Natural and organic fibers are the go-to for responsible rugs. These are usually biodegradable, their production doesn’t involve huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and natural fibers have unique qualities such as in-built flame retardant and antimicrobial constituents.
In this series on eco-friendly, non-toxic rugs for Leaf Score, I’ve already covered what to watch out for in terms of toxic chemicals and harmful materials used to make rugs. I’ve also looked at green certifications for rugs, and discussed other considerations such as rug size and durability that you’ll want to think about when choosing a new rug. This time, I’ll look at the pros and cons of natural rug materials, including recycled rugs and the following natural fiber rug options:
- Wool (with caveats; see below)
- Cotton (organic)
Cotton and wool can be great options for furnishing an eco-friendly home. However, conventional cotton is grown using vast amounts of pesticides and water, while wool production can be an ethical and environmental nightmare. Choosing organically grown fibers is better all round, and it pays to ask questions about the provenance of any wool.
A great example of a company making eco-friendly rugs from natural materials is Safavieh. Unlike almost every other company selling jute rugs, Safavieh is certified by the Sustainable Furnishings Council as having demonstrated commitment to environmentally sound manufacturing and ethical labor practices. I highly recommend the jute area rug from their Cape Cod Collection (View Price on Walmart). Read our full review here. I also like the jute area rug from the Natural Fiber Collection (View Price on Amazon). Read our full review here.
Pros and cons of recycled rugs
Recycled materials are also an option for eco-friendly rugs but beware of greenwashing. 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 with the raw materials for rugs. Other companies use post-consumer plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to create rugs that are suitable for outdoor and indoor use.
While it’s great that these synthetic materials are being recycled, instead of remaining in the oceans or landfill, they’re still synthetic and are likely treated with flame retardants, UV resistant chemicals, and other chemicals just like new synthetic products. As such, they’re best used outdoors in well ventilated spaces or avoided entirely.
Some companies have also taken to using recycled cotton and other fibers to make rugs. Again, beware greenwashing. ‘Recycled’ cotton may just be new cotton that is rejected by most manufacturers because of short fiber length. This cotton then goes through the same dyeing processes and chemical treatments as regular cotton. Instead, look for products made with genuine recycled cotton. This will usually contain some amount of other materials, such as polyester and will come in a variety of shades.
Genuinely recycled cotton won’t fade or shrink as it has likely already been washed multiple times before being recycled. Hook and Loom are a great company to consider for recycled eco cotton rugs, while Under the Nile recycle the scraps from their own organic cotton clothing line for use in their Big and Small Rugs.
Pros and cons of wool rugs
Wool rugs used to be very popular until cheap, synthetic rugs stole the show. Thankfully, greater awareness of the perils of polyester means people are once again turning their attention to wool. Wool is a natural fire retardant, does not give off harmful emissions, and has a natural ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria and dust mites. It also tends to be hardwearing, keeping its shape even in high traffic areas.
So, wool is the ideal eco-friendly rug material, right? Not so fast. The reality is that wool production can take a significant environmental toll, be mired in problems such as animal exploitation and cruelty, and wool may still be treated with toxic chemicals, especially if it is dyed.
Many companies claim that wool is non-allergenic. Sadly, this isn’t 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 that is ‘lanolin-free’ may have been washed using harsh chemicals, which can also cause allergies. And, as lanolin is a natural water repellant and is stain resistant, ‘clean’ wool will likely have been treated with toxic chemicals to reinstate those natural qualities. Wool is also fun food for moths and carpet beetle larvae, so many wool carpets sold as natural have probably been treated with insecticide.
As for the environmental and ethical issues, few companies pay attention to the provenance of the wool used in their rugs. This means that the wool may come from sheep leading pretty unhappy lives and whose existence also has a significant environmental impact. Certainly, there are plenty of individuals who love and care for the sheep in their care, but the vast majority of sheep used for their wool have been bred over decades to have extra skin folds, so as to produce more wool. Unfortunately, these skin folds mean sheep are prone to painful infections, meaning that farmers give sheep vast amounts of antibiotics and cut off large patches of skin in 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, and so on. Modern sheep farming is often nothing at all like the natural images companies selling ‘natural’ fiber products typically use that show a child holding a lamb in a beautiful meadow.
