By Sarah Bousquet
Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) has literally been gaining ground as one of the fastest-growing flooring categories of the past five years. On the commercial side, LVT saw a 13.5% increase in square footage just from 2014 to 2015 — 257 million to 297.2 million. In dollars, that’s a 12.7% increase, rising from $511.25 million in 2014 to $576.4 million last year.
While vinyl interest among the A&D community has not always been so prominent, one company’s foresight into the product’s potential has. Novalis Innovative Flooring was founded in 1984 by Dr. Z. L. Wu with the dream of making an al laround “better” flooring solution. Abiding by that mission, the company built the first LVT manufacturing facility in China in 1987, was the first Chinese factory to achieve ISO 9001 certification for quality assurance in 1988, and was one of the first LVT mills in the country to attain ISO 14001 — reaching international environmental management levels and ensuring the application of all green business requirements during the production process.
Thirty-two years later, John Wu, CEO, continues in his father’s footsteps, leading the now global company — with offices and distribution partners in North America, Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa — toward a healthier floor covering and future. Green Operations sat down with John Wu to discuss Novalis’ commitment to the environment, category innovation and future plans.
Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR FATHER AND HIS INITIAL CONCEPT IN FOUNDING NOVALIS. WHAT WAS HE LOOKING TO SOLVE WITH A ‘HEALTHY’ FLOOR, AND HOW DID HE ACHIEVE THAT?
A: It wasn’t so much that it was a large vision when my father started the company, but at that time vinyl flooring was mostly being manufactured in other countries for the DIY home center markets. He saw an opportunity to make vinyl more cost effective in China and put out a better product. China is interesting. A lot of people think we produce cheap stuff and that we don’t think about sustainability. But we are actually moving forward quite rapidly. Yes, Novalis was and still is a pioneer in China in this area, but today there are actually government initiatives for green building that all companies need to meet. We like to stay ahead of the curve.
Q: HOW HAS THE COMPANY’S FOCUS IN SUSTAINABILITY AND WELLNESS EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
A: I always talk about green in two aspects: product (is it healthy and safe for end users) and manufacturing (facility’s carbon footprint, waste to landfill, etc.). I joined the company 15 years ago with my sister when my father was going to retire. Since that time, we have taken a much more sustainable approach to both and continue improving each year. Back in the day there was a lot of post-industrial waste no one knew how to use. Making LVT was a way to use it. Of course, the product has changed over the years, and as we’ve learned new chemistry and information we realize it’s best to use raw materials unless you know exactly what’s in the product stream. Today, we are very transparent with our product materials, and in 2014 we phased out all phthalates from our products.
On the manufacturing side, we now have a closed-loop system, where no product waste goes into the landfill. We also use only natural gas — wind and solar power are not popular in China yet — and have a steam reclamation center within our facility to heat the workshop. We have a 100% water recycling system, and no gray water goes back into streams.
Q: TALK MORE ABOUT YOUR STANCE ON TRANSPARENCY AND WHAT ACTIONS NOVALIS HAS TAKEN TO BE MORE CANDID.
A: Novalis really decided to become a leader in transparency in the past few years. To us it’s all about knowing what’s in our product, sharing that with people and working to make our products healthier every day. We currently have HPD, EPD and Declare labels, even though we do use PVC in our products which is a Red List material. At some point our vision is to replace PVC in our LVT, but for now it is the most versatile and cost-efficient solution for us, and LVT can be recycled. We want to share that with our consumers and partners. To us, nothing is a secret. Everything is knowledge, and we all need to know where we are today so we can get better tomorrow.
Q: YOU’RE IN THE PROCESS OF REWRITING YOUR SUSTAINABILITY STORY. WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE, AND WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN THE COMING YEAR?
A: One of our goals is to add more biocontent to our products — replace chemicals with more renewable materials. For example, we have a patent now to add cork to our product, which will make it lighter, easier to transport and improve acoustic ratings. It’s also softer and safer underfoot and has a natural resilience, which makes it great for the healthcare and education segments. We are also working on an initiative to find the best reclamation system for LVT, especially when a lot of today’s LVT is being installed as floating floors. We know we are going to start seeing a lot of product removed in the next five years, and we need to find a way to take back these floors. We’re even talking to friendly competitors to try and follow the carpet industry in finding a system to take back each other’s products.
Q: WHAT ARE THREE THINGS THE COMMERCIAL A&D COMMUNITY SHOULD KNOW ABOUT NOVALIS?
A: We don’t want people to think “made in China” versus “made in U.S.” when they hear Novalis. It’s important to think of us as a flooring company that just happens to have a factory in China. We will likely have a U.S. facility in the next few years, but for now it’s where we can make the most efficient product. Novalis is also not a new LVT company, but we are one of the only LVT manufacturers in China that brands its own product globally. We are not an importer, but an actual manufacturer so we better feel the needs of the market and can adjust more quickly.