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What’s Really ‘Green’? A Look at Mattresses, Part III

3p Contributor | Friday June 3rd, 2011 | 3 Comments

By Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D.

Previously, I explored the cacophony of greenwashing that plagues the mattress industry, making green mattress purchases quite the head-twisting endeavor. In a follow-up post, I proposed a four-question framework for evaluating green purchasing choices – in mattresses and beyond – and explored the first two key questions of this framework:

  • Key Question I: What’s the Problem? What are the environmental and people (e.g., health, safety, economic) issues that motivate consumers to choose green in this product category?
  • Key Question 2: What’s the Solution? What are the green attributes that the product claims to offer and their real (i.e., measurable and verifiable) benefits compared to non-green counterparts?

Here I address Key Question 3: How Can You Prove It? What certifications should you look for to verify that a green product provides the benefits it claims to offer?

ENTERING THE ECO-LABEL JUNGLE

Ahhh, yes, certifications and their associated “eco-labels”, you curse under your breath. You have tried to make sense of the multitudes listed on Ecolabel Index and Consumer Reports Greener Choices.  The result – you are totally overwhelmed. It’s anything but easy to figure out which eco-labels are legitimately credible and meaningful – you just don’t have the time.

Well, I’ll do my best to help here as I work to learn what they all mean. Below I provide a quick review of characteristics of a good ecolabel (so we know some red flags to look out for). I then present a broad overview of eco-labels that mattress makers are most commonly using right now to verify the green attributes detailed in Part II.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD ECO-LABEL

According to Gil Friend and Consumer Reports’ EcoLabel Report Cards, a good eco-label is:

  • Industry-specific
  • Accurate, consistent and clear
  • Independent, third-party verified, and protected from conflict of interest
  • Meaningful (confers real benefits for ecosystems and people)
  • Transparent (standards are publicly available)
  • Collaborative (developed with public and industry input)
  • A marketing asset (has a memorable name, a recognizable logo)

TYPES OF ECOLABELS COMMON IN THE MATTRESS INDUSTRY

There are two main types of claims that mattress customers tend to be interested in verifying:

  1. Health (“human ecological”) claims focused on the finished product – proof that the product (or component – e.g., the core, cover, fire barrier) is safe (i.e., free of harmful chemicals). According to a 2010 Specialty Sleep Association Report, health concerns motivate most customer interest in purchasing a green mattress.
  2. Environmental (“sustainability”) claims focused on processes of mattress raw materials production, textile processing, and disposal – proof that the production, use and disposal of the mattress has minimal environmental impact (e.g., raw materials were organically grown or sustainably harvested, fibers were processed into textile with minimal use of harmful chemicals).

Of course there’s plenty of overlap between the two categories. If a component is healthy for YOU, it’s more often than not also going to be healthy for the ecosystems that sustain human well-being.

GREEN MATTRESS ECOLABELS

When researching your green mattress purchase, what eco-labels should you expect to encounter? Let’s answer this question for the mattress components described in Part II: core, cover, fire barrier.

Eco-labels Certifying ‘Green’ Core Materials

To verify that latex, spring and foam mattresses are safe and healthy for both people and ecosystems, top green mattress makers are currently using the following certifications:

Certifications for Verifying Health Claims

Oeko-Tex 100

A certification that has consistently impressed is Oeko-Tex 100.  In an example of why, a customer recently asked about the presence of Antimony in Spaldin mattresses. When I looked at Oeko-Tex’s limit values, I found that its Antimony standard (30 ppm) was half the current European toy industry’s standard (60 ppm) – notable because Europe well outpaces the U.S. on chemical safety.

