By Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D.
From the standpoint of a conservation scientist who understands what’s really ‘green’ (in terms of measurable benefits for the health of ecosystems and people) vs. what’s merely greenwash (a claim with little if any measurable positive impact), the world of sustainable business is ripe with opportunity to help companies raise the bar.
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?
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?
I organize my answer by life-cycle stage:
Raw Materials Production
On the bright side, mattress makers are using certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and USDA Organic label (described in Part III) to verify that raw materials used to make textiles have been grown with lower environmental and health impacts compared to their conventional counterparts.
However, one thing I’ve learned is that few people in the mattress industry are even thinking about minimizing production impacts. From a business standpoint, this lack of concern is justified by market research showing that environmental concerns aren’t influential mattress sales drivers. Thus, efforts to improve in this area are unlikely to be motivated by environmental concerns, per se. Rather, they are likely to take hold once mattress makers start paying attention to how companies in other industries are leveraging related strategies to reduce exposure to supply chain risks, increase the resource and energy efficiency of operations, and improve brand reputation and sales.
Two examples of drivers that mattress industry officials would be wise to keep an eye on include:
1. Selecting source materials with a lower carbon and water footprint - With growing uncertainty about the status of global petroleum and fresh water supplies and resulting impacts to agricultural production (compounded by the recent rash of severe weather, which scientists explain is linked to global warming weirding), prices of raw materials from petroleum to cotton have risen substantially over the past five years. By choosing core, fabric and fire barrier materials that are less carbon and water intensive to produce, mattress makers not only reduce their environmental impacts, but also gain a leg up on the competition in insulating their bottom line from these supply chain risks.
2. Selecting “natural” materials (e.g., latex, plant-based foams, wool) that have a certified sustainable production impact – It’s encouraging to see rising use of bio-based materials, which appeal to customers’ desire for ‘natural’ mattresses. However, is the industry simply replacing petrochemical impacts with impacts of industrial agriculture, which often involve a different set of petrochemicals and suite of environmental impacts – including deforestation, biodiversity loss, overgrazing and soil and water pollution? One solution to ensure this is not the case is to source plant oils used to make foam polyols from organic farms. Another is to follow the path of the bioplastics industry, which is turning toward its waste stream to acquire petroleum-replacing source materials.
Other than organic sourcing of cotton, companies are not yet taking adequate steps to reduce the production impacts of bio-based materials. Not that they’re entirely to blame. After fishing around Google, I was unable to locate FSC-certified mattress latex – a key market need for verifying that the latex was produced in a way that is not driving tropical rainforest destruction.
Plus, there’s not yet an FSC-equivalent for certifying livestock-derived products like wool as coming from well-managed grasslands and pastures. Why is this important? If produced in the American West, for example, organic wool from grass-fed, humanely treated sheep may still come from overgrazed grasslands with decimated biodiversity, degraded habitats, and eroding topsoils). If anyone readers want to talk about stepping up to meet this market need, drop me a line.
Manufacturing Phase: Textile Processing & Mattress Assembly
It is here in the manufacturing phase that the textile industry earns its recognition as the world's #1 industrial polluter of fresh water. Thus, it’s significant that mattress makers are using certifications such as GOTS to source components that are true organic textiles, defined in Part II.
Still, it’s mind-boggling that textile processing chemicals known to be dangerously toxic are legal to use, and that we need to look for certifications to ensure their residues are not present in the mattresses we sleep on. As SaferChemicals.org notes for the U.S.:
“Today there are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, which have never been fully assessed for toxic impacts on human health and the environment.”
One area where strides are just starting to be made is in greening production and assembly facilities. Industrias Tobia, the parent company of Spaldin, has installed solar PV panels on its facility in Spain. OMI has a GOTS-certified mattress factory.
It is encouraging to see companies devising solutions such as compressed shipping to help pack more mattresses into containers and trucks, cutting transport costs and carbon emissions. Additional opportunities to reduce impacts include sourcing locally whenever feasible and considering fleet efficiency when choosing a transport service.
In terms of reducing health impacts of mattresses, the industry is making strides using certifications like Oeko-tex 100, Eco Institut and GOTS (detailed in Part III) to independently verify safety of materials from harmful chemicals. Otherwise, little of the lifecycle impact of a mattress comes during the use phase. One area where companies can raise the bar during this phase is to maximize durability of materials and life expectancy of mattresses. Customers, in turn, can look for a good, long warranty and carefully follow mattress care instructions.
An area in major need of improvement is mattress end-of-life. Currently, even the Sierra Club’s Green Home Guide only recommends:
Check your local community disposal options for mattress recycling. In some places there’s an organization that will come collect your mattress, cut it apart, and separate the materials and recycle them for a reasonable fee.
As the authors of the sustainable business classic, "Cradle to Cradle" emphasize, keeping products out of the landfill starts with design. Ironically, the comfort-focused customizable design of some mattresses (making them easy to zipper open and add, remove or exchange layers of latex, foam and other materials) also makes it easier to re-use, recycle, and compost these components.
Marketing Keys for Doing Away With Greenwash
Stepping into the shoes of an everyday customer, purchasing a green mattress is still way too confusing due to all the greenwash. As a result, customers often give up and resort to other differentiators, like price and brand familiarity. We need to make it downright simple for customers to identify credibly green options with measurable, verifiable benefits.
Fortunately, efforts to do better are making it as easy as reading the mattress label. As described in Part III, the Specialty Sleep Association is adding tags to mattress lines it certifies to the standards of its Environmental and Safety Program. In general, consolidation of EcoLabels is crucial – consumers just don’t have the time to learn dozens of them.
A transparency tool that I’ve seen used to evaluate mattresses in Europe is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCAs would be a HUGE help measuring which materials and brands are quantifiably greenest in environmental and health metrics such as carbon emissions, embodied energy, water use and toxic chemicals. Business case studies, including in the textile industry (see also the outstanding work of Levis) showcase how companies are using LCA results to identify opportunities to improve efficiency of resource and energy use, cut costs, and boost brand reputation and sales.
On the consumer side, a product transparency tool on the rise is GoodGuide. Once GoodGuide issues its mattress ratings, customers will have an easy way to see how different brands stack up in terms of environmental, health and social impact.
While the mattress industry has embarked on its journey towards sustainability, there’s still plenty of work to do to reduce environmental and health impacts. As I emphasized in Part I, The industry also has a lot of work to do to curtail greenwashing, to say the least.
Fortunately in most cases, I don’t find the greenwashing to be intentional. It usually seems to be a matter of companies not having the right environmental communication expertise on staff to produce accurate, transparent messaging. Even when manufacturers provide superb green messaging, I’ve seen retailers edit the copy to the point of FTC Green Guide-violating inaccuracy. Manufacturers and retailers need to work together to make sure messaging is accurate, or they face legal and reputational risks.
This is just an overview of needs for advancing the mattress industry’s journey toward sustainability. For Spaldin, it’s an ever-evolving process. The company is not perfect, but they’re committed to their journey, genuinely care about their customers, and are always eyeing new ways to raise the bar.
Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D., is Principal at Conservation Value, Inc., which combines scientific and communication expertise to help clients strategically design, reliably execute and effectively communicate high-impact sustainability programs. He is currently serving as a consultant for Spaldin.