Guide to Finding Eco-Friendly Mattress Alternatives
July 26, 2014
As the green movement continues growing and concerns about household chemicals rise, many people are seeking out healthier home products, including eco-friendly mattress alternatives.
But, there’s a lot of confusing information out there, and determining exactly what a green or eco-friendly mattress means can seem a little daunting.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll look at what exactly it means for a mattress to be “green” or “eco-friendly”, and what to look for if you are seeking a healthier mattress. You can also compare several brands of eco-friendly mattresses to see which might offer the best fit for your needs.
What is Eco-Friendly or Green?
Green and eco buzzwords aren’t regulated very closely, and can mean different things to different companies and individuals. See what the key green marketing words really mean.
Technically speaking, eco-friendly (aka environmentally-friendly) can apply to anything that has less of an impact on the environment than traditional or mainstream alternatives. This could mean a product uses less non-renewable resources, uses more sustainable materials, results in less pollution, contains no or minimal toxins, or contains less earth-damaging chemicals than similar products. It could also refer to the way a company conducts business and makes their products.
Green is even broader, and can refer to anything that offers a perceived environmental advantage or that uses more natural ingredients than traditional products. This can refer to the product, packaging, manufacturing, delivery and other aspects of the buying process as well.
Natural can be murky as well. Generally, a natural product is one that is found in nature (like cotton blossoms, wool or latex). But, many natural products are processed by man into new items, derived from but not necessarily identical to the original material. There is no set guideline as to whether or not products derived from natural items should be referred to as being natural or not.
Organic, on the other hand, has a very specific meaning. Organic means a product was grown without toxic chemical pesticides and in accordance with other environmentally-friendly regulations. In order for a product to use the word organic, it must be certified by a recognized body.
You should always check with the the retailer or manufacturer to see who certified a product labelled organic, and exactly what is certified. Some brands may call a bed organic, when only a portion of materials are actually certified. For example, a mattress may simply have an organic cotton cover, but use non-certified foams or padding.
The only materials on mattresses that are commonly organic are cotton fabrics and wool. But, some companies have started using organic latex as well. Latex foam can be made with organically-grown latex liquid from hevea brasiliensis trees, but it must be made to Global Organic Latex Standard specifications to be considered organic (the USDA does not certify latex foam or finished mattresses at this time).
There is no such thing as a chemical-free mattress (or a chemical-free anything), as chemicals make up pretty much everything on a basic level (even natural items). You may want to question broad claims like chemical-free, as the manufacturer should refer to specific chemicals they are excluding instead (VOCs, a specific flame retardant, formaldehyde, etc) since no item can really be “chemical-free”.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
There has been a lot of buzz around VOCs and home products recently as people seek to avoid potential toxins and clean up indoor air. VOCs refer to chemicals that decompose and offgas/outgas into the air over time.
VOCs can be found in many places – paints, new cars, furniture, nail polish, perfumes, hair products, photocopiers are all sources, but so too are many plants and trees. It is very difficult for scientists to determine the safety of most VOCs, since we are exposed to so many different things every day and studies would involve many years of research to offer conclusive answers
However, some VOCs are more concerning than others and potentially harmful links have been identified. Some VOC’s also contribute to pollution and ozone depletion, making them harmful to the environment.
In mattresses, the VOCs of concern are primarily found in adhesives, fire proofing chemicals, fabric treatments and foams. Ones of particular concern often cited for mattresses include chlorofluorocarbons (now banned), benzene, methylene chloride, and formaldehyde. These can be present as additives in foams or adhesives, or as byproducts of manufacturing.
When it comes to foams, the biggest health risk and pollution concern is present during manufacturing, but trace amounts of chemicals in finished products could continue outgassing into indoor air. For polyurethane foams, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s official stance is that fully reacted polyurethane foams are inert and safe.
If VOCs are a concern for you, look for products that have undergone testing or certification for VOC levels (such as Oeko-tex, Greenguard, Eco-Institut or Certi-Pur). VOCs are strongest in newer products, so leaving a mattress in a ventilated space to air out for several days can also reduce your exposure.
There is not really a unified opinion among green marketers or advertising boards as to what the green terms mean or who can use them. But, once you know the basics about claims and certifications, it’s a little easier to sort through products and identify eco-friendly mattress options.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for overseeing advertising claims in the U.S. They offer some advice to companies about advertising green, but it’s largely up to companies’ discretion what they say. The FTC does advise against using “deceptive” green claims, for example, if a company claims a product is “free of” a substance, it should be found in no more than trace amounts and in amounts that don’t cause harm. Non-toxic claims are supposed be supported scientifically, and renewable material claims are supposed to specific. However, the FTC does not weigh in on claims like natural or sustainable.
They may be becoming a little more active in the bedding industry, though. In 2013, the FTC barred a few mattress companies from making unfounded green claims. The FTC ruled that Relief-Mart was making unsubstantiated VOC-free claims; Essentia was making unsubstantiated 100% natural, VOC- and chemical-free claims; and that Ecobaby Organics made unsubstantiated VOC- and chemical-free claims and misrepresented organic claims.