A favorite blog of mine summarized Oeko-Tex 100 in its post about eco-labels in textiles (I’ve slightly adapted the wording to fit this post):

Oeko-Tex was founded to provide an objective and reliable product label for consumers and a uniform safety standard for the assessment of harmful substances in fabrics. Its aim is to ensure products are free of harmful substances. The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 excludes harmful substances or limits their use. The following parameters form part of the Oeko-Tex list of criteria:

Specifically banned:

  • Brominated flame retardants (penta, octa, deca, others)
  • Chloro-organic toluenes and benzenes
  • Formaldehyde*
  • Pesticides
  • Extractable heavy metals
  • Phthalates* in baby articles
  • Emissions of volatile components (VOCs) including toluene, styrene, butadiene and others
  • AZO dyes*
  • Carcinogenic and allergy-inducing dyes
  • Chlorinated phenols
  • Organotin compounds (TBT and DBT)

Oeko-Tex’s labs test for not only harmful emissions, but also risks associated with skin contact and ingestion. Certification lasts for only one year, so be sure to verify that a company’s is up-to-date, as Spaldin allows customers to do on its web site.

CertiPUR-US®

Focusing strictly on the safety and quality of polyurethane foams is CertiPUR-US®, which, according to Ecolabel Index:

is a voluntary standard to advance the safety, health and environmental (SHE) performance of flexible polyurethane foams used in bedding and upholstered furniture. The scheme takes into account existing standards and scientific studies related to emanations from foams, product criteria and risk assessments.

A review of CertiPUR’s limit values for emissions and content testing reveals them to be overall similar to Oeko-Tex’s – in many cases the same, in others a bit weaker, in a few slightly stronger. CertiPUR tests for harmful emissions, content and durability, with parameters including VOCs, phthalates, ozone depleters, toxic metals, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and PBDEs. It does not simulate effects of ingestion or skin contact. So it’s tests are different and not quite as comprehensive compared to Oeko-Tex.

CertiPUR also can’t be considered an independent or third-party eco-label since it was “developed by members of the global foam industry”. While its foam testing is, importantly, conducted by a third-party entity, the fact that the certification was established by the industry it certifies places it in a typically less-stringent and less-trusted category than independent, third-party eco-labels. Still, the label’s standards and independent testing provide meaningful quality and safety assurances.

Eco Institut

Another certification of safety from harmful product emissions is Eco Institut.  Here’s a description from one certified mattress maker’s web site:

“The Eco Institut in Cologne, Germany is a very well-respected organization that tests a variety of products for pollutants and emissions.

Their areas of testing include building materials, flooring, mattresses and bedding, furniture…as well as everyday items like toys, cell phones, and other electronics. The reason independent companies use the Eco Institute is because they want to be able to display the coveted Eco-Institut certificate of approval…The Eco Institut does not label anything as organic, such as an organic mattress. They merely test to be sure that materials meet certain thresholds for emissions requirements.”

euroLATEX ECO-Standard

Focusing strictly on the health and safety of latex mattress cores is the euroLATEX ECO-Standard, described on its web site as:

“The euroLATEX ECO-Standard for latex foam cores has been developed by the European Latex Foam Manufacturers association in close co-operation with one of Europe’s leading and most reputable scientific institutes, i.e. TFI (Deutsches Teppich-Forschungs Institut in Aachen, Germany). The ECO-Standard defines the maximum acceptable limits of substances considered harmful to health that could occur in latex foam cores. This is based upon scientific data and stringent limits from other standards. The substances that are tested for include: Heavy Metals, Nitrosamines, Pesticides, Solvents, VOCs.”

The major issue I see with this label is that it is not independent of the industry it certifies.

Quality Association for Environmentally Agreeable Latex Mattresses (QUL)

Another latex-specific certification is QUL:

It is impossible for laypersons to differentiate the material “natural latex” from synthetic latex which is produced from oil…Also, mattresses with only 2% natural latex are sold as natural latex mattresses, although there certainly are 100% natural latex mattresses available in the retail trade. In order to balance the lack of protection for the term natural latex, the QUL was founded at the end of 1994.

The QUL certificate prevents latex mattresses from containing the following in concentrations which are cause for concern:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC)
  • Pesticides
  • Health-damaging heavy metals
  • Pentachlorophenol (PCP)
  • Nitrosamines

This label appears to offer one solution for distinguishing credibly “natural” latex from synthetic latex, helping to address a significant greenwashing issue that I lamented in Part I.

