. This has made the linoleum aesthetic synonymous with aseptic, functional environments – so perhaps not the most comfy, cozy look for residential flooring.
Another, though perhaps more particular, type of flooring material that can be potentially good for the environment is rubber flooring. I say potentially because you really need to read up and research the ins and outs of how the rubber flooring is made to ensure it’s a good eco-friendly product.
The best rubber flooring if you want to go green, is to choose flooring that has been made from recycled rubber (usually old car tires). The process involved in turning tires into flooring is fairly energy efficient and recycling the 290 million non-biodegradable tires that are scraped every year in the USA makes it excellent for the environment. Be aware, though, that colored rubber flooring will have less recycled content than black rubber flooring.
You should also be sure to check that the rubber is free from chlorine (halogens), PVC or phthalate plasticizers in order to counter hazardous toxins being released in the manufacturing process and in your home.
Rubber flooring, as opposed to foam flooring, is pretty durable once installed – it can easily last up to 20 years – and if you opt for interlocking adhesive-free tiles, then your rubber floor can easily be recycled again when it’s no longer at its best.
So, overall recycled rubber flooring is a viable green option, however – like linoleum – the aesthetic options available are at best rather industrial or clinical. Perfect for a home gym, kitchen or laundry, but maybe not so great for a living room?
Additional Reading: Basement Rubber Tile Flooring
Natural Stone Tiles
Natural stone, like slate, limestone or sandstone, is incredibly durable, recyclable and in almost limitless supply. The only thing that affects stone’s green credentials is the distance they have to travel from the quarry to your door! Choosing a locally sourced stone or at least a domestic product will ensure the minimum transport related carbon footprint.
You should also check to see if your stone supplier is certified by the Natural Stone Council (NSC) with its Genuine Stone accreditation that verifies stone products as being produced in an economic, environmental and socially responsible manner.
A final consideration for installing and maintaining natural stone flooring is to choose adhesives, waxes and sealants that also have decent green credentials. Thankfully, thanks to increased demand, more and more manufacturers are investing in and developing non-toxic versions of these types of product.
Recycled Glass Tiles
As we’ve mentioned post-consumer waste clogs landfills, so the more of it that can be diverted, the better. Which is why recycled glass that is being re-purposed into flooring tiles is such a beautiful idea! On the whole, most tiling manufacturers are using recycled glass for small square mosaic tiles, perfect for bathroom and wet-room flooring applications.
Available in a huge range of colors, the advantage of small mosaic glass tiles is that there is a decent ratio of grout to tile, ensuring more friction and reducing the possibility of creating a slippery glass surface. Another plus is that mosaic tiles can either be laid in a single mono-color layer or – if you have a patient tiling installer – you can choose several different colors and set them in geometric patterns.
If you like the glass mosaic tile look, then check with your supplier whether or not the manufacturer is using recycled glass.
Leather is an unexpected alternative eco-friendly flooring material. Whilst some might be opposed to using leather for any material purpose, for those who are interested in exploring all possible eco-friendly options, leather tiles present an interesting one.
This is especially true if the tile is made by recycling leather from old car seat covers and waste product from leather tanneries. The recycled leather is most usually backed onto a high-density fiberboard core and can be adhered onto of all kinds of subfloors, including wood and concrete. There are also interlocking leather tiles that can be set as a floating floor.
Leather tiles are a very specialized flooring product, and are often custom made to order, so they aren’t likely to be the most budget-friendly option; nevertheless, I do love this clever way of repurposing old leather!
If you’re in love with carpet, and want to be sure to get the best one for the environment, then a pure wool carpet is the ideal choice. If you take care to ensure that the wool comes from New Zealand, even better.
Because, even though flying wool from New Zealand to carpet mills in the USA might leave a fairly questionable carbon footprint, this is countered by the fact that, as the largest exporter of wool in the world, New Zealand’s government has put in place a lot of regulations to safeguard both the environment and the sheep!
Carpets that have the Wool of New Zealand brand mark are made with wool from farms that have been audited by AsureQuality, a New Zealand government conformity assessment body, who take into account careful land management and responsible animal welfare.
For your own personal environment, wool carpets are also a good choice as the fiber traps allergens like dust and pollens making them more hypoallergenic, absorbs noise, improves insulation in your home and is also flame resistant.
If a pure wool carpet is out of your budget, then you could consider carpets made of polyester fiber (aka polyethylene terephthalate or PET) as a somewhat green alternative. This is because the made-made PET fiber is made in part with recycled soda and water bottles – so there is an element of eco-friendliness in there to recommend.
However, standards vary and the amount of recycled bottles that actually go into making PET can be quite small, though well known brands do offer PET carpets with 100% recycled content. It pays to research thoroughly if you’re going to go down this route.
The main advantage of PET carpet over wool is budget, but also PET fiber takes color dye very well so you’ll often find PET carpets in much more vibrant and vivid color options than the natural tones of wool carpets.
Sisal, Jute, Hemp, Seagrass and Coir
Finally, if you’re keen to opt for organic, natural flooring products then have a look at rugs or coverings made with sisal, jute, hemp, seagrass or coir. All of these products are derived from plants that are sustainable and renewable, and the end product is biodegradable.
However, these fibers are farmed and processed in different locations around the world, and not all of them can be traced to socially or environmentally responsible producers.
In fact, as far as we know, there is currently no internationally recognized eco-friendly accreditation scheme for producers of these natural fibers, so you’ll have to simply rely on the retailer’s word that their product has been sourced from a good place.