Other bodies that regulate or validate green claims in the mattress world include:
- Certi-Pur, an industry group that tests VOC claims of polyurethane foams.
- Oeko-Tex, who tests and certifies product VOC/chemical claims.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), an international standard for processing organic fabrics to ensure all phases of manufacturing comply with organic standards.
- Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS), an international standard for processing organic latex liquid into foam to ensure all phases of manufacturing comply with organic standards..
- Greenguard, an organization that tests for chemical and VOC emissions.
- ECO-INSTITUT, a UL organization that certifies chemical and emissions standards of fabrics, poly foams, latex foam, and other materials.
- Institute for Marketecology (IMO), an large international inspection, quality and organic certification agency that covers a broad range of categories.
- USDA Organic, certifies the organic nature of agricultural and final products (usually not applicable to most mattress products).
- Oregon Tilth (OTCO), a US organic certification organization that certifies for USDA, GOTS and others.
- Specialty Sleep Association Environmental & Safety Program, an industry group that has four levels of certification based percent of “green” components and attained third-party safety certifications.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), both oversee certification of environmentally-friendly and sustainable sources of wood (often used mattress foundations and bed frames).
The Makings of an Eco-Friendly Mattress: What to Look For
Here’s a look at materials that tend to be eco-friendly or green, in the sense that their production causes less environmental damage, uses less or no potentially toxic additives, or in the sense that these materials use no or fewer non-renewable materials versus traditional counterparts.
Eco-Friendly Fabrics & Fibers
- Organic Cotton: Cotton is the world’s dirtiest crop in terms of pesticides used, so going organic can offer clear benefit. Cotton is also renewable and sustainable.
- Wool: Wool comes from sheep, who continue growing wool after being sheared, and is thus renewable and sustainable. Some producers use insecticides, though wool can be certified organic as well.
- Bamboo: Although bamboo must be processed to become rayon, bamboo is a highly-sustainable and fast-growing crop that requires little pesticides, making it more eco-friendly than petro-based polyesters.
- Recycled Polyester: Traditional polyester is made of petroleum, but recycled polyesters made from plastic bottles or polyester fabrics can be eco-friendly.
- Tencel/Lyocell: Made from processed wood pulp, and fairly eco-friendly to produce.
- Hemp: Hemp requires few chemicals to grow and is highly sustainable.
- Flax/Linen: Flax also requires few chemicals to grow and is highly sustainable.
- Natural Latex: Latex foam made from 100% natural latex is greener than petroleum-based foams or synthetic styrene-butadiene latex. It can come from sustainable harvesting operations, and the living trees also support healthy air.
- Plant-Based Polyurethanes: These types of foams replace a portion of the petroleum-based ingredients with botanically-derived oils, making them more eco-friendly than traditional poly foams. Can be made into poly support cores, padding foams, or even memory foam.
More Eco-Friendly Materials
- FSC or SFI-certified Woods: These materials come from producers that support eco-friendly logging practices.
- Recycled Metal: For mattresses with coils, those made of recycled metal have an eco advantage over those made with virgin metals as they are reducing waste.
Greener Fire Barriers
The 16 CFR Part 1633 law establishes flammability standards for mattresses, and requires all mattress sets to be able to withstand an open flame for 30 minutes in an effort to reduce house fires. It does not specify how manufacturers are to achieve this, and companies often turn to chemicals.
Some of the worst offenders in terms of potential toxicity, like Penta-BDE (PBDE), have been banned in recent years, but similar chemicals could still be in use. Mattress makers are not required to disclose fire barrier methods, but conscious of consumer concerns, many have turned to fiber-based barriers (rayon blends), fabrics treated with antimony, boric acid or other retardants, or specialized wool (primarily on latex beds).
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says there are many flame retardants available to mattress companies that aren’t likely to pose health risks, and the CPSC/EPA also responded to boric acid, antimony, octa-BDE, and fiberglass concerns, saying neither are likely to pose health risks when used on a mattress according to testing.
If you are concerned about potential fire chemicals, look for barriers or mattresses that are certified by Oeko-Tex, Greenguard, or other emissions/safety testing.
Eco Friendly Mattress Types
If you are looking for an eco-friendly mattress, there are a range of different types and levels of “greenness” available, depending on your comfort preferences and your budget.
Organic cotton, wool, or natural latex mattresses may be the most eco-friendly, but latex may not be ideal for everyone, and these materials also tend to be more expensive. There are also greener innerspring, blended latex and memory foam mattresses for those who prefer different feels or who seek a lower price point.
Below, you can find an overview of each category and an handful of brands that position their products as eco-friendly mattress alternatives. All prices are for queen sizes, and details were verified to the best of our ability based on manufacturer websites.
Natural latex mattresses (the kind made with 100% botanical latex) are an ideal eco-friendly mattress option, especially when paired with natural wool fire barriers and organic fabric covers. Beds made with organic latex are even better, but due to limited availability, they are also more expensive. If you are concerned about VOCs, look for a bed that has testing certifications, does not have glue in the layers and that uses a wool or other non-toxic fire barrier.
