How sustainable can a rug be? The answer is, it can be as sustainable as you demand it to be, you just need to be aware of what you are buying. Susan Inglis, Executive Director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council in the USA, gives her thoughts on sourcing rugs and homeware with a low environmental impact. Here COVER also highlights two recent carpet projects that address ecological concerns by choosing sustainable materials and reusing unwanted material to make new and exciting design-led products.
Traditional handmade rugs were all developed in harmony with local eco-systems, no matter what tradition they come from. They are made from natural materials gathered or cultivated locally and were originally coloured naturally too, whether by carefully blending fibres of different colours or by dying the fibre with colourants derived from plants, minerals or animal sources. The entire product was made without the use of fossil fuels, and was entirely biodegradable with no toxic chemical residue.
Fortunately, there is still some rug production that is this pure but sadly, we have come a long long long way away from the clean natural production that was most common in times of yore. These days, the majority of rugs are made of synthetic materials, which are either petroleum products themselves or are made from wood fibre that way too often comes from old-growth forests. Even natural material rugs are produced and treated with a range of harsh chemicals, many of which persist in the environment and continue to cause harm to human health and other life on our planet.
There are more and more companies that are making conscientious choices in production. Materials matter, since most of the environmental footprint of a product is a result of what it is made of. So, it is significant, for instance, when they choose a polyester, they make sure it comes from recycled soda bottles. When they choose a rayon, they make sure the wood pulp was sustainably sourced. They are also choosing natural wool or cashmere and using it in undyed colours. And they are looking out for the workers, using GoodWeave or Label STEP certification and guidance to avoid child labour, and other harmful practices.
What we humans throw ‘away’ has become our world’s most abundant natural resource, and making use of it is important! Extending the tradition of rag rugs and making floorcoverings with scrap from the garment production industry is one good example. Another is those very durable polyester rugs made from PET that has had a previous life as a soda bottle. Extruding the plastic into fibre is fairly energy-efficient and much less toxic than starting with extraction of petroleum. We produce much more plastic waste than we recycle so putting more of it into rugs is a good idea. But it is an even better idea when the rug can be recycled at the end of its life and made into another rug. The circular economy is full of opportunity.
Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven’s rugs are made from a palm leaf material called palm leather. They are softened and made more pliable with a glycerine solution, a beautiful new material is created with the all-important age old property of biodegradability, so it could return to being good clean dirt to grow another palm tree. Using leaves as they fall is particularly important because they are falling off anyway and the tree can stand to have some of them removed. Similar to the palm, there are very cool products made of banana bark, but I do not know of any rugs. RENS carpet tiles with Desso are ever so important for making us aware of new things that are possible in the creative use of so many materials and things we already have. The carpet tiles are particularly important because though carpets wear down, the material is very tough, and this is exactly how we need to think about reusing and revitalising! Both are great cases for circularity.
Always ask ‘What’s it made of?’ before you buy something. Consider deciding here and now to avoid bringing harmful chemicals into your home. Further, consider avoiding buying more than you need. When you do go shopping, there is a very useful buying guide on sustainable furnishings. We are in a consumer economy, and we are conditioned to want more and new and different things but home goods are durable and should last us a long time, so choose them carefully, and when you want to replace them, make sure they do not end up as landfill.