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What's Really 'Green'? A Look at Mattresses, Part II

By Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D.

In my previous post, I took a look at examples of greenwashing that just about anybody on the hunt for a 'green' mattress is likely to run into.

Here, I provide Part II in this series: a framework for navigating choices in an industry fraught with greenwash. Whether you have the lease bit of interest in mattresses at the moment isn't the point. This framework ought to be useful for any industry - whether you are a manufacturer or consumer. As this is a rapidly evolving industry, I look forward to your feedback and constructive ideas. This framework can be applied to any green purchase.  To follow it, we address what I call The Four Key Questions: 1. What’s the Problem? What are the environmental and/or people (e.g., health, safety, economic) issues that motivate consumers to choose green in this product category?

2. What’s the Solution? What are the specific green attributes that the mattress claims to offer and their real (i.e., measurable, verifiable) benefits compared to non-green counterparts?

3. How can you prove it? What certifications should you look for to verify that you can trust the product to provide the benefits it claims to offer? (We will address this question in Part III of this series)

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? (We will explore this in Part IV of this series)


Key Question 1. What’s The Problem?

People are becoming increasingly aware of the health risks posed by harmful chemicals used in mattress manufacturing. From petrochemicals, blowing agents and adhesives used in foams, to dyes and additives used to process raw cotton fiber into textiles, to chemical flame retardants, customers are learning that a healthy mattress will make their lives better.

I personally have never had health issues with a mattress. Yet at trade shows I’ve attended for Spaldin, I've listened to a surprising number of people tell us that the chemical smell of their mattress has made them sick – for example they wake up with headaches, itchy, watery eyes and a sore throat. “What causes that smell – what am I actually smelling?” they ask, worried that they’re smelling toxic VOCs (from flame retardants, formaldehyde, adhesives, and other harmful chemicals).  Some complain that memory foam mattresses sleep too hot, causing them to sweat, which they fear will create warm, moist conditions favorable to bacteria and mold.

Other customers are concerned about the environmental impact of their mattress. They want a product that helps them minimize their personal contributions to toxic pollution, climate disruption, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Key Question 2. What’s the Solution? An Overview of Green Mattress Attributes and Their Benefits

Mattresses are divided into several components: core, cover and fire barrier.  What are green attributes to look for in each and what do we know about their benefits?

The Mattress Core

There are generally three different types of core, each with a different set of green attributes and associated benefits. (here we exclude futons, which are typically made with a core of cotton batting that sometimes includes layers of materials such as polyurethane foam).

Latex Mattresses

“Eco green latex”; “100% Natural Latex”, and “Pure Latex” are among the claims headlining many a green mattress web site. Makers of latex (aka rubber) mattresses, ostensibly made from the sap of the rubber tree (Hevea brazilensis, native to Brazil) claim that this material is naturally resistant to allergens like mold and dust mites and is more resilient than polyurethane. In my experience, it’s often a very comfortable material for mattresses.

However, when I started looking into latex’s green credentials, I found that it is usually mixed with petrochemical fillers to add durability and firmness.  Even worse, the fact that these fillers are used – sometimes even in mattresses that claim to be “100% natural latex” and “pure latex” – is usually not disclosed.  As one green mattress executive admitted, “it is not possible to make a mattress just using natural latex. At least 3% of the core materials have to be other components such as sulfur to vulcanize the foam. When people say a latex mattress is ‘100% natural’, it ALWAYS means (at best) that they do not use synthetic latex, but other components are still needed.”

So how can you tell what’s really “green” in terms of latex?

According to this article in what’s become a favorite blog of mine:

“the word ‘latex’ can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. The product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called ‘natural latex’…(Even) synthetic latex is often referred to simply as ‘latex’ or even ‘100% natural latex’.”

Since most customers probably THINK they are purchasing a material made from rubber tree sap, but synthetic latex often includes the chemical styrene-butadiene (which the above article states is toxic to the lungs, liver and brain), the latex mattress sector has some work to do to clean up its greenwashing.  Specifically, there is serious need to improve marketing practices and terminology to accurately and transparently reflect the material content of these mattresses.

