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Expert Advice: How to Track Down Ethically Made, Eco-Friendly Rugs: 12 Tips

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Expert Advice: How to Track Down Ethically Made, Eco-Friendly Rugs: 12 Tips

January 6, 2023

Where to begin when searching for eco-friendly, ethically-made household rugs: floor coverings that are beautiful, durable, made of renewable materials, and aboveboard in every way? For advice we turned to Catherine Connolly, CEO of Merida, a company specializing in natural fiber, zero-synthetic rugs that is helping to revive the weaving industry in the old Massachusetts mill town of Fall River. Some of Merida’s designs are also made in India by workshops that are Goodweave-certified, ensuring that weavers are fairly paid and that materials are of the best quality. And all have received Green Product Assurance (GPA), intensive third-party testing for quality and safety.

Here are Catherine’s answers to our many questions.

made in massachusetts, merida&#8\2\17;s jacquard woven heywood natural area 9
Above: Made in Massachusetts, Merida’s jacquard-woven Heywood Natural area rug is composed of 91 percent undyed wool and 9 percent felted wool.

What are the essentials to know when browsing for rugs?

For anyone committed to low-impact living, there are three factors to consider when assessing a rug: 1. The impact to the environment 2. The impact on human health and well-being. 3. The impact on the people who made it. A rug made from natural materials that are sustainably sourced is a good choice for the planet and for respiratory health.

What are some rug materials that are notably eco friendly?

Look for rugs that are woven from rapidly renewable natural materials: the ideal are eco-friendly natural fibers that look and feel like the original source, such as wool, mohair, alpaca, or sustainably sourced plant fibers like linen, sisal, jute, and abaca.  A shocking 90 percent of rugs on the market today are made of nylon or polypropolene (PP). Even many so-called “natural” rugs are blends containing a high percentage of synthetics, which become harmful as they break down and are released into the atmosphere over time—like many paints, offending rugs have high levels of VOC emissions. If you can’t trace the provenance of all the materials in the rug, you don’t really know what you’re bringing home.

berlin based dutch designer hella jongerius&#8\2\17;s argali rug for mahara 10
Above: Berlin-based Dutch designer Hella Jongerius’s Argali rug for Maharam is handwoven by Nepalese weavers from argali, the wool of Himalayan wild mountain sheep, and detailed with silk-wrapped fringe. It’s available in six colorways (natural brown shown here; black, available from DWR, is shown in the featured image above) and comes with an environmental data sheet. Maharam offers a range of rug pads made of recycled materials, including one a Wool Rug Pad of 100 percent recycled wool.

Materials to steer clear of?

Nylon, plastics, and other synthetic fibers have a damaging impact on the environment in terms of the resources they extract and how they’re processed. Synthetic rugs are generally less expensive, but the price we pay in terms of impact to the environment and respiratory health is incalculable. In addition, all synthetic yarns have to be treated with toxic fire retardants because petroleum is highly flammable. Natural fibers are naturally fire resistant, so they don’t require chemical treatments that have been shown to be detrimental to human and environmental health.

What are some details to look for?

Look for the tightness of the construction, the natural sheen of the yarns, and the integrity of the backing. The best answer to low-impact living is to buy high-quality products that are naturally durable and will delight you for years to come: buy once and buy well.

armadillo’s umbra rug is from its ellipse collection, designed in c 11
Above: Armadillo’s Umbra rug is from its Ellipse collection, designed in collaboration with another eco-conscious company, Louisa Grey’s London design studio, House of Grey. It’s custom made of undyed Afghan wool and can be ordered as a wall hanging or rug. For more of Louisa Grey’s work, see Orchestrating Calm and Quiet: A Multi-Sensory London Apartment.

Which natural materials are hardwearing and which ones are short-lived (even if biodegradable)?

Natural yarns are inherently durable. Wool and silk are virtually indestructible, and naturally stain resistant. Antique rugs woven from wool and silk have lasted for centuries. Plant fibers like sisal and jute are also very durable but shorter-lived than animal fibers; a well-made sisal rug will peak after a decade or so, whereas a high-quality wool rug should last for generations. The construction of a rug and how the yarns are spun also impacts performance: the tighter the construction, the more durable the rug. All of these factors should be taken into consideration when choosing which rug is best for high-traffic areas versus going barefoot in the bedroom.

What’s an okay underside?

If there’s a backing, it should be made of eco-friendly latex and glue. Many mass-market backings contain toxic chemicals: check with the manufacturer for a list of materials. We also always recommend a rug pad for the longevity and care of the rug as well as for safety to keep people from slipping if it’s an area rug.  We use natural latex rug pads that we cut to match our rugs.

checkerboard, a collaboration between uk rug workshop vanderhurd and design gal 12
Above: Checkerboard, a collaboration between UK rug workshop Vanderhurd and design gallery 8 Holland Street, is a handwoven flat-weave dhurrie made of 100 percent hemp. Photograph by Oskar Proctor.

Is it possible to know if the rug makers were fairly treated and paid for their work?

If the rug was made in a country where labor regulation is not consistently enforced—India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, for instance—look for third-party verified certifications, such as GoodWeave, SA 8000, and RugMark, that set guardrails against child labor and advocate for safe working conditions and fair wages. When sizing up a rug, it’s important to consider the hands that made it.

Any other certifications to look for?

Green Product Assurance is another good one—they test every component involved in the rug making process and screen all for toxic chemicals. It’s a big, ongoing commitment for a company to earn GPA certification—other programs are less rigorous (and less expensive).

Are all-wool, naturally dyed rugs compostable?

If the dyes used are mostly organic, with just trace amounts of chemicals, an all-wool rug is compostable, as long as it’s shredded or cut into small pieces. Otherwise even a biodegradable rug takes decades to decompose in nature.

merida&#8\2\17;s heywood parchment rug is a jacquard weave of 93 percent th 13
Above: Merida’s Heywood Parchment rug is a jacquard weave of 93 percent thin felted wool and 7 percent crimped wool. Read about the company’s Paris-based art director Sylvie Johnson and her process in our post Made in Massachusetts: The Merida Collection of Modern Natural Fiber Rugs.

How common is it to find naturally dyed rugs?

It’s extremely rare to find rugs with natural, all-organic dyes. Most rugs on the market are colored with chemical dyes thanks to their reliability, consistency, and accessibility. And that applies even to rugs made by small producers in remote areas. We partner with a dyer who specializes in organic dyes that contain only trace amounts of chemicals, not enough to even register in third-party testing.

Do certain rugs help regulate temperature and acoustics?

I’m sure all rugs help with sound absorption, but wool is known to be the absolute best and the thicker the pile the better. When it comes to temperature control—keeping rooms warm in winter and cool in summer—wool is also known to be the best, not only for insulation but also for its ability to extract some of the moisture/humidity from the air.

rag rugs are yet another eco friendly alternative if composed of reused materia 14
Above: Rag rugs are yet another eco-friendly alternative if composed of reused materials. We love Philadelphia artisan Olly Williams’ rugs made of old suiting fabric and sold by Lostine. This example is Olly’s Round Rug in Green and Teal; $325.  See more in our post Trend Alert: Rustic Rag Rugs, New and Vintage.

There are so many choices; any parting advice?

After more than 15 years in this business, my overwhelming thought is that the most important reason to buy natural rugs is for the beauty and pleasure that they bring to the room. They have so many qualities that truly change the experience of a space, including sound absorption, temperature control but also the tactile experience. It would be hard to overemphasize these points; we all spend so much of our lives surrounded by plastic textiles that we don’t know what we are missing in the beauty and pleasure category.

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