Rugs & The Environment: Designing Sustainably

It’s Earth Day, and while we at James Royce want to take the opportunity to talk about the sustainability and the environmental impacts of rugs, we also believe it’s a conversation that should happen year-round.


Since 1954 people have disposed of over 15 billion square feet of carpet. That breaks down to 33 metric tons (Mt) of nylon, 16 Mt of polypropylene, 5.5 Mt of polyethylene, 47 Mt of carpet backing, and 7 Mt of other fibers.

Rugs made of natural fibers, though, are often diverted from landfills because the materials are reusable. When they are discarded, they are significantly better for the environment because these materials break down more easily.

From creation to disposal, handmade rugs are consistently better for the world around us.


A majority of rugs are of machine-made with synthetic fibers. These synthetics, like nylon fibers, can take over 40 years to degrade. Handmade rugs, crafted from enduring materials like wool, cotton, and silk, offer a longer lifespan.

Environmental Impacts of Common Handmade Rugs Materials:


A majority of handmade rugs use wool. It is durable and naturally biodegradable within a year of being discarded. Sheep are not harmed in the process and the sheep industry produce only .023% of greenhouse gasses. According to Brent Roeder, MSU Extension Sheep and Wool Specialist at Montana State University Compared to the thousands of microfibers released by synthetic fabrics when washed, the environmental impact of wool is negligible. This is especially true because wool is has such a long lifespan.


Cotton is used predominantly in the warp and wefts inside of handmade rugs. It is the most widely produced non-food crop in the world, and income from its cultivation financially impacts over 250 million people. It is, however, not a particularly sustainable material to produce. Cotton degrades the quality of soil and can lead to erosion. The practices used to produce cotton also involve fertilizers and pesticides that have negative impacts on overall biodiversity.

Cotton does have a long useful life, though, if treated well and maintained. The industry is also an employer to 7% of all labor in developing countries.

The World Wildlife Fund is one of many entities working to produce cotton more ethically and sustainably.


Silk is renewable, biodegradable, and uses less labor, water, and chemicals than other materials. Still, according to the The Council of Fashion Designers of America, about 3,000 cocoons are used to produce one yard of silk.

There are other considerations to be made. In the process of making silk, many silkworms are killed in their cocoons. There is cruelty-free silk, made only with the cocoons of silkworms who have grown into moths, but the moths do not usually live long after emerging. The quality of cruelty-free silk is also usually lower than regular silk because of shorter the length of the filament threads.

The energy required to transport materials, control the temperature of silkworm facilities, and heating the water for production is another consideration, but research has found that silk production is 1000 times more energy efficient than polyethylene.

For more on silk, see the CFDAs article.


While some of the natural materials used to make rugs are not sustainable on their own, we have to consider the useful life of the products they are used to make. The resources used production spread throughout the lifespan of these products, so the longer they are in use the more sustainable the process is.

Handmade rugs can be a family heirloom. This is because generational weaving and knotting techniques are remarkably durable. The ability to keep rugs for a longer period of time rather than buy and throw away trendy machine made rugs every few years is not only financially beneficial, it is environmentally sound as well.

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