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What's Really 'Green' in the Confusing World of Mattresses? Part I

By 3p Contributor

Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D.

Last fall, I began work for my first client in the "green" mattress industry, Spaldin Sleep Systems. To familiarize myself with their products and the current state of sustainability in the sector, I researched Spaldin’s materials and certifications and developed a competitive landscape matrix. I dug into the websites of over a dozen top green mattress brands and read peoples’ blog and forum questions and comments about green mattress motivations. I also led a team that staffed Spaldin’s booth at Green Festival in San Francisco, where we heard dozens of green mattress questions and concerns first-hand.

What I’ve learned is that while there are many exciting advances happening in what’s historically been a polluting industry, the mattress sector is drowning in the same kind of greenwash that plagues other industries.  The marketing language on mattress makers’ and  retailers’ websites too often features vague, unsubstantiated claims, resulting in confusion about what these claims really mean in terms of measurable, verifiable benefits to the health of ecosystems and people.

Take a deeper look at the claims presented on mattresses I've encountered: Green, Eco-friendly, Eco-green, Natural…

  • These claims, alone, mean nothing in terms of real, measurable benefits. What are specific examples of attributes that justify the green claim? What certifications verify the claim?

No chemical fumes or off-gassing

  • As tested and certified by whom? I see the claim and often a certification, which is great.  However, in almost all cases, I don’t see a certificate number or link to a copy of your certificate to verify that the claim is authentic and/or current.

  • Biodegradable” is a common latex calim, but does any mattress really meet the FTC Green Guide definition of “biodegradable”, which is that “the entire product…will completely breakdown and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal”? (the 2010 FTC updates specified the time period to be “no more than one year”)

  • Does the mattress really meet the FTC Green Guides guideline that to make an unqualified “recyclable” claim, it is necessary for a “substantial majority” of consumers/communities to have access to mattress recycling facilities? Likely not (a problem the industry needs to figure out a way to solve, including via designs that make cradle-to-cradle end of life more logistically feasible for products as large as mattresses)
Organic cotton, organic wool, organic essential oils

  • Certified by whom? Too many brands don’t specify.

GMO-free (“GMO” = genetically modified organism)

  • Does the plant-based material literally come from GMO-free crops, or is it just so heavily processed that it no longer contains the genetic signature of its GMO origins?
Certified by (fill in the blank)

  • Anyone can claim a certificate on their web site. To make your claims verifiable, it’s best to provide a certificate number or copy of your certificate.  This will help build consumer trust in green claims – and that’s important for growing our industry.

“Natural Latex”, “All-Natural Latex”, “100% Natural Latex”, “Pure Latex”

  • What on Earth do all these $#*@)! latex claims mean??  I assume literally 100% latex and nothing synthetic, but I’m hearing conflicting reports.
“Organic Latex”

Our foam core is “soy foam” or is “XX% plant oils.”

  • So if it’s “soy foam,” that sounds 100% natural to most. Really? If you’re doing better by specifying the percentage of soybean oil used, are you referring to the percent of the “polyols” component of your foam that is soybean oil (vs. petroleum), or to the percent of the entire core that is bio-based?  There’s a big difference, so it’s important to be specific to avoid misleading your customers.

Even fellow sustainability experts have told me their green mattress search left their heads spinning. One simply gave up and decided to just get a topper for her current bed. We need to do better.

In my next post, I'll provide Part II in this series: a framework for understanding your green mattress choices.


Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D., Principal at Conservation Value, Inc., is a rare combination of conservation scientist, sustainability expert and communication specialist. He is a researcher, writer, speaker and problem-solver who excels at serving as a bridge–applying the science underlying sustainability to develop cutting-edge solutions. Dr. Gelbard is currently serving as a sustainability consultant for Spaldin.

Take Dr. Gelbard’s course – Principles of Green Purchasing and Sustainability: March 29 – May 31, 2011 at UC Berkeley Extension’s San Francisco Campus

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