Blended latex uses a portion of natural latex mixed with synthetic styrene butadiene rubber. These mattresses offer many of the same benefits as regular latex and are cheaper, but the materials do contain petrochemicals and are not as eco-friendly to produce.
There are also latex mattress hybrids, which may include natural or blended latex foam above an innerspring or poly foam core. These types tend to be cheapest, but have lower owner satisfaction and reduced durability.
- Astrabeds – GOLS-certified organic 100% natural latex, OCS-certified organic cotton, organic natural wool fire barrier, Eco-Institut tested for VOCs. $1799-$2999
- FloBeds – Blended or Oeko-Tex certified 100% natural latex, cotton or certified organic cotton, wool or organic wool. $1779-$2899.
- Habitat Furnishings – Natural latex, rayon/wool fire barrier, OTCO/GOTS certified organic cotton cover, natural wool. $1099-$1999
- IKEA – Synthetic latex/poly foam hybrid with wool and synthetic cover, or blended latex with wool and cotton cover. $549-$999.
- Natura – Hybrid latex over foam, all-latex, and all-natural latex mattresses, wool or certified organic wool, and cotton blend and organic cotton covers. $900-$4000 (est.).
- OMI/Lifekind – Oeko-Tex certified 100% natural latex, NOP/IMO/GOTS certified organic cotton, natural wool fire barrier, Greenguard certification. $2195-$9395.
- Savvy Rest – Oeko-Tex certified 100% natural or Eco Institut/GOLS certified organic latex, GOTS-compliant cotton, OTCO-certified organic wool, Greenguard certification. $2349-$5299.
- Sleep EZ – Oeko-Tex certified blended or 100% natural latex, natural wool, natural or GOTS-certified organic cotton. $1195-$2300.
Memory Foam/Poly Foam Mattresses
The only memory foam and poly foam mattresses that are considered eco-friendly are those made with plant-based or “bio” foam. Though they still do contain a portion of petrochemicals, they offer the feel and benefits of memory foam in a more eco-friendly format. Plant-based foams also tend to be fairly affordable, and may even sleep cooler than regular memory foam (according to manufacturer Cargill’s research).
Some manufacturers take extra steps to make a more ecologically sound memory foam product, like filtering or eliminating emissions during manufacturing or shipping beds compressed to reduce fuel consumption. Check to see what type of fire barrier is used, and whether or not the foams, fire barrier or mattress have any low-VOC certifications if you are concerned about chemicals.
- Amerisleep – Plant-based memory foam, zero emissions manufacturing, Greenguard-certified fire barriers. $849-$1899.
- Essentia – “Natural memory foam”, Oeko-Tex certified natural latex foam, GOTS-certified organic cotton cover/padding, “bucaneve” wrap, Greenguard glues. $1790-$5546.
- NaturaPedic – Plant-based memory foam, wool, cotton/bamboo blend fabric. $900-$2000 (est.).
A few companies make innerspring mattresses that pair traditional coil support systems with eco-friendly ticking and padding materials. Look for beds with natural or organic fabric, non-toxic fire barriers, low-VOC adhesives, and eco-friendly padding layers like latex, wool, hair, or plant-based foams.
- Keetsa – Innersprings with memory foam, Certi-Pur plant-based foam, and organic cotton or hemp blend covers. $682-$2099.
- Natura Green Spring – Innersprings with latex, plant-based foam, cotton and wool. $800-$1500 (est.).
- OMI/Lifekind – Innersprings with certified organic cotton padding and fabrics, and/or natural wool or natural latex. $2795-3395.
- Royal-Pedic – Innersprings with natural or organic cotton and cotton fabric, and wool or natural Talalay latex padding. $3500-$6000 (est.)
- Saatva – Innerspring with organic cotton cover, cotton and bio-based poly/memory foam padding. $899.
- SavvyRest Earthspring – Recycled springs with natural latex, latex and coconut fiber blend, certified organic cotton and wool cover. $1799.
- Vivetique – Innersprings with organic cotton padding and fabrics, natural wool and/or natural latex. $1000-$4000 (est.).
If you are searching for an eco-friendly mattress, the most important thing is to define what it is you personally consider “green” or “eco-friendly” to mean. Since there is no singular definition, having a clear idea of your “must-haves” can be helpful when comparing beds.
For example, are you simply looking for a lower-VOC option than traditional beds, or is it more important that materials don’t harm the environment, or that a bed be made of only 100% organic materials? What types of materials feel most comfortable to your body (latex, wool, memory foam, springs, etc)? How much are you willing to spend? How long do you expect a new mattress to last? Is a return policy or strong warranty important to you? What types of certifications would you like to see?
Once you know what your ideal bed checklist looks like, you can seek out eco-friendly alternatives that fit your needs, and identify your perfect mattress. Remember, always check out certifications that brands claim, read reviews online and do your own research to make sure you’re not being bowled over by marketing fluff.
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