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Is traceability the future of ethical production?

April 14, 2020

As sustainability and ethical manufacturing grow more important, we see many companies trying to do their part. However, existing initiatives often only address one link in a complex supply chain. With their Traceable Rugs collection, Chhatwal & Jonsson suggest a way forward.

As sustainability and ethical manufacturing grow more important, we see many companies trying to do their part. However, existing initiatives often only address one link in a complex supply chain. With their Traceable Rugs collection, Chhatwal & Jonsson suggest a way forward. Is this an approach that can be more widely adopted to increase transparency in the rug industry? Malin Lonnberg speaks to Geetali Chhatwal Jonsson.

The Stockholm-based brand Chhatwal & Jonsson was founded ten years ago with the idea to combine a Scandinavian eye for design with Indian handicraft. Since then Stig Jonsson and Geetali Chhatwal Jonsson’s company has grown into a recognised label that is stocked in 25 countries. Their wares number cushions, bed linen and rugs—all products are handmade. The point of this brief company profile is to provide some context to the main focus of this article, traceability in the rug industry, which is being championed by Chhatwal & Jonsson in a new product line.

In Autumn 2019, Chhatwal & Jonsson launched Una, a ‘traceable’ flatwoven rug. The Spring 2020 releases see another three products being added to the Traceable Rugs collection, a new Una colourway and two shag rugs. As the pressure to be sustainable mounts, we see more and more claims of companies/products/ materials being eco-friendly/green/organic in the rug industry. In addition to these terms being inherently nebulous, such claims are often difficult to verify. Similar concerns exist regarding the human dimension of ethical production, such as the conditions for workers.

Interior with Una traceable rug, Chhatwal & Jonsson

Interior with Una traceable rug, Chhatwal & Jonsson

From this perspective, Chhatwal & Jonsson’s choice of words is interesting. That a product is traceable does not automatically mean that it has any other positive attributes—it just means that it can be followed on its course from its genesis to its end destination. Traceability is therefore allied to transparency. Chhatwal & Jonsson believe that this is the only way that one can work in a sustainable and conscious way. In concrete terms, all steps in the making of their traceable rugs are certified, with each rug having a tracking number that reveals by whom, how and where a carpet was made. Over the phone, Geetali Chhatwal Jonsson took the time to go into the nitty-gritty details of what that entails.

She begins by acknowledging the complexity of the supply chain. In the course of their making, rugs pass through many hands and undergo many permutations. The starting point was breaking down this chain into its components, which has been an ongoing endeavour since the early days of the company.

The first link in the chain is choosing the raw materials, which for Chhatwal & Jonsson have to be natural, renewable (in their definition, that means renewable within our lifetime and not the product of a finite resource) and recyclable. Then comes the sourcing of the chosen raw materials. This step involves ensuring that they work exclusively with certified wool from New Zealand. The certification at this stage relates to the wellbeing of the sheep, and all farms being environmentally and socially conscious. A less obvious concern is making sure that there is no blending of the wool along the way before it gets woven into rugs. The cotton warp is certified by Better Cotton Initiative, the world’s largest cotton sustainability programme.

A Chhatwal & Jonsson traceable rug on the loom in India

A Chhatwal & Jonsson traceable rug on the loom in India

The next stop on the journey is the combing, twisting and dyeing of the wool. These processes are energy, water and chemical intensive. Chhatwal & Jonsson’s answer here is working with a state-of-the-art facility in India with a circular water usage; the water is recycled, purified and reused. Clean water has long been seen as a precious commodity in India, and Chhatwal Jonsson brings up an interesting point. ‘What we are doing is possible because our partners in India believe in what they are doing and why they are doing it. This cannot be underestimated and is not stressed enough. We work with people who understand why this is important to them.’ The facility uses only renewable energy and all chemicals are REACH compliant.

When it comes to the actual weaving of Chhatwal & Jonsson’s rugs, the company chooses to commission artisans working in the traditional manner rather than in factories. They have direct insight into the workings of their looms and the working conditions of the weavers, which are monitored by an independent auditing agency. While things like pensions, health insurance and paid leave are tangible, there is something about actually communicating with the people that make your products that is difficult to measure and define in a supply chain, explains Chhatwal Jonsson.

Though not technically part of the supply chain, the life of Chhatwal & Jonsson’s rugs after they reach the consumer can be dependent on choices made during the manufacturing process. They want to create products that last a lifetime, and the rugs are 100% recyclable for the moment they are eventually laid to rest.

Sita traceable shag rug (detail), Chhatwal & Jonsson

Sita traceable shag rug (detail), Chhatwal & Jonsson

To summarise their production, it is in Chhatwal Jonsson’s own words ‘not about just one certification. It is about a combination of many certifications.’ She goes on to say that in a casual way, what they are doing can be compared to the principles of Blockchain, which is increasingly being used to do things such as shed light on the origin of the food we eat and authenticate art works. As she rightly argues, labels such as ‘organic cotton’ or ‘no child labour’ only address small parts of the supply chain.

‘Sustainability is a journey,’ she continues. ‘It is not a matter of getting a certification and being happy with that.’ She freely admits that they are not experts in every field—given the complexity of the operation that would be impossible. This is tackled by bringing in independent expert auditors at every level and listening to their suggestions for improvements. ‘In addition to realising that it is a continuous process, it is important to be humble and say that we can always do this better,’ she summarises.

The Traceable Rugs collection has been met with curiosity and inspired a lot of discussion. Chhatwal & Jonsson want consumers to become more aware, to understand and demand accountability from companies. They put together their own system due to a perceived general lack of transparency in the rug industry. This opacity is possibly related to businesses being keen to protect their sources and not wanting to give competitors insight into their production. With more demanding buyers, a desire for secrecy may have to be balanced by other considerations.

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