Your New Living Room Rug Might Have a Dirty Secret

On the eve of its 20th anniversary, GoodWeave redoubles its efforts to end child labor in the rug industry.

(Photo: © U. Roberto Romano, courtesy of GoodWeave USA)

Jan 6, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

Sink your toes in the soft wool of that new handmade carpet. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it? But dig deeper, and depending on the route that rug took to completion, you could find trafficking, abuse, and even murder.

One out of seven children around the world (that’s about 215 million kids) is the victim of child labor. It’s a sobering statistic, and despite laws enacted to prevent such crimes, it remains a rampant problem in South Asia’s rug industry. Some children are sold into it; some are kidnapped. They’re malnourished and often fall sick from the environment (breathing in wool fibers for 18 hours a day, for example) or are injured by the razor-sharp tools used in the manufacturing process. It gets worse. Children forced into this kind of life are often shunted into other areas of trafficking—particularly the sex trade.

This darker side of the design world first came to light in the 1980s, by the torch of Kailash Satyarthi, who worked with a coalition aimed at fighting child labor in India. He understood that by creating the right kind of market demand, manufacturers would be discouraged from using exploitive practices. On that notion, he founded GoodWeave in the fall of 1994, linking his teams on the ground with the powerful forces of big business, government and nongovernmental organizations, and international groups such as UNICEF.

The first of its kind, GoodWeave established a certification program that provides assurance that your lovely new rug wasn’t made by the innocent hands of a child. To earn the label, which is numbered and traceable to avoid fakes, companies (manufacturers, exporters, importers) must sign a contract with GoodWeave, pay a licensing fee, and submit to random inspections. By participating in GoodWeave’s mission, importers must agree to source only from certified exporters; only licensed importers can sell GoodWeave carpets.

All of the fees, as well as a portion of every rug, go not only to GoodWeave’s operational side but also to the company’s educational programs. When children are rescued from a factory, they are returned to their families whenever possible and given fully funded schooling to the 10th grade or the age of 18, whichever comes first. Whether in a local classroom or a boarding school, the children are taught reading, writing, math, and the arts. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a chance to simply be a child. Older children are also given the opportunity to train in the vocation of their interest.

Since its inception, GoodWeave has freed some 3,600 children, sold 11 million child-labor-free carpets, and reduced the number of “carpet kids” from 1 million to 250,000. Those are the right kind of sobering statistics.

The past year has been a resoundingly successful one for GoodWeave, which has offices in six countries, a staff of 42, and 244 licensee companies. It established a training center for women weavers in Kabul, Afghanistan, called Tapish (meaning “rhythm”), whose products debuted at the annual Rug Show at Javits Center in New York City. It was featured on the "PBS NewsHour"; was awarded substantial grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to further its work in Afghanistan; and participated in September’s Clinton Global Initiative. As well, it partnered with Humanity United, which will use GoodWeave’s business model in the effort to end forced labor in the brick kilns of Nepal.

What’s ahead for 2014, which marks the organization’s 20th anniversary? “We’re all about raising the market share for certified rugs via our 'One in a Million' awareness campaign,” explains Rebecca Shaloff, director of development and partnerships for GoodWeave USA. “It includes special outreach and tool kits for the design community.” And let’s face it, interior designers play a critical role in changing the industry. Handmade rugs by their nature are labor intensive and justifiably expensive. We’re not talking about cheap, made-in-China synthetics sold through most major retailers—that’s a whole different story. We’re talking about price points in the many thousands and the kind of person who can afford to spend that kind of money on the floor. (Note: The designer in me feels compelled to remind you that the floor is 40 percent of a room’s visual impact, so rugs matter; and, at this level, they’re lifelong investments you can think of as heirlooms.)

“Interior designers have incredible influence in the purchase of a handwoven rug,” Shaloff says. “Their decision to point a client towards ones that are certified has a reverberating effect that impacts the lives of children and artisans in weaving villages in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan.” But a designer isn’t a requirement for accessing these rugs—even Macy’s sells certified brands—all it takes is a check of the organization’s site to find sellers in your area. Not looking for a new rug but still want to help make 2014 an even greater success? Find out how: