Life

Customers demanding transparency about who and how products are made

Erin Owen photo

Turkish rugs from Asia Minor Carpets hang on display in May at Dwell Home Furnishings’ warehouse in Coralville. The neutral rug is made from goat hair and shows a patchwork design. Vintage rug fragments were pieced together to make the purple patchwork overdyed rug. Wool absorbs the dye better than cotton, which results in areas of saturated color and white showing. Some rug designs are made by refugees trained by Asia Minor Carpets weavers.
Erin Owen photo Turkish rugs from Asia Minor Carpets hang on display in May at Dwell Home Furnishings’ warehouse in Coralville. The neutral rug is made from goat hair and shows a patchwork design. Vintage rug fragments were pieced together to make the purple patchwork overdyed rug. Wool absorbs the dye better than cotton, which results in areas of saturated color and white showing. Some rug designs are made by refugees trained by Asia Minor Carpets weavers.

When I buy something, I want to know it was made responsibly.

This year I had the opportunity to meet Alp Basdogan, who owns Asia Minor Carpets. He drove a truckload of Turkish rugs to Iowa from Manchester, Vermont. That’s where he owns Depot 62, a combination bistro and home furnishings store, which is a stop I’ll make if I’m nearby.

I learned about the materials, the production process and the impact of the work. Locally produced wool and vegetable-based dyes create an organic product free from harsh chemicals. Basdogan repurposes existing material to make two types of rugs, furniture and pillows.

Overdyed rugs could begin their lives when they are 60 to 80 years old. After buying existing rugs in Turkish villages, Basdogan transforms them by hand distressing, stripping their color with sun bleaching and re-dying them. Vibrant, saturated color emerges in the finished product.

Damaged rugs and fragments that would otherwise be discarded can be transformed into patchwork designs and covers for ottomans. Basdogan numbers the original fragments he collects until there are enough to stitch together for a rug. He assembles the design and binds the pieces with a baseball stitch.

All that was wonderful, but it was the human component involved in the production that sold me.

Turkey has a huge refugee population, 3.5 million according to Basdogan, as a result of the war in Syria. Asia Minor Carpets has sponsored and trained refugees to be weavers. Showing refugees compassion and giving them a chance to rebuild their lives are commendable and worth supporting. Weaving also becomes a therapeutic way to handle the trauma of war. We now have a small rug that refugees wove in our entryway.

I have made purchases I’ve regretted, mostly because of lack of information or financial resources. The one I always come back to is our first sofa. It was one we could afford at the time. What I remember most when it arrived was the off-gassing, or odor from either materials or whatever treatments were applied. This was not healthy for us or the workers who made the sofa.

Unless you or someone you know made the items in your home, who and what were involved in the production are unknowns.

A routine errand turned into an unexpected learning opportunity. Not too long ago I bought a new bathroom rug. Like I said — routine. On the back of the rug was a label that said GoodWeave certified rugs.

This was a certification I hadn’t seen before, although I later found it began in the 1990s. Its logo created a stick person made from a circle and two looped pieces of yarn. The label signifies no child, forced or bonded labor was used to make a certified product.

By making unannounced visits in India, Nepal and Afghanistan to factories and homes where work may be outsourced, GoodWeave verifies working conditions meet its standards. Many things in our homes come from overseas, where labor and environmental standards are different, which makes certifications important. They can help buyers determine what is responsibly made and sourced and what isn’t. Another example is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which tells buyers the wood came from a responsibly managed forest.

Interior designers — especially commercial ones — make decisions that affect the life, safety and welfare of a building’s occupants and visitors. It becomes necessary to select materials that meet health and content requirements. On a smaller scale, homeowners do the same thing. It is in their best interest to be as informed as possible.

As more people become socially conscious about their purchases by asking about how a company operates, sources its materials and protects the environment, we are learning our purchases have consequences.

The documentary “City of Joy” shows the extreme human toll irresponsible sourcing of materials can have. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has rich mineral deposits of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, which are widely used in a long list of items — most notably in cellphones. Armed groups control mining and trade these minerals for money and guns.

The groups drive villagers away from mining areas by committing acts of violence so severe no one would want to return. Companies that do business with them are providing funds that allow this violence to continue.

The Dodd-Frank Act requires American companies report the source of minerals in their products. These reports can be found on companies’ websites under links such as corporate or supplier responsibility.

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I want to control what my money supports, and I hope you do, too. Midway through this year, I made a pledge not to buy anything online for the rest of the year. I didn’t want to participate in taking business away from brick-and-mortar stores. I didn’t want to receive my items in two days if that meant unsafe working conditions for distribution centers.

Farmers markets allow us to know how our food was produced, but we are not on a first-name basis in many other markets. Area shops selling locally made products and upcycled furniture are probably the best opportunity to learn about how an item was produced. Otherwise, it is up to us to do our research, understand labels and ask for more transparency about how items are being produced.

• Erin Owen graduated from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer. Have a question about interior design? Contact her at erin.n.owen@gmail.com.

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