Natural fibers are the go-to for conscientious carpeting. These are usually biodegradable and their production doesn’t involve huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Natural fibers also have unique qualities such as in-built flame retardant and antimicrobial constituents.
Some good options for natural carpet materials include:
- Wool (with caveats; see below)
- Cotton (organic)
- Bamboo (with caveats; see below)
Cotton and bamboo can be good options for the eco-friendly home. However, conventional cotton is grown using vast amounts of pesticides and water, while bamboo can be an environmental nightmare, depending on how it is processed. Choosing organically grown fibers is better all round, and it pays to ask questions about the provenance of any bamboo.
Recycled carpeting materials
Recycled materials are also an option for eco-friendly carpeting. Discarded fishing nets and plastic bottles might not sound like the ideal components for soft, luxurious carpet, but these are increasingly being reclaimed and recycled to create eco-friendly floor coverings.
Companies such as Econyl reclaim discarded fishing nets to provide companies such as Interface with the raw materials for their Net Worth carpets. Other companies, including Resistron and Permalon, use post-consumer plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to create carpeting that is not only 100 percent recycled, but that can be turned into stuffing for furniture or household insulation once it wears out.
Pros and cons of bamboo for carpets and flooring
Bamboo is an astonishingly versatile and strong plant that has a wide range of uses. It can grow up to four feet in a day, absorbs five times more carbon dioxide than most other trees, and produces around 35% more oxygen. It regenerates itself quickly after harvesting and requires little water and no pesticides to grow well. Unfortunately, because bamboo is incredibly strong (it is used in bridge-building!), it has to undergo significant processing to create soft fibers. This can be done mechanically but is most often done using harsh chemicals.
Mechanical processing of bamboo is very labor intensive and time consuming, so not very economically viable. Products are available using mechanically produced bamboo, but these are usually in the form of clothing and accessories. The amount of bamboo needed to produce a carpet would be very costly.
Chemically produced bamboo involves the use of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, and results in a product called viscose rayon. These chemicals cause air and water pollution and endanger factory workers. A slightly better option is something called lyocell (TENCEL), which is chemically produced bamboo fiber using a closed loop processing system. So, the chemicals are still bad, but they don’t escape into the environment.
In general, then, it seems best to choose minimally processed bamboo as an alternative to hardwood or laminate flooring, but not as a carpet or clothing fiber.
Pros and cons of wool for carpets
Wool has become a popular (if more expensive) alternative to synthetic nylon for carpets in recent years. Wool is a natural fire retardant, does not give off harmful emissions, and has a natural capacity to inhibit the growth of bacteria and dust mites. It also tends to be hardwearing, keeping its shape even in high traffic areas. While this may make wool look pretty eco-friendly, the reality is that producing the vast quantities of wool needed for making carpets also takes an environmental toll, in addition to the issue of animal exploitation and cruelty.
There’s no doubt that some wool producers love what they do and truly care for the sheep in their charge. However, sheep used for their wool have been bred over the years to have extra skin folds, so as to produce more wool. Unfortunately, this also increases the incidence of painful skin infections, leading to an unpleasant practice called mulesing.
Greater demand for wool also means an increase in land use for sheep farming and all the problems associated with animal agriculture (less land for growing food crops for humans, greater methane production, animal feces polluting water sources, etc.). Modern sheep farming can look very different, then, to the pastoral image presented to consumers of so-called ‘natural’ fiber products.
It should also be noted that claims that wool is non-allergenic are not true. Some people have an allergic reaction to lanolin, a fatty substance found on the skin, and the wool, of sheep. Buying a natural wool carpet would be a costly way to discover a lanolin allergy, so ask to take a sample home before you commit to buying. Wool is also fun food for moths and carpet beetle larvae, so many wool carpets sold as ‘natural’ have probably been treated with insecticide.
Your best options for conscientious carpeting include Nature’s Carpet and Earth Weave, both of which make wool carpets with a raft of excellent green credentials. Alternatively, you might want to consider more flexible floor covering options such as carefully placed eco-friendly rugs.