Have you ever wondered where and how your carpet was made? It may sound like a strange thing to wonder about, but the story behind how carpets are manufactured and sold to consumers is a story to be told. Let’s start with the basics: a carpet is a textile floor covering typically consisting of an upper layer of fabric attached to a backing.
The fabric used to be made from wool or a natural material; however, since the 20th century, synthetic fibers such as nylon, polypropylene or polyester are often used, as these fibers are less expensive. Additionally, artificial dyes, adhesives, and stain repellants sourced from toxic chemicals are used in production. This incorporation and dependence on synthetic materials to create carpets not only pollutes the environment, but it also puts the worker’s occupational safety and health (OSH hazards) in the factories at risk. These include inhaling fabric dust from synthetics, wool or cotton, exposure to toxic chemicals, poorly designed tools, awkward positions, repetitive movements, and stressful working conditions including inadequate lighting, poor temperature control, and insufficient breaks.
Naturally, the buyers – us as consumers – are also at risk of toxic chemical exposure when we fill our homes with these products. Little children, arguably the most vulnerable members of society, are most at risk, because they typically spend hours crawling, playing or sitting on the floor.
It’s a Global Issue
Air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk according to new estimates released by the World Health Organization. Estimates further illustrated that in 2012, as a result of air pollution, around seven million people died, which is one in eight of the total global deaths. Additionally, indoor air pollution took 4.3 million lives.
New carpet installations are one of the major causes of indoor air pollution, as they fill household air with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including probable carcinogens like formaldehyde, stain repellants, and benzene.
It gets worse. International laws and treaties forbid the use of workers under the age 14, but many countries fail to enforce the rules. An estimated one in six children in the world works illegally, and nearly 300,000 are exploited in the carpet industry, according to studies by the United Nations International Labor Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
It’s a Governmental Regulation Issue, Too
Carpet production is usually done in small loom sheds and homes through subcontracted arrangements. This makes it difficult to distribute and track information on occupational safety and health hazards. This also makes it difficult to find tangible solutions. Carpet associated activities and weaving are seldom captured as a detailed subset of government statistics, and are usually categorized under “textile manufacturing” and increasingly under “services.” Because of this, most carpet-making activities do not receive government regulation, and workers are rarely organized in professional associations and unions. Thus, it is easy to neglect health and safety hazards and difficult for government agencies to find and fix these hazards. Lastly, the relevant international occupational safety and health hazard standards deal with carpet making, much like other industries, generically rather than addressing industry-specific hazards.
Is There Hope?
Fortunately, certification programs are playing an important role in improving industry standards. In just one example, the International Standardization Organization’s (ISO) 26,000 certifications and the Social Accountability International’s SA 8,000, among others, cover basic occupational safety and health hazard guidelines based on ILO Conventions. The private lending arm of the World Bank Group, also referred to as the International Finance Corporation, requires certain standards on environmental and social sustainability be met in connection with its lending practices. GoodWeave’s new standard also outlines specific health and work safety guidelines that its licensed manufacturers must abide by. Additionally, these guidelines require effective mechanisms for worker grievances. This kind of development in the standard-setting movement opens the door to technical cooperation between businesses, researchers, and the respective governments which thereby addresses challenges and brings about viable solutions.
Although these developments are improving industry practices, stable government policies would absolutely accelerate this process. It is a given that occupational safety and health is a business responsibility, but leaving this responsibility to the industry alone is not enough. It is a must that governments actively work to protect workers from occupational hazards through effective policies and enforcing better legislation.
Armand Pereira, a consultant for the International Labor Governance Research and Advisory Services, asserts, “The occupational hazards facing working children remain a special concern, but should not be the focus of efforts to improve OSH conditions in carpet-making.” She adds an important point that children working in the industry should not be improved, but stopped entirely.
A good example of an organization actively working to alleviate the issue of child labor in the carpet industry is RugMark. RugMark aims to increase consumer awareness of child-labor issues within the carpet industry. In advertisements, RugMark encourages shoppers to buy only carpets certified by them as free from child labor, “because an imported rug that was made using child labor is ugly, no matter what it looks like.” RugMark founder Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian labor-rights activist, launched the organization after learning that children he was rescuing from illegal rug mills were only being sent back to the factories. He then began devising a better strategy and created a label certifying that carpets are child-labor-free.
The child weavers that are rescued are sent to one of RugMark’s 13 facilities in Nepal and India. At these rehabilitation centers and schools, the former child weavers can receive a free education until they turn 18. Children who are over 14 are offered vocational training. Through these services, more than 3,172 children have been rescued.
RugMark’s five inspectors conduct random inspections to ensure that licensed factories comply with guidelines. Additionally, raids are initiated at unlicensed sites if the organization suspects under-age children are being used.
Although other child-labor-free labels exist in the world, RugMark does not manufacture carpets, which gives it independence and credibility. Other labels have been initiated by governments and companies who use child labor themselves, thereby eliminating the prospect of an independent audit system.
For eco-friendly, non-toxic, child-labor free carpet company sources, visit this link or this one. And remember that you as a consumer can vote with your dollar. By supporting companies that do not operate in inhumane and unsustainable ways, you are directly funding their operations and putting your dollar towards better business and a greater cause.
Image Source: Grumpicus Maximus/Flickr