GreenGuard

For people concerned about health effects of VOCs from adhesives (and other chemicals) used in mattresses, you may encounter GreenGuard. Here’s a description adapted from O Ecotextiles:

GreenGuard…tests for the emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals, chemicals that are a gas at room temperature. And that is all GreenGuard does – it does not look at the production of the fabric…nor does it look at carbon footprint.

And GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.)
  • It does not measure PVC, which is a polymer and therefore not volatile
  • It does not measure phthalates (except in the Children and Schools certification).”[1]

Read carefully, folks. GreenGuard certification only means that no toxic VOCs were detected during emissions testing.  It doesn’t mean that there are no toxics in the mattress, itself.

ECO-LABELS TO WATCH FOR

Two textile eco-labels that have received praise, but which I’ve yet to see used for mattresses, are Cradle to Cradle (here’s a brief description) and the SMART sustainable textile standard. I’ll write more about these eco-labels if we start to seem used to certify mattresses.

Certifications for Verifying Environmental Claims

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS, written up in this recent blog post, is one of my favorite eco-labels. I admire what this organization does to market the positive impact of true “organic” textiles – those both made with organically grown raw fibers and with organic fibers that have been processed into textile without harmful chemicals. Here’s a summary adapted from O Ecotextiles:

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) aims to define a universal standard for organic fibers—from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, to labeling—in order to provide credible assurance to consumers. There are also social responsibility components (i.e., fair wages, no forced or bonded labor, etc.)  All parameters are listed and accessible. The GOTS parameters for materials include prohibitions or restrictions on:

  • Formaldehyde and short chain aldehydes
  • Heavy metals
  • Aromatic solvents
  • Chloro Phenols (TCP, PCP)
  • Complexing agents (APEO)
  • Fungicides and biocides
  • Halogenated solvents
  • Ammonia treatment

The GOTS certification applies to only natural fibers…(not) polyester or other synthetic fibers.

Be sure to look out for whether a material claimed to be organic simply comes from an organically grown crop (see below), or has also been processed into a textile without harmful chemicals (GOTS).

USDA National Organic Program (NOP)

The USDA Organic eco-label, used by one latex mattress maker (likely to certify the raw rubber tree sap, since latex, itself, is not certifiable) and several manufacturers of mattress covers, signifies that the raw fiber used to make a textile comes from an organic crop, according to USDA Organic standards. Here’s a bit more from SleepInformation.org about how this label does – and does NOT – apply to finished textiles such as mattress components:

“raw natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, flax, etc., are agricultural products and covered.  However, to earn NOP certification of a finished textile product, the textile must fully meet the crop/livestock production standard, which is considered challenging for many textiles because these standards were written for crops and, for example, certain dyes and other treatments are not addressed in the regulation and therefore not allowed.”

Importantly, “(Textile) Manufacturers may not…use the USDA Organic seal or imply that the final finished product is certified organic.” Of course, the fact that the crop (e.g., latex, cotton) was organically grown is important, as demonstrated by this multi-decade study comparing organic vs. non-organic farming systems.

ECO-LABELS TO WATCH FOR

Oeko-Tex 1000

Oeko-Tex recently established a standard to certify production processes: Oeko-Tex® Standard 1000:

While Oeko-Tex 100 is solely concerned with the final product, the Oeko-Tex 1000 standard looks at processing and manufacturing (whether wastewater is treated, for example, or renewable energy is used to power the mill) of products.[2]

The Global Recycle Standard

The Global Recycle Standard helps verify claims of recycled material content (e.g. springs made from recycled steel, covers with a recycled PES backing). This label is ecologically important because it means manufacturing of the mattress component causes fewer environmental impacts associated with raw materials extraction (e.g., mining for steel, farming cotton, petroleum drilling, logging).

