Lumber Liquidators, one of the largest and fastest growing retailers of hardwood and laminate flooring in North America, announced this week that it is suspending all of its China sourced laminate flooring products. The announcement comes after the 60 Minutes investigative news television program turned a public light on suspected high levels of formaldehyde from certain China based flooring offered by this retailer.  In our prior Supply Chain Matters commentary related to this incident, we expressed little doubt that the situation would continue to reverberate among business headlines, and so it has.

In its latest announcement, the retailer indicates:

Based on the review to date, it appears that the Company’s Chinese laminate flooring suppliers have sold product to the Company that the suppliers have certified and labeled as compliant with California formaldehyde standards. However, the Company is further reviewing the underlying certification and labeling processes and practices of its suppliers.”

The retailer further indicates that a Special Committee composed of independent directors, with the assistance of third party advisors, has been conducting an ongoing review of allegations regarding laminate flooring sourced from China. That body has now engaged a former FBI director and his firm to review the retailer’s product sourcing practices and to serve as an independent compliance advisor.

Since the March disclosure by the 60 Minutes program, Lumber Liquidators began voluntarily offering free indoor air quality screening to certain of its flooring customers, predominately those who had purchased laminate flooring sourced from China. Home air test kits were selected as a quick means to measure the total level of formaldehyde in indoor air from all sources, not just from the flooring.  This week’s release further indicates:

From early March through May 1, 2015, BHC sent approximately 26,000 testing kits to nearly 15,000 Lumber Liquidators customers and approximately 11,000 of those testing kits were returned.  As of May 1, 2015, over 3,400 testing kits from approximately 2,600 households with laminate flooring sourced from China had been reviewed and analyzed. Of those households, over 97% had indicated indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde that were within the guidelines set by the World Health Organization as protective against sensory irritation and long-term health effects.”

Lumber Liquidator’s swift actions and response are laudable, but as a supply chain and procurement community we all know, consumers will undoubtedly have their own impressions regarding the safety of flooring sourced from China.  Thus, the action to temporarily suspend all sourcing of China based supply, pending a total independent review, makes practical and timely business sense.

To reiterate, beyond the Wall Street, shareholder and legal messiness, this incident is yet another example of the needs for transparency across the global supply chain, particularly when an individual country’s or state’s product safety standards are cited. As business media such as The Wall Street Journal is now reporting, there is no recognized national U.S. standard for indoor formaldehyde concentrations and global wide standards vary among agencies. Interpretation of standards can tend to take on a different lens from different suppliers and thus the need for vigilant and consistent supplier monitoring and risk awareness.

Bob Ferrari