The environmental impacts of latex production also don’t quite jibe with the material’s “eco green” image.  Even for 100% natural latex, considered by many to be the greenest of mattress core materials, there are serious concerns about impacts of latex production on tropical rainforests and biodiversity.  Much of global latex production occurs in rainforest regions of southeast Asia, especially Indonesia (where species such as orangutans are highly endangered), Malaysia and Sri Lanka.  A 2009 article in Science titled “The Rubber Juggernaut” (summarized here by Mongabay), warned that:

Rubber plantations are expanding rapidly throughout montane mainland Southeast Asia. More than 500,000 ha (about 1.25 million acres) may have been converted already in the uplands of China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. By 2050, the area of land dedicated to rubber and other diversified farming systems could more than double or triple, largely by replacing lands now occupied by evergreen broadleaf trees and swidden-related secondary vegetation.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to sourcing latex from monoculture plantations, including choosing mattresses made with sustainable forestry-oriented “jungle rubber.”  Like shade grown coffee, these operations grow rubber trees in a more diverse agro-forestry matrix.  Two recent reports (here and here) have emphasized the need to expand this type of production and boost consumer and business access to these more rainforest-friendly sources. Unless you’ve found a mattress with latex that’s certified as sourced from this type of operation, it’s probably not as eco-friendly as claimed.

Inner Spring: Traditional inner spring mattresses could be considered ‘green’ if made from recycled steel, which has many environmental benefits, including reduced impacts associated with mining for raw materials, energy use and landfill disposal.  However, with all that steel, inner spring mattresses are heavier than other types, which boosts their shipping-associated carbon footprint.

In terms of health issues, one foam and latex mattress maker’s web site claims that:

“Coil/Spring mattresses are the least favorable for allergy sufferers because of their inner spring system. The inner cavity of coil mattresses creates an incubator for dust mites where dust mite feces and dead skin cells accumulate. It isn’t uncommon for mold and mildew to be found within the cavity of a coil/spring mattress due to humidity caused by the transfer of body heat. This is why typically a spring mattress will weigh 10 times its original weight after 10 years.”

I was admittedly relieved to find a journalistic inquiry into these claims that found them to be unfounded. The author tracked down the Ohio State University bed bug expert that some of this information was attributed to and found him to be “somewhat ticked-off” about being misquoted.  Hopefully, the company web site quoted above will scrub the inaccurate information.

Memory foam and foam mattresses: Memory foam and foam (polyurethane) mattress cores have historically been a very non-green choice due to their high reliance on petroleum and chemical blowing agents (which have included ozone-destroying CFC’s and heat-trapping HFC’s), catalysts and flame retardants. They also have been known to sleep hot. Some foam makers are making headway improving the sustainability of their industry via a variety of greener source materials, manufacturing processes, and even nature-inspired designs:

Greener source materials
A green materials trend that has emerged over the past decade is to replace petroleum source materials with plant oils. Vita-Metzeler, the maker of foams for Spaldin, was the first to integrate plant oils (sunflower, soy) into its “Nawaro” foam formulations and won the 2002 Support Award for Renewable Raw Material for its accomplishment. Simmons has been using Dow Chemical’s soy foams, while Serta/Seally use Cargil’s Bio-OH polyols. Keetsa is unique in its use of Castor Bean oil.

The average amount of petroleum polyols that are replaced by plant oils is 10-30%, with the foams of Metzeler currently leading at 40-60% (Metzeler says the percentage varies by component – denser layers like its “Tubes” have a higher percent of plant oil content). The race is to reach 100% plant oils. Still, this is merely replacement of polyols, which make up anywhere from about 20-60% of the composition of polyurethane foam (depending on foam quality).

Does use of Plant Oils really have a positive impact? 

Cargil’s Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for its BiOH soy foam found that it requires 23% less energy to produce than petroleum-based foam.  Like latex, however, a significant issue with “plant-based” foams is the land use impact of source materials – in this case environmental impacts associated with conventional agriculture: pesticide use, tropical deforestation and GMO crops. Ideally, plant-based foams should be made from certified organic crops, which verifies that they are free of both synthetic pesticides and GMOs. They should also be sourced from regions where farming does not contribute to tropical deforestation (as a note of good news, aBrazilian soy industry moratorium appears to be proving effective at slowing deforestation for soy production in the Amazon rainforest). Hopefully the mattress industry will follow the direction of makers of biofuels and bioplastics, in which the next generation of bio-based materials will be made from greener sources.

Greener manufacturing processes
One green manufacturing process that has emerged is to replace chemical blowing agents (which expand foam) with water. This is a solution used by Spaldin and Metzeler, for example. Another is also to develop “open-cell” foams that allow better air and moisture circulation. What does “open-cell” mean? Many foams contain an outer “skin”, so they lack breathability, trapping heat and moisture. Open-cell technologies (in which the foam does not contain an outer skin) allow the foam to breathe, helping to dispel heat and moisture.

