Carpet is cozy, can cut your heating bill by around 15%, and even absorbs sound, making for happier families and better neighborly relations. However, most carpeting is an environmental disaster and is riddled with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, eco-friendly carpets are available, helping you create the hygge without the headache (literally) from off-gassing.
As more of us learn about the potential downsides of conventional carpets, interest in conscientious carpeting is growing. Consumers increasingly ask the following questions when considering carpeting for the home:
- What is the carpet made from?
- Are the materials recycled and/or recyclable?
- Is the carpet treated with toxic chemicals?
- Does the manufacturing of the carpet harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
After you check out the curated carpet products in our ecoHome Directory, we’ve given some deep analysis of what to look out for, such as carpet certifications, and what to avoid (such as VOCs) when buying carpet.
Our top picks for eco-friendly Carpets
|Product||Highlights||Leaf Score||Product Link|
Nature’s Carpet Everest CollectionRead the Review
Nature’s Carpet Element CollectionRead the Review
Earth Weave Dolomite CarpetRead the Review
Interface Monochrome Carpet Tiles with CircuitBac Green® bio backingRead the Review
EcoWorx® Tile CarpetsRead the Review
Things to consider in Carpets
Carpets – What to Watch out for
Love it or hate it, that ‘new carpet smell’ is undeniably bad for your health. This smell is caused by the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are classed as carcinogens. VOCs are emitted as a breathable gas from carpets, furnishings, paint, cleaning supplies, printer ink, and other household products. Concentrations inside the house can be ten-fold higher than outdoors (R).
VOCs can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness, nasal irritation, allergic reactions, neurological problems, liver and kidney damage, cancer, and possible even fertility problems and miscarriage. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some VOC’s are greenhouse gases, meaning that they contribute to climate change (which has its own negative effects on health).
VOCs include a variety of chemicals used as stain and soil repellents, antimicrobial treatments, anti-static treatments, adhesives, artificial dyes, and flame retardants. Older carpets are especially bad for off-gassing, and many of the products used to clean carpets are also potential health hazards that emit VOCs.
Stain repellent might seem like a smart add-on when buying a new carpet (especially if you have pets or kids), but this typically means that your new carpet is treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). PFCs have been associated with cancer, reproductive problems, birth and developmental defects, and even problems with immunosuppression (R). They are also found in clothing, cookware, and other household objects, under brand names such as GoreTex, Teflon, and Scotchguard.
Even if the top of your carpet is ‘natural’, the backing or padding is likely to be made of synthetic latex (a suspected carcinogen) or vinyl, urethane, 4-phenylcylclohexene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), so don’t be fooled by clever marketing. Also, even if you buy a non-toxic eco-friendly carpet, chances are that a carpet installation will involve toxic adhesives, unless you ask for non-toxic alternatives to be used.
Some of the nasties found in carpets or involved in their production include:
Other Carpet Considerations
In addition to the environmental impact of the chemicals used to make carpets, the energy footprint for a conventional nylon-based carpet is also atrocious. It takes the equivalent of around 80 gallons of gas/petrol to carpet a small two-bedroomed apartment and these nylon monstrosities typically end up in a landfill once they wear out and get replaced. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that “over four billion pounds of carpet enter the solid waste stream in the United States every year, accounting for more than one percent by weight and about two percent by volume of all municipal solid waste” (R).
In general, if you have alleriges to dust mites, dust, pollen, cockroach allergens, or pet dander, carpets are likely a poor choice. Carpets also collect particle pollution, lead, mold spores, pesticides, and dirt. Carpets must be cleaned frequently and thoroughly to keep allergens and other issues to a minimum, and this can be time consuming, difficult, and expensive. Cleaning a carpet, renovating, and even walking on the carpet can make these contaminants airborne. And, if you have children or pets, they are much more likely to be exposed to pollutants in carpet. Indeed, installing new carpets has been linked to coughing and wheezing in infants under a year old (R).
If your budget doesn’t stretch to a truly eco-friendly carpet, go for the one with the least VOC emissions. The American Lung Association recommends that you ask for the carpet to be unrolled and aired out in a well ventilated area for 72 hours before installation (R). Plan to stay elsewhere for 72 hours after installation and request that non-toxic low VOC adhesives are used. The carpet should also be able to be removed without the need for toxic chemicals.
To keep carpets clean, vacuum at least three times a week with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Avoid carpeting kitchens, bathrooms and entryways as these areas tend to be damp, meaning that carpets can develop mold and mildew. Use mats outside the home to trap dirt and minimize outdoor allergens entering your house and settling in carpet.
If you’re not fully committed to carpet, consider selectively placed, eco-friendly rugs on hardwood or bamboo flooring instead. This may be the better option to create coziness while keeping health hazards to a minimum.
What’s the Alternative?
Still in the market for carpet? Natural fibers are the go-to for conscientious carpeting. These are usually biodegradable and their production doesn’t involve huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Natural fibers also have unique qualities such as in-built flame retardant and antimicrobial constituents. Some good options include:
- Wool (with caveats; see below)
- Cotton (organic)
- Bamboo (with caveats; see below).
