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Handmade rugs are beautiful to look at—but they are hard labor to make. There's been widespread criticism of child labor and forced work involved in some of the most ornate textiles. Many fear that there's no way to know the ethics behind their favored flooring. So, how can the discerning consumer support the brands that are all good and ditch the ones that aren't? Consider these four things when buying your next floor covering.
Consider the source
While some antique and vintage rugs might be hard to trace, contemporary fair-trade and ethically made tapestries have a direct line to the loom. This means that your favorite carpet should bear a declaration of origin beyond the word of mouth of the vendor. Look for a connection to the factories and artisans who actually make the work. Bolé Road and Citizenry are New York-based design studios that principally sell through online stores; both have an artisan statement that explains not just where the artisans live but also the company’s payment philosophy.
The leadership team of the small batch rug company Loom+Field advises responsible consumers to buy from a company “that doesn't only look out for maximum profitability but that shares its profit to develop and protect its partners, producers and the environment. It is a company that reinvests in order to respond to a social or environmental problem. In our case, we are a small business that knows its entire supply chain, meaning all the different people that work with us and the products they use for manufacturing.” Knowing the source is a key differentiator that ensures ethical checks and balances in the industry. If you can’t figure out the source while browsing in store or online, be cautious about making that purchase.
Consider the price
Along with the sourcing philosophy, buyers should beware of steep discounts that price a handmade carpet at next to nothing. The industry is known for forced and child labor, which makes rock bottom prices possible. A 2014 study from Harvard explained how the centuries-old craft came to be synonymous with human trafficking, bonded labor, and harsh conditions in make-shift factories in India. Highly coveted carpets are hand knotted and tightly woven, a premise that favors child labor. Since the release of the study, many countries have recognized the problem and implemented bans; suppliers and importers have too, but the problem still persists. Look for rugs with the Good Weave certification if you’re buying from big box stores and major carriers. Otherwise, consider the stated price and compare it against known ethical brands. If the prices aren’t remotely close for the size, materials, and detail, your carpet might be too good to be true (unless you're shopping vintage, which can be a great way to score—fair—deals).
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Consider the materials
Synthetic dyes can be harmful to humans. The runoff can create waste that taints water sources near factories and origin communities. And, it is best that users—especially babies and children —not lay on rugs made with heavy metals. You’ll want to look for natural dyes and fibers. Yes, this means that those bright colors should fade with use and time. While this might sound like a bummer, it is seen as proof that the rug was made with plant-based and natural materials, which are significantly less harmful for people and pets. If you’re worried about durability, choose natural fibers like wool, cotton, and jute. To keep your rug pristine, be sure to use a natural cleaning process to lift dirt and stains without damaging the sensitive fabrics they are made of.
Consider the packaging & care
“Green” goes beyond the product itself. The term considers everything from the sustainability of the materials to the carbon-footprint of the shipping process. This kind of thinking assesses the life cycle of an item, and asks consumers to think through the entire supply chain. Hence, consumers should throw their buying power behind locally-made, plastic-free, and chemical-free products. This combo is the gold standard. If you already have a woven rug and aren’t in the market to replace it, then consider the ways that your carpet-care can do no harm. Don’t use chemical deodorizers or harsh cleansers. Instead, try DIY mixes based in vinegar and baking soda. For ready-made mixes, verify key ingredients on the Environmental Working Group’s app or website to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals. And if you need to call in a pro, try an eco-friendly or organic cleaning service to get the job done.
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Nafeesah Allen is an independent researcher with an interest in literature, gender, and diaspora studies in the global South. In 2019, she completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. She leads BlackHistoryBookshelf.com, a book review website that highlights global Black histories organized by language, theme, and country. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @theblaxpat.
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