The social impact of fair trade rugs - behind the scenes with Creative Matters President Carol Sebert
Fair trade is a critical issue for our floorcoverings that are woven by hand. This includes our collection rugs, as well as custom projects that may be handwoven in Nepal, India or Afghanistan. For example in India we recently created four dhurries with Studio Munge for a restaurant and wool flatweaves for the suites at the Andaz Ottawa Byward Market with Mason Studio. We are also currently working with Gachot Studios and weavers in three countries to provide a handmade rug for over 100 suites in a luxury hotel.
We joined forces with the Swiss-based fair trade NGO Label STEP in 2011 appreciating the commitment to improve the working and living conditions of the carpet weavers, and the sustainability of the industry. Working with STEP Managing Director Reto Aschwanden and our weavers has been a journey in fair trade awareness for Creative Matters and particularly for President and Founder Carol Sebert.
Last year, in recognition of her commitment to fair trade, STEP appointed Carol an Honorary Ambassador. It was in this role that she attended the five-day annual general meeting for the second time in March 2018 in Turkey. “I started out in this business with a passion for beautifully handknotted rugs and now, 30 years later, I’m finding an equal passion for the people who weave those rugs and the organization (STEP) that cares about their welfare,” she said. “At the AGM I heard so many life-affirming stories about the weavers and STEP workers internationally, not just in the countries where we choose to produce our rugs.”
“For example, recognizing the physical demand on the weavers, the Afghanistan STEP team arranged for a chiropractor to come in and teach the weavers some exercises. During the meeting, this seemed like such a great preventative measure, the same exercises and film will be shared with all the STEP countries. It is this on the ground work, seeing the need and coming up with a creative solution, that really makes STEP a remarkable NGO."
Nepal and India are the go-to places for the majority of our handmade carpets. Rugs are produced in mills that have many experienced handknotting artisans on staff. As we have been collaborating with these mills for many years, STEP representatives have firmly established the 10 principles of fair trade that make up the STEP Standard: health and safety, wages, child labour, discrimination, freedom of association, forced labour, inhumane treatment, working hours, environmental protection and audits. The STEP Standard is based on International Labour Organization Conventions, but it goes above and beyond by developing and delivering “capacity-building” educational programs aimed at further improving the lives of weavers and workers. In Nepal for example, they recently ran a series of workshops on subjects such as hygiene and financial management. To date, more than 1,000 people have attended and the feedback has been extremely positive.
At the AGM, Reto related a picnic celebration that STEP had organized in Afghanistan just that week for International Women’s Day: “It is very rare for the women to be invited to such an event in a public place. Seldom do they, along with so many of their colleagues, receive public recognition for the weaving work they do at home.” Diana Hashimzada, the local representative, went on to explain to Carol, “They needed approval from their husbands to attend. The leader of the village went to the mosque to encourage the husbands to let their wives join.”
“At Creative Matters, we have a particular weakness for the Nepalese handknotted rug - the combination of Tibetan wool and the artisanship that has been passed down through the centuries,” said Carol, adding, “It was only as I became more involved in the social impact of rug making that I realized this skill, this way of life, is in danger of dying out. Thousands of Nepalese people are flocking to jobs – often very dangerous or abusive jobs – in other countries. To ensure this tradition will remain in Nepal, we have to make weaving a meaningful and lucrative means of employment.” In 2017 STEP released a video to address the issue.
So what can interiors professionals and their clients do to champion fair trade? Carol offers the following tips:
· Ask about the provenance of the goods you purchase or commission
· Ask if the supplier can assure that their goods were produced under fair, ethical conditions
· Ensure that a third-party, non-profit organization can attest to the fair trade practices of suppliers
· Spread the word – fair trade is good for everyone. And it’s the right thing to do!