Cotton and bamboo can be good options for the eco home. However, conventional cotton is grown using vast amounts of pesticides and water, while bamboo can be an environmental nightmare, depending on how it is processed. Choosing organically grown fibers is better all round, and it pays to ask questions about the provenance of any bamboo.
Recycled materials are also an option for eco-friendly carpeting. 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 such as Interface with the raw materials for their Net Worth carpets. Other companies, including Resistron and Permalon, use post-consumer plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to create carpeting that is not only 100 percent recycled, but that can be turned into stuffing for furniture or household insulation once it wears out.
Top Tip – Carpets made from recycled materials are only truly eco-friendly if they are also recycled! Companies such as Earth-Weave refuse to use recycled synthetics because they recognize most such products end up in landfill. So, if you opt for carpet made with recycled plastics, make sure to send it for recycling when it wears out!
Pros and Cons of Bamboo for Carpets and Flooring
Bamboo is an astonishingly versatile and strong plant that has a wide range of uses. It can grow up to four feet in a day, absorbs five times more carbon dioxide than most other trees, and produces around 35% more oxygen. It regenerates itself quickly after harvesting and requires little water and no pesticides to grow well. Unfortunately, because bamboo is incredibly strong (it is used in bridge-building!), it has to undergo significant processing to create soft fibers. This can be done mechanically but is most often done using harsh chemicals.
Mechanical processing of bamboo is very labor intensive and time consuming, so not very economically viable. Products are available using mechanically produced bamboo, but these are usually in the form of clothing and accessories. The amount of bamboo needed to produce a carpet would be very costly.
Chemically produced bamboo involves the use of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, and results in a product called viscose rayon. These chemicals cause air and water pollution and endanger factory workers. A slightly better option is something called lyocell (TENCEL), which is chemically produced bamboo fiber using a closed loop processing system. So, the chemicals are still bad, but they don’t escape into the environment.
In general, then, it seems best to choose minimally processed bamboo as an alternative to hardwood or laminate flooring, but not as a carpet or clothing fiber.
Pros and Cons of Wool for Carpets
Wool has become a popular (if more expensive) alternative to synthetic nylon for carpets in recent years. Wool is a natural fire retardant, does not give off harmful emissions, and has a natural capacity to inhibit the growth of bacteria and dust mites. It also tends to be hardwearing, keeping its shape even in high traffic areas. While this may make wool look pretty eco-friendly, the reality is that producing the vast quantities of wool needed for making carpets also takes an environmental toll, in addition to the issue of animal exploitation and cruelty.
There’s no doubt that some wool producers love what they do and truly care for the sheep in their charge. However, sheep used for their wool have been bred over the years to have extra skin folds, so as to produce more wool. Unfortunately, this also increases the incidence of painful skin infections, leading to 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, etc.). Modern sheep farming can look very different, then, to the pastoral image presented to consumers of so-called ‘natural’ fiber products.
It should also be noted that claims that wool is non-allergenic are not 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 is also fun food for moths and carpet beetle larvae, so many wool carpets sold as ‘natural’ have probably been treated with insecticide.
Green Carpet Certifications
Carpets may be advertised as natural, green, and eco-friendly, but many such claims and labels are nothing but ‘greenwashing’. Companies can self-declare their products to be ‘natural’ and ‘green’ because these are not regulated terms in the US, unlike ‘organic’. Some companies add second-party certification to their product labels, but these are also insubstantial, given that they are ‘certified’ by manufacturers, trade or industry organizations with a vested interest in promoting the product.
When looking for eco-friendly products, third-party certification is a must. Credible third-party certification means that a product is assessed by an independent body with no vested financial interest in the sale of any particular product, nor ties to the manufacturer or industry (aside from fees collected for impartial assessment).
That said, the most commonly used certification for eco-friendly carpeting is the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus™.
Green Label and Green Label Plus™
The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus have been around since 1992 and the early 2000s respectively. The CRI is an industry body, making Green Label Plus a second-party certification. However, Green Label Plus is incorporated into the LEED standard for indoor carpet, lending it greater credibility, and CRI has begun working with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to increase transparency.
Green Label Plus certifies carpet with very low or no VOC emissions to help improve indoor air quality. Unfortunately, many carpets that are made with petroleum-based materials and emit harmful VOCs are still able to qualify for Green Label certification, which throws the value of the certification into question. So, Green Label Plus certification could help you reduce your risk of VOC exposure, but shouldn’t be all you look for in a carpet. It’s often better to choose natural options that don’t off-gas in the first place, even if they’re not Green Label certified.
If you see “NSF/ANSI-140 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard” on a carpet, this carpet, and the adhesives, have been assessed as meeting the Carpet and Rug Institute Green Label Plus certification for Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Other numbers you might see listed include The Carpet and Rug Institute’s 104 (commercial) and 105 (residential) Carpet Installation Standards.
