Shaw Floors' Wall-to-Wall (and Cradle-to-Cradle) Success Story

Cradle to Cradle

Shaw Floors' Wall-to-Wall (and Cradle-to-Cradle) Success Story

If you're like me, you don't think much about carpets.

Except maybe when you spill on one.

But like so many everyday things that we take for granted, carpets have a story to tell, and it's becoming an intriguing sustainability story. Shaw Floors, the world's largest carpet manufacturer, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, recycled 121 million pounds of used carpet last year -- reclaiming it from homes or offices, breaking it down into caprolactam, a compound which is a building block of nylon, and then redeploying the nylon to make new carpet.

The carpet pictured above is branded as EcoWorx. It's a PVC-free, fully recyclable alternative to traditional carpet tile, designed from the get-go to be broken down and remanufactured into itself again and again. More than half of the carpet sold by Shaw is now certified as Cradle to Cradle, the protocol developed by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.

In Shaw's sustainability report, Buffett writes:

Companies today have to consider what kind of impact their decisions will have on both their businesses and the planet -- ten, twenty, thirty or forty years from now. And when in doubt, it's wise to err on the side of the planet.

Nice. Recently, I met with Paul Murray, Shaw's vice president of sustainability, and David Wilkerson, director of sustainability, to talk about Shaw. It's a big company -- revenues topped $4 billion last year and Shaw employs about 25,000 people, most in manufacturing jobs in the southeast, near its headquarters in Dalton, Ga., the world's carpet capital. Like its peers, Shaw is enduring hard times because its business is closely tied to the real estate industry; its sales have fallen from a peak of $5.8 billion in 2006.

Shaw has embraced green practices since the 1990s and got formally organized around sustainability about five years ago when Vance Bell became CEO. "A successful sustainability group within a corporation needs support from the top," Wilkerson said. Bell talks easily about the "triple bottom line" and notes that even during the downturn Shaw has invested in projects like Re2E (reclaim to energy), a plant that turns old carpet into fuel.

[Shaw's work has been overshadowed by the sustainability pioneer in the carpet industry, Ray Anderson of Interface, who died last summer. In case you missed it, here's Paul Hawken's eloquent tribute to Ray.]

Changing the way an industry operates is never easy. Traditional carpet is made from petrochemicals -- the surface is typically nylon, the backing is primarily polypropylene. When carpets wear out, most are sent to a landfill. In 2010, about 3.4 billion pounds of carpets were discarded and only about 338 million pounds were diverted or recycled, according to the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), an industry group. Partly that's a matter of habit, partly it's economics and partly it's because breaking carpet down into its component parts isn't simple. "It's more like unmaking a layer cake than melting down a bowl of Jello," Wilkerson said.

For recycling to grow, Shaw and the carpet industry need to both figure out how to recapture plenty of old carpet (assuring ample supply) and find uses for the material at costs that make economic sense (assuring ample demand). Shaw, its execs say, has been working the problem from both ends.

On the supply side, Shaw works with about 50 regional recyclers. A big obstacle for consumers is cost. According to the Carpet America Recovery Effort, "it will likely cost between 5 cents to 25 cents per pound of old carpet to recycle." (Carpet typically weighs about 4-5 pounds per square yard). Some people have no choice but to pay because their local landfills no longer accept carpet.

On the demand side, Shaw reopened its Evergreen Nylon Recycling plant in Augusta, Ga., in 2007. (It had acquired the facility, which had been shuttered for several years, in 2006.) The plant processes a popular type of nylon, known as Nylon 6, melting it down, and turning it into virgin-quality nylon. That's the best economic use for old carpet. Alternatively, post-consumer product can be turned into other plastic products, from chairs to auto parts. A third option is to make the carpet into fuel.

"The BTU content of this material is about 25 percent higher than coal, and it's about 35 percent cleaner in terms of emissions," Wilkerson said.

All of this is a work in progress, and the economics are shaky. Until the value of old carpet rises to the point where consumers are rewarded for recycling, most will probably throw it away. On the plus side, demand for the EcoWorx and a hardwood product called Epic, which is also Cradle-to-Cradle certified continues to grow. Commercial customers, influenced by LEED building standards, are increasingly demanding environmentally preferable product.

"If you don't have recycled content on the commercial side, you're at a competitive disadvantage," said Murray, who joined Shaw after leading sustainability efforts at furniture-maker Herman Miller.

The bottom line: Shaw can fairly claim the mantle of industry leader. "We reclaim and recycle more carpet than the rest of the industry combined." said Wilkerson. But there's lots of work still to do.

Photo courtesy of Shaw.