Transforming Green Marketing: Forbo Flooring Systems

Bill Walsh | May 15, 2008 | Optimizing Recycling

Forbo No VCT

from Forbo Sustain brochure

"How do you know that Plasticized PVC isn't tomorrow's Asbestos?" Clearly the answer is you don't. -- Forbo Flooring Systems Sustain Brochure 2008

The following is the second in a series of articles profiling true transformations in the building materials market. If you know of a transformative change, please let us know about it.

Many manufacturers contacted us to tout their products when we last invited examples of true transformations in the building materials market. Forbo Flooring Systems was not among them. We called Forbo to ask for a copy of their new Sustain brochure after we got a tip from friend who thought this was what we were looking for. It was.

Forbo's Sustain brochure meets our definition of transformation[1] and signals what we hope will be the future, a "complete change," in green marketing. All of the italicized statements that follow are quoted directly from Sustain, which distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill green marketing in three ways.

First, Forbo frankly admits that trade associations have been a negative influence on the confusing, "complex landscape" of eco-labels and certifications we described in The Label Game. "Another level of complexity is created by Trade Organizations," says Forbo. "Trade Organizations, by definition, need to cater to their entire membership, and, as a result, will defer to the lowest common denominator, rather than rewarding leadership activities with distinction. They clearly fulfill their responsibility in contributions toward safety and standardization within product categories, but when forward leading momentum is required, it is a built-in conflict of interest." [2]

To appreciate the significance of this critique, consider that certification programs for green building materials are increasingly dominated by trade association-led efforts, such as GreenLabel, FloorScore, NSF 140, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Forbo also candidly discusses how green marketing claims often exaggerate the significance of LEED® materials credits: "Many manufacturers think that listing the LEED® credits that they feel their product contributes to, or in some cases, want you to think they contribute to, is enough."[3] To which we would add that, all too often, manufacturers imply that qualifying for LEED® credits amounts to a blanket "green" certification of their product. The fact that a vinyl product might qualify for the regional manufacturing credit in LEED® does nothing to mitigate the fact that environmental damage is being done there. Indeed, there are almost no LEED® credits restricting the use of hazardous materials, and trade associations are attacking modest efforts to address some of the worst hazards.[4] As Forbo notes: "LEED® does not provide clarity on specific product selection."[5]

To provide transparency for its own green claims for Marmoleum Composition Tile (MCT), Forbo discusses each primary ingredient, provides a 3rd party peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis of the product, and reports its underlying scores in each category of the SMART Building Product Standard Scorecard. They then go even farther in their Annual Health Safety & Environment Report, addressing employee health and safety, and reporting reversals, lessons learned as well as progress and accomplishments.

Perhaps the single most transformative aspect of Sustain, however, is Forbo's acknowledgement that its own PVC flooring products, also known as vinyl, do not have a future in a truly sustainable building industry as "the true environmental and health concerns about plasticized-PVC continue to penetrate the market."[6] Invoking the health concerns about asbestos-based flooring that led the phase-out of vinyl asbestos tile (VAT), Forbo declares: "It is now time for the market to make a major shift again. For similar environmental and health reasons, it is time to move away from a high chemical usage for cleaning and maintenance, plasticized PVC-based product."[7] Bravo!

Forbo timelag table

from Forbo Sustain brochure

Sustain is not perfect. It sometimes claims broad credit for changes that were driven by law, nor is it 100% transparent.[8] We disagree with the assertion that PVC may not always be the most detrimental plastic floor in some cases.

But in combination with their Annual Health Safety & Environment Report, Forbo has accomplished a real transformation in the dialogue between manufacturers and customers, setting a higher standard, and creating greater expectations of companies seeking to be leaders in the green building movement.


[1] trans • for • ma • tion n. 1. A complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness. This definition is quoted from Microsoft Word dictionary (Word 204 for Mac, Version 11.3.5). Other dictionaries describe the degree of change variously as "marked," "thorough," or "dramatic."

[2] Forbo Flooring Systems, Sustain brochure, 2008, p.8

[3] Ibid., p.7

[4] See, e.g., Vinyl Institute, "VI Response to LEED for Healthcare Rating System". [link no longer available]

[5] Forbo, p.6

[6] Ibid., p.17

[7] Ibid., p.17

[8] The replacement of ozone depleting Freon-based cooling systems is a positive step, true, but one that is driven by international law more than a corporate sustainability plan, and it comes at nearer the end of the compliance period than the beginning. And while the brochure transparently identifies North American partners in flax production and composting, Forbo quotes the company's jute supplier, presumably in the developing world, but leaves the enterprise unnamed citing business confidentiality.