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Cecile Corral

Area Rug Makers Ply Green Wares

As long as area rugs have existed, there has been an organic element to the category.

It's called wool.

Artisans primarily used wool to make the ancient handmade Persian and Oriental rugs of centuries ago.

But with so many synthetic, oil-based rugs proliferating in recent decades, wool is wearing a new marketing face these days — a "green" countenance that rug companies eager to please earth-friendly conscious customers are banking on for its natural attributes.

The problem is not everyone is buying into it.

"I don't want to say a product of ours is eco-friendly just for the sake of the trend," explained Renee Ringstad, vp of merchandise for Atlanta-based Homefires. "We use wool, which is a renewable resource. But people have been making wool rugs for centuries. All of a sudden now they say it is wool to sound 'green'."

Homefires, with a broad line of natural fiber rugs in wool and cotton, is in the process of researching other avenues in which to include other eco-friendly attributes to its offerings, including new manufacturing and product development methods.

"We're still trying to figure out what is the honorable way to expand our green offerings and call them eco-friendly; we don't want to jump on the bandwagon of the green revolution just because it's hot now," Ringstad said. "We want to make a concerted effort at doing product development with an environmentally friendly process and fiber in mind. I don't want to get credit for something accidental — like making wool or cotton rugs."

Many chemical dyes used in today's area rugs are harmful to the earth, found Calhoun, Ga.-based Surya, which is another rug company actively researching viable ways to employ eco-friendly efforts to its product assortment.

Seth King, vp business development, said, "We're trying to take a realistic approach, so we're learning more about our options out there. But I will say, in my research I found that one of the biggest challenges is finding eco-dyes."

One set of alternatives that measure up are vegetable dyes, which have long been popular, and are being improved upon on an ongoing basis. In the meantime, Surya's temporary answer to the environment includes some un-dyed wool and alpaca rugs. "We just don't want to promote something as eco-friendly if it isn't really," King added.

Fort Lee, N.J.-based Couristan is experimenting with fibers it hadn't previously used, while offering new color palettes achieved though natural dyes.

"We're playing with new materials that fall into the eco-friendly category," said Donielle Arabia, director of public relations, of the new Organique collection of 100% handspun semi-dyed jute rugs that are hand-knotted and don South African Bedouin motifs. Organique represents an extension of Couristan's other natural fiber goods.

"We're taking a very strategic approach to expanding this category because we certainly don't want to market anything that appears eco-friendly but has aspects that aren't," Arabia said. "We want to offer an eco-friendly product that is earth-friendly in every aspect — from how it is made to where it is sourced to what types of colors are used."

Mumbai-based Kaleen Rugs, which operates in the United States from Dalton, Ga., has been green "before 'green' was cool," said Joe Barkley, evp. "We reprocess and reuse our raw materials in India, and have been since we were established in 1964, and so we are very environmentally conscious. Since day one, we were a natural fiber house."

Recently Kaleen has expanded its product line into less eco-oriented goods, including machine-made fibers and indoor/outdoor synthetic rugs, Barkely said, as demand has increased. "But we try to make the smallest environmental impact possible," via efforts like a waste treatment system that aids Kaleen in making "a very minimal, virtually no-carbon footprint," he added.

Recycled plastic bottles and used cooking oil are examples of second-hand products that synthetic area rug giants Mohawk Home and Shaw Living, respectively, are reusing to reduce their own carbon footprints.

Mohawk's newly developed Greenworks rug collection comprises a large assortment of new eco-conscious goods set to launch later this month during the New York market.

Leveraging innovation and product development investments stemming from parent company Mohawk Industries' carpet business, the Mohawk Home division has added to its assortment new raw material bases such as post-consumer PET, blends of post-consumer PET and olefin, and Dupont-branded Sorona corn fiber products. PET — polyethylene terephthalate — is considered the most common recycled plastic, used for items like drink bottles and textiles. That fact makes it easier for home textiles suppliers like rug makers to use PET in soft flooring programs.

The Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), founded in 2002, estimated 5 billion pounds of carpet was sent to landfills in 2003. Since then, CARE has found that some 500 million pounds of old carpet have been recovered, a rate growing annually.

The group projects 7 billion pounds of old carpet will generated in 2012. "A 40% target would mean we need to recycle or reuse 2.8 billion pounds," CARE said.

The hardest part of going green has not been so much the discovery of new materials and manufacturing processes, but rather pleasing a cash-strapped consumer who wants to do right by the earth at a discount.

"We understand the consumer is attracted to 'green' products, but she is not willing to pay more for them," explained Jim Quist, vp, sales." In fact, with the challenging economic environment, she is looking for more affordable, green alternatives to traditional rug fibers. Mohawk has developed a significant asset base to process PET and other fiber for high volume, high performance and high value broadloom carpet applications."

Shaw Living noted it has been "working for years" on innovative ways of reducing waste, improving manufacturing processes and preserving natural resources, all "before environmental awareness became a trend." Among its headlining achievements are its 100% recyclable nylon rugs, and its rugs made of Anso nylon that contain recycled fiber content. In addition, all of Shaw's products made of Type 6 nylon are recyclable at the company's own Evergreen nylon recycling facility.

Shaw said it introduced the first recyclable rugs to the soft floor covering industry last summer with the debut of its Premiere and Natural Expression collections. A key issue with such efforts, said Kim Barta, brand manager, "The consumer doesn't have to pay more for the recyclable area rugs."

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