When wool rugs are made in a sustainable and eco-friendly fashion, however, they are an excellent option for an eco-friendly home. Stylish, affordable, naturally resistant to fire, stains, and soiling, wool rugs also absorb sound, feel cozy, and are fairly easy to maintain.
Pros and cons of jute rugs
Jute is a sustainable, durable, biodegradable, and flexible fiber derived from the jute plant that commonly grows in India and China. Jute rugs can be made with small or chunky braids, and the natural variations in the fiber’s colors add a depth and richness to décor.
Jute isn’t as durable as sisal, but is just as easy to care for, requiring just light vacuuming, brushing, sweeping, or beating (outside!). Jute rugs are typically reversible, meaning that they can be flipped for extra longevity. They’re great for high traffic areas and can stand up to rough and tumble play from kids, cats, and dogs.
Jute rugs can, however, be a fun chew toy for puppies (even my older dog was very excited about rubbing her face on my new rug). These rugs can also be a little tricky to clean if soiled significantly (I’ve learnt to roll up my rug when unpredictable dog guests are visiting!). Some people also find that jute fibers are too knobbly and rough to comfortably stand, sit, or lie on for any length of time, while others (myself included) consider this free foot massage a bonus of jute.
Pros and cons of sisal rugs
Sisal is one of the most durable fibers used for rugmaking. This natural fiber comes from the leaves of the agave plant and sisal rugs are usually bound with canvas board to provide structure and style. Sisal has a neutral color, is naturally stain resistant, does not trap allergens and dust, and is static-free. It’s also a great sound-absorbed, making it a fantastic option if you have downstairs neighbors, heavy footed family members, or small hordes of children and other animals running around having fun.
Pros and cons of cotton rugs
Cotton is soft, breathable, light, and can be machine washed, making it a great choice for family area rugs, underneath dining tables, and in children’s bedrooms. Cotton isn’t as durable as jute, sisal, or wool, however, and should be used with a natural rubber or other eco-friendly rug pad to avoid sliding.
Cotton rugs are very common, but almost all are made with conventionally grown cotton. If you’re keen on cotton, choose a rug made with organically grown cotton. Look for the GOTS label or other credible certification for peace of mind that the cotton was not grown using pesticides or other toxic chemicals and has not been treated with harsh chemicals or azo dyes during processing.
Pros and cons of triexta AKA Sorona rugs
In recent years, a newer synthetic fiber, known as triexta and sold under the brand name Sorona, has gained in popularity. This fiber is often touted as the environmentally-friendly version of nylon or polyester as it is made from corn glucose.
Triexta, or polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) to give it its chemical name, was invented by Dupont, the company that long denied the dangers of Teflon. Dupont claim that triexta is renewable and environmentally-friendly because 37% of its fiber content is made with corn glucose. While this does mean a reduction in chemical use, it does not totally avoid the problems of synthetic fibers, including off-gassing of VOCs and environmental pollution.
One other advantage to triexta, however, is that it is arguably more durable and resilient than conventional polyester and, potentially, nylon. This may mean that rugs and other goods made with triexta could last longer and reduce the amount of waste going into landfill as well as slow down textile production, thus reducing overall use of resources. Triexta is also naturally stain resistant and can be cleaned with water alone. This is because triexta is hydrophobic, meaning it does not absorb moisture. It is also fade resistant and does not discolor in sunlight, but is a lot softer than polyester and nylon, making it a good option for outdoor rugs.
Godfrey Hirst are a smaller Australian company that offers an eco+ collection of carpets and rugs made using triexta, while Mohawk Industries are the biggest manufacturer using Sorona triexta from Dupont. Neither of these are genuinely eco-friendly, but they are likely your best options if you’re curious about triexta.
All in all, if you’re looking for a good outdoor rug that’s a little more eco-friendly, durable, and easier to keep clean, a triexta rug might be just the ticket. For inside the house, though, a more natural material that is free from harsh chemical treatments is a far better option.