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Biomimicry & Our Industry

Elizabeth Baldwin

I was reading the latest Reader's Digest and was just struck strongly by an article on biomimicry. I was fascinated by the examples given-I strongly recommend that everyone reads it to find out how one company is using a trick from spider webs to stop birds from hitting windows or to see what lotus leaves have to do with ketchup bottles, or how cats' paws influenced tires … there is clearly a lot to learn from nature.

I looked up the company referenced in the article-more examples are offered on their website. They say they have a database of over 2,100 technological innovations and ideas inspired by nature. It is very inspirational.

It made me think about how some of our wood flooring products mimic nature and how that often will be the greener choice. We all know that a rustic product is more "green" (generally) then a clear one, as it allows more use of the whole board, less waste. It's reflecting nature, what nature has provided-it's not exactly mimicry, it's reality-but I think the concept is similar. I would say that true thermo treatment, the cooking of wood at very high temperatures, is definitely biomimicry. It basically replicates the rapid aging of wood. Beyond the color change most people associate with this process, it makes the wood more stable, just like older, well-seasoned wood is.

The hardwood industry faces a lot of competition from products mimicking nature in the form of laminates and LVT. I remember when laminates were laughed at-but now the visuals can be absolutely amazing and the quality and performance equally so. It's no longer the cheap embarrassing cousin you're ashamed to admit you handle-it's a high-quality, high-tech product. As for LVT, well, to paraphrase the old car commercial, "This is not your grandfather's linoleum."

Finding the right product for the best long-term performance is one of the greenest things we can do. I may get in trouble by saying that I think modern laminates and LVT have a definite place in our industry and there are some places where they are definitely a better choice than a solid or an engineered wood floor. We need to recognize that. But how did they get there? First, by improving the production quality significantly so there is a solid performance feature and then through improving their visual and even textual mimicry of real wood to the point where you sometimes can't tell the difference on the first look.

Clearly people want the natural look. Sometimes they get it through a "non-natural" product, perhaps, but what they want is the look of nature. Interestingly enough, a recent ruling in Georgia reaffirmed that you can't copyright (the look of) mother nature. The ruling was in regards to laminate visuals, but I expect it to have an impact on LVT as well. You might be able to copyright a process used to attain a look or a function but you can't say "I own this grain pattern."

The wood industry needs to always define our value, improve our technology, and clarify our green nature, or other products will overtake us in the marketplace. There are times when a good mimic is what you need, but there are also moments when only the real thing will do. We all have strong selling points, and I think there should be a home for all of us-hardwood (both solid and engineered), laminates and LVT out there.  

After all, anything but carpet, right?   (That was a joke, carpet people, please don't hurt me!)

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