The US Federal Government uses Green Label Plus as their standard for purchasing decisions and, as such, there is a handy database for hardwearing carpet for public buildings. So, if you’re looking to carpet an office or similar, check out SPOT™, Underwriters Laboratories’ (UL’s) web-based product sustainability information tool. This tool also features hundreds of other flooring products with low chemical emissions, making it easier to track down more sustainable and healthier options for flooring.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is one of the most popular green building certification programs used worldwide. There is no LEED certification for carpets or flooring, however, because building materials themselves are not LEED certified. That said, conscientious carpeting can add credit to a LEED application, assuming that the carpet is made using recycled content, locally sourced materials, and/or is made from materials with low to no VOC emissions.
UL Environment have also developed GREENGUARD Certification to help identify interior products and materials that have low chemical emissions. Greenguard also worked with ANSI to become an official standard-setting organization.
Cradle to Cradle Certification
Another certification program that is rapidly gaining traction in the industry is Cradle to Cradle, which is both independent and seemingly more robust than Green Label Plus. For anyone looking for a higher standard of certification for their ecoHome purchases, Cradle to Cradle may be the better option. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization, making this a third-party certification program.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard is awarded to products that are sustainable and eco-friendly and created by manufacturers who demonstrate continual improvement in environmentally friendly industry practices. For example, products are assessed in terms of the amount of water and sustainable energy involved in their manufacture, rather than just the presence of VOCs in the final product.
Cradle to Cradle have developed a Material Assessment Rating System called ABC-X:
- A – The material is ideal from a Cradle to Cradle perspective for the product in question.
- B – The material supports largely Cradle to Cradle objectives for the product.
- C – Moderately problematic properties of the material. The material is still acceptable for use.
- X – Highly problematic properties of the material. Should be phased out.
Cradle to Cradle certification levels comprise:
At the Gold and Platinum levels, products are certified as free from X materials. Platinum level also requires that the product has a Material Reutilization Score of 100, and that the product is actively being recovered and cycled in a technical or biological metabolism. In addition, Platinum certification requires that:
Renewable Energy and Carbon Management
- For the final manufacturing stage of the product, >100% of purchased electricity is renewably sourced or offset with renewable energy projects, and >100% of direct on-site emissions are offset.
- The embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is characterized and quantified, and a strategy to optimize is developed. At re-application, progress on the optimization plan is demonstrated.
- ≥ 5% of the embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is covered by offsets or otherwise addressed (e.g., through projects with suppliers, product re-design, savings during the use phase, etc.).
- All water leaving the manufacturing facility meets drinking water quality standards.
- A facility-level audit is completed by a third party against an internationally recognized social responsibility program (e.g., SA8000 standard or B-Corp).
- All Silver-Level requirements are complete.
Countries outside of the US have their own codes and standards. For example, there is the Singapore BCA Green Mark, and the South Africa Green Star, as well as the Australia Green Star. If your chosen carpet is imported, look for the relevant standard certification for the country where the product is manufactured.
As with many ecoHome products, smaller companies may not have the funds to cover the cost of certification. In such cases where independent certification is not available, you might want to ask for a formal statement signed by senior company officials (R).
Cradle to Cradle demonstrate that good green credentials are not the only considerations when buying carpet. Their ‘social fairness’ component means that you can rest assured that your carpet was made without the use of child labor. Child labor is rampant in the handmade rug and carpet industry. GoodWeave is another organization that certifies child-labor-free rugs and provides education and opportunities to at-risk children.
What to do with old carpets
When it comes to the environmental impact of carpet, it’s not just your choice of new carpet you need to think about. Have you ever considered what happens to your old carpet? Most of the time, these chemical laden products end up in landfill, where they remain for decades, leaching toxins into the soil and water supply.
Some manufacturers offer a carpet take-back program. These programs will take your worn out carpeting and find innovative ways to reuse it. Interface, Mohawk, Shaw, Milliken Carpet, Bentley Prince Street and C&A all have a carpet take-back program, with carpets being recycled to create new carpet or down-cycled to create insulation or other product.
You can also check out Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a nonprofit created to oversee the recovery, recycling, and reuse of post-consumer carpet. CARE maintain a database to help you locate your nearest carpet donation and recycling partners.
Another option you might consider is not to get rid of your old carpet at all, but to give it a facelift instead. Stained and faded carpets can be dyed to give them a fresher look, while patterned carpets can be updated to match a new color scheme. You might also have a carpet re-cut to fit another room, even taking carpet with you to a new house or apartment.
Carpet dyes are a good way to save older or mismatched carpets from the landfill, but these dyes might not be non-toxic, so check first if that’s your main consideration. Color Your Carpet is one company that offers a custom carpet dyeing service. Others may also be available in your area.
And, finally, you might want to consider carpet tiles rather than continuous carpet, especially in high-traffic areas. That way, you can simply replace worn out tiles as needed, rather than needing to replace the whole carpet.
Check out the ecoHome directory for conscientious carpeting choices.
Companies to Consider for Conscientious Carpeting
Hands down, your best options for conscientious carpet and carpet tiles are these three companies:
- Nature’s Carpet
- Earth Weave.
If these are not available where you are or are out of budget, the following companies offer better options than most conventional carpeting:
- Bloomsburg Carpet
- Mohawk (Helios)