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11.14.07

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Forest for the Trees

Tracking your flooring's 'chain of custody'

By Gianna de Persiis Vona


I don't spend too many of my waking hours thinking about flooring, though I do ponder the linoleum in my bathroom upon occasion. I have begun to wonder, for example, if perhaps the dark stains spreading from the vicinity of the bathtub could be due to moisture seeping underneath the floorboards. This is one of the perks of being a renter: rotting floorboards, while perhaps unattractive, are not that much of a personal concern. The reality of environmental responsibility, however, is that the choices other people make, the choices we all make, even in regards to something as seemingly insignificant as what type of flooring to use, have an impact that spreads well beyond the confines of my, or anyone else's, personal domain. So while I may be stuck with rotting floorboards, my neighbors could be replacing theirs, and the choices they make in what type of flooring to use has an impact not only on their personal aesthetic surroundings, but on the world.

I speak to Lewis Buchner, CEO of San Rafael's EcoTimber, about his company's commitment to ensuring that its products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), that the glues are formaldehyde-free and that only zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) adhesives are used. There are a couple of significant issues to consider regarding building materials, one of which is the nontoxic issue (outgassing can continue for years, well beyond the time when the consumer has stopped noticing the stench), and the other, the responsibility for understanding where the materials are coming from and who, if anyone, is being hurt in the process. While putting in new flooring may be very satisfying on a personal level, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that 30 percent of hardwood products imported into the United States are from "suspicious or illegal" sources. Greenpeace reports that wood is being logged and exported illegally in Russia, Brazil and Indonesia, to sketch only a short list. Illegally harvested wood often results in deforestation, which, considering our current climate issues—not to mention the devastation of ecosystems across the globe—is something far more worthy of consideration than whether or not cherry or oak flooring will look better with the new couch.

The FSC is an international nonprofit organization working to ensure that forests are managed as ecosystems rather than as agricultural crops. Lewis tells me that much of the wood on the market today is grown through a process of clearcutting and chemical spraying, where the land is treated like an industrial corn field rather than a natural forest.

The woods used in EcoTimber are the result of a delicate balance where the land, the trees, the animals and the people who live there are respected and protected. This is a complex process that involves not just monitoring the harvesting of the wood, but tracking the "chain of custody" of the certified wood from the forest to the saw mill to the flooring mill, so that when the flooring finally arrives in the store, there is no question that what lies within the box is actually FSC-certified. With "greenwashing" on the rise, it is important to look beyond the claims made on boxes and brochures. To this end, Lewis travels around the world, searching for factories that can consistently maintain both FSC and EcoTimber standards. Ever the realist, I try not to lose sight of the single most pressing concern that stands between all Americans and their products: money. Recently, I painted my home with regular old house paint. I could have gone out of my way to buy VOC-free paint, and in the process respected not only myself and my family, but the people developing the paints and anyone who enters my house and breathes the air. But I didn't, because I didn't think I could afford it. With this in mind, I ask Lewis how much, exactly, this EcoTimber is going to set me back. One could argue that if you own your own home and can afford to put in new flooring, you can afford the monetary sacrifice. The reality is that we are a country consumed by the need for a better deal, even at the expense of ourselves, our children, our neighbors and the people we hire to do our work.

Lewis assures me that, due to increased demand for natural flooring, prices are becoming extremely competitive. More demand equals a mature market, which means more volume, more leverage and the availability of sustainable flooring that costs only zero to 10 percent more than the chemical-laden, forest-raping alternatives. Taken from the long-view vantage, few would argue that it's expensive being green.

For more information on EcoTimber and to find a dealer near you, go to www.ecotimber.com. For details on the Forest Stewardship Council, go to www.fsc.org.


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