USDA Bio-Preferred

The USDA now certifies products as containing biobased materials.  For bedding and bed products, a minimum of 12% biobased material is required to qualify for the certification. A measly twelve percent is certainly not ideal, but it’s a start. As an important note, mattresses are complex products and are (ever so conveniently) not addressed as part of the bedding and bed category.  So use caution if and when you see this eco-label associated with mattresses.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Rainforest Alliance

As noted in Part II, latex production has been cited by the esteemed journal, Science, as a driver of tropical deforestation. Two eco-labels that customers can use to verify that latex was sustainably sourced are issued by FSC and the Rainforest Alliance.

FSC is an international certification and labeling system that guarantees that the forest products you purchase come from responsibly managed forests.  It helps certify sustainable latex production, and FSC-certified latex gloves and sports balls are available. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an instance of FSC-certified latex used in mattresses. Hopefully this changes soon.

The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior. They promote sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products including latex. Like FSC, you will find the Rainforest Alliance (as well as other forest certifiers, such as SFI, CSA and PEFC) listed by mattress makers as certifying wood (e.g., used in foundations). As far as I can tell, they have not yet certified mattress latex as sourced from responsibly managed forests.

Eco-labels for Certifying Claims of Green Cover/Ticking Materials

Most green mattress covers use certified organic cotton, which in some cases is combined with wool claimed to be organic, cruelty-free, or chemical free. To verify these claims, mattress makers are using certifications such as GOTS and Oeko-Tex 100, described above.

Other labels I’ve seen used to verify claims of green cover materials include:

Oregon Tilth

This outstanding organization not only certifies textiles to GOTS and USDA Organic standards. It also offers its own organic certification.

Organic Crop Improvement Association

This organization is an organic certifier. Where you see this logo, the mattress maker is probably identifying the organization that conducted its organic certification. Confusing, I know.

Texas Dept of Agriculture Certified Organic

The Ecolabel Index describes this certification as follows:

TDA inspects and certifies organic farms as well as processors, distributors and retailers of organic food and fiber. To be certified, all must comply with organic growing and handling standards established by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). In exchange for this compliance, participants may use a marketing logo identifying their products as certified organic.

More information is available on the organization’s web site.

KRAV and SKAL

Europe’s oldest and most prestigious certification agency, KRAV of Sweden, has certified the organic cotton of some mattress brands.  Skal is the certification and inspection body for organic production based in the Netherlands.

ECO-LABELS TO WATCH FOR

Two certifications to look out for, notes SleepInformation.org, are OE 100 and OE Blended. Naturepedic is one brand I’ve seen use OE100 to verify a its mattress’ organic claims. Let us know if you find any others.  Another being used by at least one maker of mattress covers is SCS Indoor Advantage Gold Certified.

Eco-Wool Standards

Having seen more than my share of land degraded by sheep overgrazing, I look skeptically upon claims of “green” wool. Unfortunately, no certification yet verifies that wool comes from well-managed range (i.e., in which native species, soils, riparian habitats and other critical ecosystem components are in good health).

So when you see claims of eco-wool, what they typically mean is that sheep were fed organic feed, were humanely treated, and that their wool was cleaned without harmful chemicals. Certifications used to verify these claims include:

PureGrow™ Wool/Premium Eco-Wool

As adapted from one retailer’s web site, PureGrow™Wool:

has been a joint effort for many years by the Natural Bedroom, the Sonoma County Wool Growers, the University of California Agricultural Extension and Debra Lynn Dadd…(It) takes the Organic standard a step further by not subjecting organic wool to chemical cleaners. This program calls for absolutely no chemicals, pesticides or artificial materials in the sheep’s environment. The pastures where they graze must be free of pesticides for a minimum of two years, and supplemental feeds must be organically based. Inoculations can contain no synthetics or hormones. Even the grasses on which the sheep are grazed are carefully selected. In the shearing process, ranchers use a clean room and a surface free of dirt, dust and pests. Throughout the packing, cleaning and carding process, care is taken to eliminate chemical processes and maintain uniform quality.

