Interface has always been the greenest of companies and the late founder Ray Anderson is sainted in the green world. We wrote back in 2008 about his sustainability goal: “zero negative effects on the planetary ecosystem by the year 2020” According to the Interface Framework, they are attacking on 7 fronts, including: "Front 2 – Benign Emissions: Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities."
So it was with some surprise when I saw the press release announcing that Interface is now producing “Luxury Vinyl Tiles” or LVT; Vinyl is considered by many to be a toxic substance. From a design point of view, one can see why they are doing it; a lot of offices are moving away from carpet. They note:
Several commercial design trends are playing a role in Interface's expansion into modular resilient flooring. The transformation of the modern workplace is dominating corporate office design conversations today. It is driving fresh thinking around the use of mixed materials to create zones for different types of work, whether focused, collaborative or spaces that have more of a residential feel, blurring the lines between home and work.
But Vinyl! it is also known as Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC. It is red-listed for the Living Building Challenge and Cradle to Cradle basic certification requires "No PVC, chloroprene, or related chemical at any concentration". TreeHugger has previously noted:
- The production of PVC and its feedstocks, vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride results in the release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment each year, mainly in poor, communities of color in the Louisiana and Texas.
- PVC production is a large source of dioxin into the environment. (They say they have cleaned this up.)
- Because of its majority chlorine content, when PVC burns in fires two extremely hazardous substances, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed which present both acute and chronic health hazards to building occupants, fire fighters and surrounding communities. In addition, when PVC burns, some 100 different toxic compounds are produced.
- It often has phthalates added as a softener; this is a worrisome chemical linked to hormonal changes in men and women.
Interface mentions none of this, saying:
Interface intends to bring its focus on sustainability and transparency to the hard flooring category, and will challenge the industry once again to improve the sustainability of existing products and to create lasting, positive impacts on this market segment....With its initial entry into resilient flooring, Interface has been purposeful in selecting and creating products with materials and recycling in mind, including a commitment to deliver Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for all of its hard flooring products. The tiles are produced with a controlled material stream to ensure that they can be recycled at end of life through Interface's ReEntry® recycling program. These recycled materials will ultimately feed into recycled content backing, including Interface's GlasBac®RE recycled backing product.
But how do you make vinyl flooring safe and sustainable? Has it somehow changed? There are bio-based substitutes for phthalates that companies are using, but Interface doesn’t say. It can’t be made from recycled vinyl (because old vinyl is full of chemicals that you don’t want now) but Interface doesn’t say. I would have thought they would at least have posted a defence of vinyl somewhere.
I find it funny also that they print out their flooring to look like wood and concrete, which along with linoleum make perfectly fine floors. Why not sell the real thing instead of a printed substitute?
There is no question that the PVC industry is cleaner and better than it was a decade ago, but it still a product that designers who care about sustainability avoid. Its use is still hugely controversial. There is obviously a big market for vinyl flooring and a move away from carpets. But is vinyl sustainable? Can Interface sell it and still meet their 2020 goals? I am not so sure.