When confronted with a big, hard, seeming insoluble problem — today’s topic is the practice of child labor, in which an estimated 215 million children around the world are engaged —it’s helpful to recall the words of a rabbi cited in a Jewish text known as the Pirke Avot, or Sayings of the Fathers:
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.
This is the approach that a nonprofit called GoodWeave USA is taking when it comes to child labor in the carpet industry. Since its beginnings in 1994, GoodWeave has rescued more than 3,600 children from rug-making factories, helped educate another 5,000 to 6,000 to keep them out of the workforce and, most important, developed a trusted label that assures retailers and shoppers that the carpets they buy and sell were not made by children.
These are modest gains, to be sure, but meaningful accomplishments for a non profit with a budget of just $3.5 million a year and staff of about 35 people.
What’s more, GoodWeave is gathering momentum.
“The goal is to transform the industry—to end child servitude,” says Nina Smith, the group’s executive director.
I recently met Nina in Washington, D.C., where GoodWeave is based. Her work takes her from the poor neighborhoods of Katmandu, Nepal, where prized rugs are made by children’s small hands, to high-end designer showrooms in Manhattan where they are sold. GoodWeave is now preparing to enter preparing for entry to Afghanistan as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to scale-up the carpet industry as an economic development strategy.
To put this story in context: Human rights activists have been working to eliminate child labor from the rug industry since the early 1990s, about the same time as they went after brands like Nike and Gap for selling footwear and apparel goods made in sweatshops. The big retailers responded quickly—no brand wants to be associated with exploitation—but the rug industry, which is smaller, more fragmented and without recognizable brands, at first resisted change. A Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih, who escaped a rug factory at age 10 to become an anti-slavery crusader, was murdered in 1995. (The Atlantic magazine published Child Labor in Pakistan, a fine investigative report, in 1996.)
Smith, who is 43, began working on the issue in the late 1990s. Her group, which began by rescuing children from rug and carpet factories, then appealed to U.S.-based designers and importers of rugs, asking them to take responsibility for their supply chain and support a certification effort, then known as RugMark.
“I was so idealistic back then that I didn’t even get why people wouldn’t want to do it,” Nina told me. “But I had people yelling and screaming at me.” They blamed the activists for interfering with their business, telling her: “There’d be no one talking about this if it weren’t for you.”
When Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced legislation to require suppliers certify that their rugs were not made by children, an industry trade association hired a lobbyist to fight it.
Odegard Inc., a designer and importer led by a former Peace Corps volunteer and World Bank consultant named Stephanie Odegard, was the first U.S. company to join GoodWeave. “She was the key early adopter,” says Smith. Others followed.
Today, GoodWeave has licensing agreements with about 80 design and import companies. Macy’s, for example, has agreed to phase in certified rugs starting this year. The licensees agree to produce their carpets without child labor, to register their workplaces in India and Nepal with GoodWeave, to permit unannounced inspections and to pay license fees – 0.5 percent of the retail price of each rug – that support child rescue, educational and rehabilitation programs in south Asia.
Those license fees provide about 20% of GoodWeave’s budget, with the rest coming from foundation grants and individual donors. The Skoll Foundation, which was started by former eBay executive Jeff Skoll, and Humanity United, a creation of Pam Omidyar, wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, are major backers.
GoodWeave works mostly in Nepal and India. It has had its greatest success in Nepal, where it certifies about 30% of the rugs coming into the U.S. Altogether, just under 4% of the imported rugs sold in the U.S. carry the GoodWeave mark.
That may not sound like much but as GoodWeave’s “trust mark” becomes more visible, importers and retailers will come under pressure to adopt it. It’s a little like weaving a rug–tie one knot at a time, be focused and patient, and you can end up with something beautiful.