Behind the Loom

The Rugmark Foundation works to keep kids out of the rug industry

| September / October 2006

The intricate designs of a handmade rug can tell the story of a land and its culture. But they can't tell the story of the often tiny hands that wove them. Most people looking to bring a room together with a luxury rug have no idea that their $2,000 design element may be the work of a child earning little or no money.

Enter the Rugmark Foundation USA, part of a six-country international nonprofit whose smiling rug label has been assuring customers since 1995 that their purchases didn't cost any kids their childhoods. Each label carries a number that can be traced back to its origin loom in India, Pakistan, or Nepal-three of the world's top exporters of handmade rugs. To make sure that manufacturers who have signed on to the program aren't using child labor, Rugmark's traveling inspectors make unannounced visits.

Rugmark's work doesn't stop at the factory walls, reports Metropolis (Feb. 2006). The organization uses a portion of the licensing fees collected from importers to sponsor and build schools for the more than 3,000 kids Rugmark has removed from the industry so far. The group also funds and operates preventive programs, like day care and early childhood education, for weavers' children and vocational and literacy training for kids of working age (14 and older). 'We don't always want to be rescuing kids,' executive director Nina Smith tells Utne. 'What we really want to do is stem the flow of kids into the workplace in the first place.'

An estimated 300,000 children still work behind looms in factories and smaller village sites in South Asia, down from about 1 million a decade ago. To drive that number to zero, the foundation launched a three-year awareness campaign in January, reports Innovative Home (Summer 2006). Rugmark's initiatives include advertising to conscientious consumers, building promotional partnerships with importers, and reaching out to architects and designers. The ultimate goal, says Smith, is to have 15 percent of handmade rugs certified in 10 years.

That's a tall order for the organization, which, the San Francisco Chronicle (March 13, 2006) points out, so far has cracked only 1.5 percent of the handmade-rug market in the United States. The challenge, Smith tells the Chronicle, is to build momentum in the industry.

That means recruiting more and more importers to sign on, and 'the only way to do that is to build consumer demand,' Stephanie Odegard, an importer and member of Rugmark's board, tells Metropolis. In other words, the quickest way to an importer's heart is through your wallet.

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