What’s our sustainability story? ‘Waste wood made good’
November 7, 2019 | 3:18 pm CST

It’s time we told the truth about composite wood decorative panels.

If you make products from composite wood panels, we have to talk. 
We – North America’s producers of particleboard, MDF and decorative TFL panels – have a confession to make. There are some things we haven’t been telling you, about who we really are and what we actually do. 
So, in the spirit of “radical transparency,” we’re ready to come clean. No more secrets.
 A particleboard sculpture at the Milan furniture fair by designer Lorenzo Damiani: “Using resources and materials responsibly, striving to give dignity to materials normally perceived as worthless. Proposing alternative uses of existing materials: this is the challenge of today, and above all, tomorrow.  This is why I chose to use particleboard in a different way. In the future, the distinction between valuable and less valuable materials will disappear, because they will ALL be valuable. Why not get ready now?”  Photo: Kenn Busch
We are, literally, the core of today’s furniture materials. It’s safe to say that you’ll find particleboard or MDF in every single building and furniture line produced in the last 50 years. And TFL? I’d say that’s utilized in damn near 100 percent of these projects as well. 
We’re pretty good at what we do. Moisture- or fire-resistant panels? Lighter weight? Better hardware holding strength? Extreme surface durability? Ultra-low formaldehyde? No problem. 
And now, with the advent of gorgeous TFL patterns and stunningly realistic textures, we’ve found ourselves not just selling fashion, but actually leading design in the laminates category. 
And yet we still haven’t mastered the art of telling our own value story. Somewhere in the distribution chain all our positives get lost, and our materials are reduced to being marketed mostly on price. 
That’s completely on us. Other material categories loved by designers and architects have cracked this code by proactively creating positive stories about their products, usually focused on sustainability. These stories are crafted to resonate with designers’ personal values so deeply that they want to share them – to sell them – to their clients. Which is brilliant, because designers don’t buy anything until they’ve already sold them to the project owners. 
We have the best materials story in the world. We just aren’t telling it.  

Wakeup calls

As someone who educates A&D specifiers and students about materials for commercial design, I spend a lot of time both with producers and specifiers of composite wood decorative panels. I am constantly confronted with our challenges from both ends of the spectrum, framed here by these four observations: 
1. At this fall’s Composite Panel Association meeting the keynote speaker, a major materials distributor in the Southeast, made two important points:  
“Green products are not selling in our area, because people associate ‘green’ with higher costs.” And, “I need more content from my suppliers for our social media efforts. Educational content for A&D specifiers would also be great to have.”
2. A major closet systems producer approached me after my presentation at this year’s Executive Briefing Conference – “Design Trends and Green Messaging for Architects and Interior Design Specifiers” – and asked for help training his sales staff: “They don’t know how to respond when asked, ‘What’s sustainable about your TFL products, versus solid wood or plywood from your competitor?’”
3. A&D specifiers are always striving to engineer projects to be as sustainable as possible. While LEED certification isn’t necessarily always the goal, specifiers do want to be able to tell a positive sustainability story about the materials used in the project.  
4. Any industry or company hoping to win over Millennial and Generation Z designers and consumers must start the conversation by answering the question, “How is your product helping to save the world?” If they can’t answer that, the conversation is effectively over. 

Easy answers

Here’s a bare-bones version of the materials story that needs to be told by everyone who makes, sells and uses composite wood decorative panels:  
  • Composite wood panels begin life as a recycled product. When trees are harvested for lumber and flooring, half of that wood fiber is left on the forest floor. We use over 99 percent of that leftover fiber in our panels. The tiny bit still left over becomes fuel for heating our plants and kilns.
  • These panels are naturally “climate positive.” Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Half of the chemical makeup of wood is stored carbon, which isn’t released until it decomposes or burns. Composite wood panels store more carbon than is released in its production. This is the definition of climate positive.
  • Decorative composite wood panels outlast solid wood in tough applications. The longer our materials are in use, the longer that carbon is stored, or “sequestered.” And we’re not wasting energy making and installing replacements. 
  • We help maintain healthy forest ecosystems. North America’s lumber-producing snow forests are designed by nature to regrow after being decimated by fire or insects every 40 years or so. Well-intentioned humans have interrupted these cycles to protect property. Modern FSC forest management restores these cycles by harvesting plots of older trees before they lose their ability to absorb carbon and produce oxygen. The resulting open meadows are perfect for the next generation of young, healthy trees.  
  • Decorative surfaces save rare and fragile hardwoods. We’re not saying never use solid wood or veneers. Just don’t use them in high-use settings where they’ll quickly fail. Like elevator cabs.  
  • Our panels release less formaldehyde than natural wood, or a bowl of fruit. Formaldehyde is an organic compound, produced and released by every living thing. CARB II limits are the most stringent in the world. Our panels literally emit less formaldehyde than you would encounter walking through a forest. 
We’re just barely scratching the surface here. Expect to see more detail in these pages throughout 2020. And be ready for a major messaging initiative targeting commercial interior designers, and consumers.
This is what we want you to know: Designing and building with composite wood decorative panels truly makes the world a better place. We are waste wood made good. We are climate positive now. 
Material Intelligence Founder Kenn Busch creates certified educational content on materials for architects and interior designers. He also covers the major materials and design fairs in Europe for the A&D and manufacturing communities and organizes the TCM North America Decorative Surfaces Conference. MaterialIntelligence.com

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user kennbusch
About the author
Kenn Busch

Material Intelligence organizes educational material exhibits like the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon, creates certified educational content on materials for architects and interior designers, and collaborates with design educators and students to nurture new thinking about materials and materiality. Founder Kenn Busch also covers the major materials and design fairs in Europe for the A&D and manufacturing communities, and organizes the TCM North America Decorative Surfaces Conference. www.MaterialIntelligence.com