This week I was roaming around a rug and carpet showroom when the sales assistant asked me if I wanted to see their latest rug range which, he promised me, was the best at repelling stains. Intrigued as always I followed behind him as he grabbed a coffee off his desk. The little coffee gremlin in me started craving one too, damn it, I hope there is a decent cafe around here.
Over to the sample area he pulls out and lays on the floor a piece of rug, light coloured with a fairly high pile. Next minute he poured his coffee all over it. Without leaving any reminisce of the crime he was able to wipe up the spill. He urges me to touch the sample and I agree, it is incredibly soft. I sigh, unfortunately this isn’t magic, just a whole lot of chemicals working as a retardant.
When selecting rugs for our interior design projects our approach is the same as for carpet, avoid man made synthetic fabrics and look for non-toxic and sustainable rugs from ethical manufacturers. In today’s world our skin and airways are constantly absorbing toxins, so if we want our homes to be a sanctuary then it must start with selecting materials that will not contribute to this toxic load.
Why are non-toxic and sustainable rugs important?
Since the development of man made fibres, there has been a push towards synthetic and therefore toxic rugs as suppliers win consumers over with promises of stain resistant formulas and greater durability. These rugs are made from polyester, polypropylene, acrylic and nylon, essentially all chemically-derived plastic fibres. To make things worse, they are then dyed with chemical colorants, have chemical adhesives to attach the synthetic backing and then laden with (you guessed it) more chemicals to ensure they are water and fire retardant.
And this is what we let our children and our four legged friends lie on, touch and absorb … no thanks!
Natural fibre and hand knotted rugs conversely provide your home with a texturally warm and organic feel as no two pieces are the same. They are quite literally woven artworks that tell a story of the place and people who made them.
As wonderful as they are, purchasing a natural fibre rug comes with it’s own sustainability red flag. Sustainability is not just how our purchases affect the environment but how they impact the people making them too. Almost all of the rugs produced today come from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran where child labour is a result of the poverty cycle.
India is the largest producer and exporter of hand-made carpets in the world. A Harvard Study conducted in 2014 has shown that 20% of the industry consists of child labour, chronically poor conditions, laboriously long days and not having access basic education or medical facilities … the list goes on.
Like most of us, I knew child labour was an issue in most developing countries, though after reading this report I was truly astonished, shocked and saddened by just how bad the carpet industry was. To put it succinctly, the Harvard study stated;
“The working conditions faced by children in the carpet sector are among the worst faced by any of the workers”
If you have time, please read or glance over this article as I’m sure you would agree that no human should be subject to these conditions just so we can have a hand-made rug at a bargain price. Paying slightly more for an ethically sourced rug is a non negotiable and 100% worth the additional expense, after all this is something you should be investing in for life.
Don’t despair though it is possible to change this narrative by simply checking before you make your next purchase.
How to buy a non-toxic and sustainable rug
So what does a sustainable rug actually mean in a nutshell?
“For a rug to be truly sustainable it should be non-toxic and therefore not harmful to the environment as well as ethically made and therefore not harmful to the people making it”
To keep things simple below is a quick checklist to ensure you can easily tick all the sustainable boxes with your next purchase.
The best natural fibres to look out for:
- Untreated wool : wool rugs are soft underfoot and their fibre is naturally fire resistant so no flame retardant chemicals need be used. Wool rugs are also naturally stain resistant due to the light lanolin that coats the surface of the wool. They are hardwearing and even have the natural ability to inhibit the growth of dust mites. Please look out for Responsible Wool Standard and ZQ Merino Standard to make sure the animals are treated fairly.
- Organic cotton : Organic cotton growing requires more water than conventional farms, though conventional cotton growing uses a lot of chemicals. There are no Australian cotton farms that are organic though they do have some of the lowest rates of pesticides used in the world. Cotton rugs are soft, light and hypoallergenic and a more affordable option than wool though not as durable.
- Jute or Sisal : Jute and sisal fibres are both derived from plants and are the two most durable materials for natural rugs. They are biodegradable, naturally stain resistant and do not trap any dust mites or allergens. The large woven braids provide wonderful warmth and texture to any space.
I have only listed above a quick overview of the main natural fibres you would be choosing between. If you are interested in more detail then a great article to read is on Leaf Score’s website
The best fair trade alliances to look out for:
- Care & Fair : work with importers, retailers and carpet producers to fight illegal child labour and improve living conditions for carpet knotters and their families.
- GoodWeave : brings visibility to global supply chains, gives voice to marginalised workers, provides assurance that certified products are free of child labor, and restores childhood to vulnerable children so they can learn and play.
Our top 5 non-toxic and sustainable rug brands
Armadillo & Co : each rug is made from natural fibres such as jute, wool and linen and crafted using energy efficient processes. They have partnered with the International Living Future Institute, outlining exactly how their rugs are made, what they are made of and where they will go at the end of their life, giving the ultimate transparency to their manufacturing process.
Grounded Rugs : 100% pure natural rugs made of jute, cotton, silk and wool, these rugs are designed in Australia and handmade in India. Their quality control manager is based in India to ensure that the production and working conditions are of the highest standard.
West Elm : have responsibly made rugs at a more affordable price. Not all of the rugs available are sustainable so look out for the 100% natural fibre rugs with the fair trade stamp to ensure they have been produced in ethical conditions.
Pampa Rugs : if you love being in control of all aspects of design like we do, Pampa’s custom rug service allows you to choose your design, size and colour-way. Pampa rugs are made using 100% pure Argentinean sheep’s wool, are fairly traded and ethically hand woven in Argentina by artisan communities.
Beni’s Rugs : are made with traditional Moroccan techniques within original artisan communities. All rugs are made from 100% wool and if dyed then only using natural pigment. Each rug is unique and made by hand, so be patient.