For conscious shoppers, rug shopping presents challenges and requires some give and take. Concerns to consider include materials used, if a product adheres to fair trade practices, and durability. We understand how much easier it is to simply list brands that produce “ethical rugs”, but it’s not that straightforward, given the variety of products and considerations.
With this information, we hope to empower you to make the decision that best speaks to your sensibilities and concerns when choosing your next rug.
Natural and Plant-Based
Natural plant-based fibers such as jute, sisal, and abaca are the most sustainable options, especially those that do not contain toxic dyes. Some plant-based rugs do contain a hybrid of other materials, such as cotton or chenille. Chenille can either be made from cotton or synthetic materials. Most natural-fiber rugs do require professional cleaning.
If choosing cotton, another plant-based material, choose organic or with recycled fiber. Some flatweave cotton rugs can be machine-washed, but beware of some shrinkage.
A note on natural plant-fibers: some synthetic materials look like natural fibers, so make sure to read the description.
Q & A
Q: Why are some cotton rugs with patterns a lot less expensive than others?
A: Some manufacturers print on the cotton fabric (cheaper version), while others weave in the pattern.
If adhering to an ethical plant-based life, wool and leather, both animal-based natural materials, might not be for you. An exposé on the wool trade shows that shearing sheep can be a violent affair. An interview with Joaquin Phoenix highlights these concerns: warning, video contains graphic content.
Semi-Synthetic and Synthetic Material
Semi and Synthetic materials tend to be cheaper than their natural counterparts. This comes with drawbacks.
If you’re concerned about toxic materials and come across a rug made of viscose, best to avoid it. Considered a semi-synthetic material, viscose, although derived from natural sources such as wood, goes through extensive chemical processing.
Rugs made of synthetic materials tend to be forms of plastics. The most popular ones are polyester and polypropylene. If choosing to buy these materials, look for recycled versions. Pottery Barn and The Citizenry, for example, sell rugs made from 100% recycled plastic bottles.
Fair Trade and Handmade
Most rugs made of natural material, semi-synthetic, and polyester are hand-made. In fact, this seems to be a selling-point for stores. However, research on the carpet industry in India from Harvard University uncovers child labor and abuse. For transparency concerns, brands such as West Elm provide clear information on fair trade practices.
For durable and spill-proof rugs, Ruggable specializes in convenience, but the company also has a clear stand on sustainability and giving back. Manufactured in the US, the company uses mostly recycled materials. They make it a point to use recycled materials for their rug pads (over 70% recycled materials) and rugs (over 50% recycled materials). Made from “polyester with a polyurethane water-resistant barrier”, their rugs do come with a warning about Dichloromethane (Methylene Chloride) from their products, which is know in the State of California to cause cancer.
Information on recycling involves mostly carpets, since these make up a bulk of rugs/carpet thrown. A good resource, Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) has an interactive map that lets you view collection sites. For smaller rugs that you can toss in the recycling bin, much depends on the materials used. For this reason, natural fibers present the most-eco friendly option, since they are biodegradable. Check with your local recycling area for information on specific materials.