Interiors... Sweat-free Indian summer
Certification is available for buyers to find out if their rugs and throws were ethically made
The term 'Made in India' can set alarm bells ringing because nobody wants to buy a cushion or rattan basket that has been made in a sweatshop. The craftsmanship that comes from India is often superb, but what if little fingers made those tiny stitches?
Of the estimated 168 million children exploited in the global economy, around quarter of a million work in inhumane conditions making craft rugs in countries like India, Nepal and Afghanistan.
But then again shunning homeware made in these countries is counterproductive as it effectively boycotts all those ethically managed factories and craft projects along with the exploitative ones. The trouble is that it's hard to know the difference.
Certification is very helpful, but finding out if your rugs and throws were ethically made is a lot more complicated than buying a Fair Trade banana. There's no single organisation that offers the homeware equivalent of a Fair Trade sticker.
There are, however, a number of independent bodies that offer reliable certification. Located in Sandyford, Rug Art is a Dublin-based supplier of handmade rugs produced in India and Nepal. All their rugs are certified by Good Weave or Label Step. A Good Weave label on a rug lets you know that no child labour was used in its making.
It also certifies that the rug wasn't made under abusive conditions and that the run-off from dyeing and washing was managed in an environmentally-friendly way. Good Weave works in Nepal, where the recent earthquake has affected thousands of weavers and, as Beth Huber, the company's director, points out: "It's helpful to continue buying from Nepal, to make sure that weavers have a way to earn money. That's the best way to help them get back on their feet."
Similarly, Label Step works to improve the conditions of carpet weavers and takes a stand against child labour. It's also active in aid efforts in Nepal.
For certification to be meaningful it must be rigorous and there are always costs involved, whether these are footed by the producer or passed on to the consumer. This works for a company like Rug Art, which sells a high-end product. The designs are contemporary and often inventive, and prices begin around €500 although a hand-knotted, 2.5-by-3.5metre rug might set you back €5,000.
On the other hand it should be noted that obtaining validation certs costs money, sometimes money that smaller Indian-based operations don't have.
Some don't apply for certification for financial reasons or because there's no certification in their area, or because they simply can't cope with the required mountain of paperwork.
In the absence of certs, some importers take the verification process into their own hands and travel over themselves to check out working practices first-hand. One of these is Rhona Roe of Hedgeroe Interiors, an Irish design company which sells Indian-made homewares.
"We work with a company that makes hardwood furniture in Uttar Pradesh, not too far from Delhi," she says. "They do have certification for sustainable timber. We also work with a company in Kashmir. This does beautiful crewel work and stitching, and one in Jaipur that does amazing hand block printing."
Although none of the companies don't have the certificates to prove that their practices are ethical, Roe spends several weeks a year in India on site with the people who make the furniture. "We work very closely on the designs and get them ready for production together. I'm actually working in the factories. Their working practices are very strict and very careful, and the workers are paid properly for their skills."
Although she began to work with Indian craftspeople because they could produce high-quality work at low cost, Roe has also come to value the sense of craftsmanship of the Indian makers. "There are so many shades of white in India! They really understand design and colour and it's lovely to work with people who aren't in a rush."
Although she says it can be difficult to reconcile the relaxed Indian approach to production with the urgency of Irish expectations, Roe finds that she has adjusted. "I've got into the rhythm. It's good to take time and be careful about the details."
Hedgeroe Interiors offers a design service, but also products ranging from rattan cutlery baskets (€27) and cushions (from €30) to the Holly side table (€164) and the Plantation dining table (€1,988). They are handcrafted pieces, but without the "hippy" look so often associated with Indian homeware. There's a touch of exoticism in the weaves and prints, but it's very subtle.
When Indian-made homeware is unusually cheap I often find myself concerned about child labour, and whether the people who made it were adequately paid. Ikea's new Kryddglad collection of Indian accessories - hand-embroidered cushion covers (€13), pouffes (€40) and table runners (€12) - comes with good credentials.
It was made in partnership with Rangsutra and Industree PT, two Indian organisations that use craft businesses to help women become more financially independent. Rangsutra works with 3,500 artisans, and 900 of these produce for Ikea. By creating products using traditional craft techniques, the organisation helps to preserve an element of cultural heritage as well as providing jobs.
This, as Rhona Roe points out, is important. "As countries become more industrial it's a struggle to keep the handcrafts alive. You have to make sure that people get paid properly for it or else they will give up and go to work in the cities."