What you see before you is not a luscious field but an eco-friendly carpet. And judging by the way the industry is heading, very soon all your flooring could be as green as grass.

Given the punishment they receive and the size of areas they cover, the choice of flooring in a building can have a significant impact on its ecological footprint. Estimates put the amount of embodied carbon from floor finishes in the region of 1-3% of the building’s total.

Carpet is still king in the commercial sector, but putting an ecological price on flooring, like any material, is difficult. So what should specifiers consider? Martin Rose, an architect with Sheppard Robson, says it’s not just the material of the product that needs to be thought about, although this is important. The methods the manufacturer employs in its factories, the energy used in the production and transportation processes and the expected lifecycle of the product are all questions that should be asked of the suppliers.

Despite declarations made by manufacturers about their products, there is no consistent means of expressing the information. Work is under way to change this. BRE’s environmental rating system, the Green Guide, looks at the cradle-to-grave environmental performance of products, and gives them an “eco points” rating based on 13 categories over a 60-year period. These stretch from consumption of minerals and water, through to maintenance and replacement.

The system is being updated to address the need for environmental performance information and align it to the European Construction Products Directive and ISO, CEN, BREEAM and EcoHomes ratings.

Andrew Frost, principal consultant with the BREEAM materials group, says products will be divided into generic types and given an eco point rating that will rank them in a band from A+ to E. Manufacturers can then apply for a certified profile of their product, which gives a breakdown of its performance that resembles the nutritional information printed on the packaging of processed foods.

The update will also bring the system in line with the Code for Sustainable Homes. Rose of Sheppard Robson, which designed the first house to meet level six of the code, says this scheme is sorely needed to differentiate products. Its “Lighthouse” eco home on BRE’s Garston site used timber flooring on the first floor, rather than carpet. “The things we looked for were sustainably harvested, Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber, that was as locally sourced as possible – I think the issue of local sourcing is going to become a bigger factor as time goes on,” he says.

The other main material used was 4mm natural rubber flooring, supplied by Dalsouple. Part of the reason for its specification was the “eco backing” – a 2mm layer made from recycled material. The murky colours are hidden by the consistently coloured top layer. “It’s little hits like this we are looking for,” says Rose.

Outside of the Green Guide, there are simple measures such as waste that need to be considered. There is a growing trend in the office market of not putting in any floor coverings before the tenants are signed up, says Rose. “Tenants usually want something specific and it invariably gets ripped out when it’s brand new, so we’re holding off until you can determine a useful lifespan for it. In commercial spaces it can be thousands of square metres, which has a much bigger impact than the specification of the product itself.”

There is also the issue of broad loom versus carpet tiles. Replacing a section of tiles that have become worn or damaged is relatively straightforward compared with trying to splice in a new section of carpet.

Tenants usually want something specific and rip brand new carpet out. In commercial spaces it can be thousands of square metres

Martin Rose, architect with Sheppard Robson

Figures for waste while fitting broadloom can be up to 13% while a normal (monolithic) tile installation is about 4%. Eddie Bingham, UK engineering director of Interface Flor, says his company has developed a “random” tile range that can bring the waste down to less than 1%.

While most tiles try to mimic the look of a broadloom carpet, this means cutting and placing them by hand, so the pile runs in the same direction. “This creates waste, particularly around the edges if a full tile isn’t needed. With the random approach, the direction doesn’t matter so you can use offcuts and reduce waste.”

Recycling is also offered by many manufacturers, but this isn’t always straightforward. Routinely, they will re-use process trimmings from manufacturing. Carpet maker Burmatex feeds 90% of the waste from tile manufacturing into the backing material, saving the amount of natural limestone filler required. Waste from the roll carpet is re-used for equestrian riding school surfaces. Onsite trimmings can also be re-used, provided they are clean and free from adhesive.

The difficulty is with used carpet. “One option is to clean them up and pass them on for re-use elsewhere,” says Walter Duncan of Burmatex. “The other is to use them for something else.” There isn’t a scheme for recycling old carpets ripped out of existing buildings. Part of the problem is the logistics of going from site to site. “But the biggest barrier is that you don’t know what dirt has gone into the carpet. There could be heavy metals or arsenic in there and unless you analyse it you won’t know.” Burmatex is looking at other ways to reuse it, such as the manufacture of curbstones.

Other companies offer schemes such as Interface Flor’s Evergreen carpet leasing system. Here, customers can pay a monthly charge to the company for the supply, installation, maintenance and replacement of the carpet. This extends the overall life of the installation and ensures that at the end of the product’s useful life it can be recycled or put to a new purpose.

There are also advances in the materials being used. Nora Flooring Systems has just launched a range of rubber safety flooring that uses natural minerals and rubbers in place of PVC. The company says it is a breakthrough that was two years in the making. Otto Fritz, its managing director, says this fulfils all technical requirements of rubber safety flooring, uses virtually identical installation techniques and is comparable in price with similar products.

Carpet maker Interface is also working on developing carpet fibres made from renewable sources. One possibility is fibre made from polylactic acid, derived from non-food grade corn and other starch rich plant material and waste products. These have similar properties to polyester and can be used for commercial fabrics, textile backings and carpet applications.

If these innovations prove successful, perhaps carpet’s ecological footprint will no longer leave such a nasty mark.