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By, Amy Rush-Imber: The Green Mile: Don Finkell talks sustainability.
[Burns, Tenn.] Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM, has been a champion of sustainable practices, particularly in the hardwood category, long before it was commonplace in the floor covering industry. He was, in fact, honored with FCW’s GreenStep Pinnacle Environmental Leadership Award in the program’s debut year 2009.
Finkell was recognized for his work as the chairman of the National Wood Flooring Association’s (NWFA) Environment Committee where he lobbied for the passing of the Lacey Act and helped develop the Responsible Procurement Program. And while these were not conversations spoken of industry-wide, he had the sense that they were necessary.
“I thought there was an opportunity to sell environmentally-conscious wood flooring products,” he said, noting that he got involved in the FSC in the mid- 90s.
Back then, Finkell was involved in procuring product from around the world. “I was fascinated by all the wood species and their looks,” he said, adding, “There were some people out there sounding the alarm on what was going on in the tropics. I started thinking about what was going on in the industry.”
Taking it to the streets
Armed with new-found knowledge, Finkell created a presentation called Seeking Sustainability that charted what was going on around the world in key forests. “I showed it to environmental groups trying to get to something that we could all agree was correct. The Hardwood Federation’s mood was to keep environmental issues far away from us. It was a different kind of environment then but we came out of it, despite the antagonistic relationship with environmental groups. We have a good story here in the U.S., especially in comparison to other parts of the world,” Finkell explained.
He also met with the NWFA board. “I said that, at the very least, we need to be against illegal logging. Everyone agreed and they formed an environmental committee (for which he became chair),” Finkell said, adding that combating illegal logging was a key target because, “It was something we would regret as human kind if all these wonderful forests were just gone — some are already gone and will probably never be back. But it occurred to me too that our product is 60 percent to 70 percent the cost of wood and if people can buy it cheaper or steal it, we would have issues.”
“The Lacey act needs to be enforced. Most of the enforcement with the Lacey Act has been environmental groups worrying about certain species. They’ve been courageous but our government needs to help.” – Don Finkell
Finkell’s green journey took him to Capitol Hill and the ITC on a number of occasions — first to lobby for the Lacy Act and then later for parity. “It’s hard to know what’s happening on the other side of the world. Here in America, the anti-trust laws are such that companies are restricted and unable to collaborate much. In China, the industry is very collaborative and the government is active in setting strategy. I worry that we are fundamentally in a non-competitive situation.” But while he looks to level the playing field, it’s illegal logging that remains his biggest concern.
The many efforts, however, have resulted in progress. “I think the biggest thing in the U.S. is that with the Lacey Act, the U.S. took a leadership position on illegal logging and other major countries, including those in the E.U., have passed Lacey-type laws. In Japan and in Australia, too. Its created a worldwide effort to stop illegal logging and caused people to be aware of it.”
The other change Finkell has seen take hold is around the misconception of cutting trees down in general, even for himself. “When I first came into business, I thought cutting a tree was bad. Before I agreed to go to work at Anderson, I asked that question and went through a several months process going through forests. I came to the conclusion completely erroneous. The U.S. is in good position to grow back. I think one of the bigger achievements we’ve accomplished as an industry is that American hardwoods are recognized as a good environmental choice.”
“I think some of the things that FCW did at time of the Lacey Act gave it good press and had a hand in getting it passed. And the GreenStep Awards have created a whole movement.” – Don Finkell
Finkell also applauds the work being done by some of the industry’s biggest flooring providers. “Good things have happened — major companies like Shaw and Mohawk now do very rigorous due diligence around products that are coming in. It’s pretty extensive. For those that have a brand to protect, they are very diligent. You still have renegades but the big guys are really doing it right,” he said, adding, “I used to feel like the lone guy out there crying wolf. But now there are detail-oriented people out there with check lists. It’s taken on a life of its own, and that’s a very good thing.”
In 2014, Don Finkell launched a new hardwood flooring provider, American OEM, shaped in part by his experiences and understanding of the global hardwood market.
“I wanted to have an American alternative to private labeling products (from other countries). America used to lead in style and design but the Chinese kind of got ahead. We would be 100 percent American sourced, American wood and American made. And we would be innovative with longer, wider boards that weren’t already being met by American made.”