Bio Grow New Zealand

BioGro is New Zealand’s leading organic certifier. Since 1983, BioGro has certified over 900 operations across New Zealand’s production, processing, farm supply, export, and retail sectors.

American Humane Certified

American Humane Certified sheep are reared organically without antibiotics, hormones, or other chemical treatments.

Ecolabels for Verifying Claims of a ‘Green’ Fire Barrier

As described in Part II, ‘green’ fire barriers range from organic and cruelty-free wool to non-toxic substances like the silica-cellulose-based fiber, viscose, as well as Kevlar.  Many mattress customers are concerned about the health effects of flame retardants, having read horror stories about chemicals like PBDEs (now banned in most states) in publications like Newsweek and National Geographic.

After reviewing the web sites of over a dozen green mattress brands, I found that few have certified their fire barrier to be safe. To verify a mattress’ claims of safety from harmful flame retardant chemicals, look for an eco-label such as Oeko-Tex 100.

Memberships, Not Certifications

Some logos you may encounter during your mattress search are not certifications, but rather memberships.  This is by no means a bad thing – it’s great to support organizations advancing ‘green’ products and supply chains.  It’s just important to recognize what membership logos do and do not signify.  Below are a few examples I’ve run across:

  • Green America-Approved – note: I’ve found that the screening process required to showcase this label is actually quite stringent.
  • Sustainable Furnishings Councilnote: this organization does also offer certification as a Silver, Gold or Platinum-level Exemplary Sustainable Furniture Manufacturer – a program similar to that of the Specialty Sleep Association, described below.
  • Organic Trade Association

Key Certification Trend: Consolidation

By now, your head is probably spinning. This is all way too much to learn, isn’t it?

Well, here’s some welcome news.

Many in the green products sector – in mattress and beyond – are pushing for consolidation of eco-labels.  In the mattress business, a leading related effort is the Specialty Sleep Association (SSA) Environment and Safety Program, in which the program’s easy-to-understand tags are placed directly on certified mattresses in retail showrooms.

Mattress models that earn its “Level III” seal (currently the most stringent) must:

  • Disclose materials used in construction and achieve a minimum of 70% of natural/biobased material and/or pre-consumer recycled content in component categories of fabric and quilt
  • Disclose materials used in construction and achieve a minimum of 50% natural/biobased, pre-consumer recycled and/or steel for core
  • Verify that the final mattress is certified by Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 or Global Organic Textile Standard
  • Test the mattress for VOCs emissions

Officials from SSA emphasize that the goal of this program is transparency – to make it easy for customers see what’s in their mattress, thus helping them trust that it does not pose health risks.  It is not, they stress, a green or sustainability program designed to verify minimal environmental impacts of mattress production, use or disposal (though of course certifications like GOTS and Oeko-Tex do offer important benefits to this end).

Conclusion

This blog post provided a broad overview of certifications currently being used by top green mattress brands to verify their green claims. It is just the beginning of my work researching and comparing all these eco-labels, so I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments below.

In the fourth and final post in this series (coming this summer), I’ll explore Key Question 4: What do we still need to do better? What steps does the mattress industry still need to take to clean up greenwash, boost sales and maximize positive impact? Stay tuned for the answers…

******

Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D., Principal at Conservation Value, Inc., is a rare combination of conservation scientist, sustainability expert and communication specialist. He is currently serving as a sustainability consultant for Spaldin.

Take Dr. Gelbard’s course – Principles of Green Purchasing and Sustainability: Sept 14 – Nov 16, 2011 at UC Berkeley Extension’s Berkeley Campus – just a short walk from Downtown Berkeley BART.


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  • Peggy

    Thanks for all the information! I am learning so much!!!

  • Elaine

    Thanks for the information. I’ve been looking for a reputable company online to purchase a 100% Latex Mattress Topper. My head is spinning! Your info. will help me make a wise choice. Thanks again.

  • Elaine

    I forgot to ask. Is there a way to prove that an Online Company which is using some of these certification logos on their website is legit?