Greener designs
Some companies are now offering innovative designs that help alleviate health and comfort issues associated with foam mattresses.  For example, Spaldin offers a “biomimicry” inspired “tubes” design, in which bee hive-like tubes in the mattress core create a “chimney effect” that dissipates heat and wicks away moisture.  The design won the 2007 “High Product Quality” award at the Interzum exhibition.

The Cover - What’s Really ‘Green’?

Mattress covers are in general a much simpler topic, and there are more thoroughly green options to choose from.  Here are a few examples.

Organic cotton: in the textile world, organic cotton can mean one or two things: (1) cotton grown on organic farms: “organically grown cotton” and (2) true organic textiles: cotton that is both grown on organic farms and processed into a textile without the use of harmful chemicals. Organic farming benefits ecosystems by (among many ways) eliminating the impacts of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMO’s.  It is a particularly important choice in the case of cotton, which accounts for 25% of all the pesticides used globally. It similarly benefits people – including farm workers – by protecting them from toxins.

Non-toxic processing of raw cotton fibers into textiles benefits ecosystems and people by eliminating the use of chemicals such as toxic dyes and formaldehyde, which can have multiple environmental and health impacts.  Textile processing factories are also notorious for not being the most socially conscious regarding the health and well-being of workers.

Wool: Wool can be considered green if it is organic (sheep are raised eating pesticide-free forage and feed), the animals are humanely treated, and it doesn’t come from pastures where overgrazing is causing environmental degradation (in the American West, livestock grazing is a major cause of species endangerment).  Sure wool is a natural material and offers some level of fire protection. It’s important to remember, however, that its production can have significant environmental consequences if not sourced to avoid these specific pitfalls.

Backings: In most cases, material such as organic cotton and wool are not durable enough for mattress covers, and are added to mattresses with a “backing” of polyester to add elasticity and durability.  Few mattress makers disclose this layer. If polyester is used, of course the greener option is to use recycled PES.  Both recycled and non-recycled options alike can contain antimony, however, so it is important to look for a certification that verifies that this potentially harmful chemical has been tested for. I would love to learn more about other options for backings and covers, especially less water-intensive materials like hemp and flax.

The Fire Barrier - What’s Really ‘Green’?

Fortunately, the banning of PBDE flame retardants in mattresses in many states has made this component of mattresses significantly safer than it was just a few years ago.  It is insane that until recently, these chemicals were approved as safe for the mattresses we sleep on.

Why might you want to replace your mattress if you purchased it before 2005, and you’re not sure if it’s PBDE-free? According to Green Science Policy Institute expert, Arlene Blum, “when tested in animals, many halogenated flame retardants have been found to cause health problems like cancer, reduced fertility and IQ, thyroid disorders, and developmental impairment. Many halogenated flame retardants are also endocrine disrupting chemicals that can harm us at very low concentrations.”  Clearly, the current U.S. approach to chemicals of “innocent until proven guilty” is dangerously inadequate for protecting our health and environment alike from threats posed by toxic chemicals.

What has replaced PBDE’s in mattresses? One chemical, Boric Acid, seems questionable because it is also used as an insecticide.  According to the EPA, it “is of moderate acute toxicity, and has been placed in Toxicity Category III for most acute effects including oral and 3 dermal toxicity, and eye and skin irritation.”  That certainly doesn’t seem like something I want to sleep on 8 hours a day, 365 days per year.  At least it’s far better than PBDE’s.

As another option, some mattress makers use wool, which as noted above can have significant environmental impacts associated with overgrazing (e.g., species endangerment, habitat degradation, erosion, noxious weed invasions, water pollution).  Some people are also allergic to wool.  Mattress makers such as Spaldin use viscose and silica-based materials such as “Visil” (viscose is a form of wood cellulose acetate that comes from trees), while others use Kevlar or “cotton fabric treated with non-toxic FR agent”.  What’s the safest bet?  As far as I can tell, the best way to ensure a fire barrier is safe is to look for an independent eco-label that verifies safety of the materials. I’ll tell you about your options in Part II.


Ten years ago, few people were thinking about green mattress choices.  The fact that we are is a sign of major progress. Still, it’s important that when companies claim that they’re benefiting the earth and their customers’ health, they are, in fact, providing the measurable positive impacts they say they are. Otherwise, we risk losing our consumers’ trust, which won’t be good for any of us.

This broad overview shows that the mattress industry is definitely starting to make progress on the path to sustainability. Still, this is a journey and we’ve got a long way to go: even the best models are more analogous to a 45 mpg hybrid vehicle than to an electric car charged by a home solar system.  The good news is that the current trend is one of continuous advances in materials sourcing, textile manufacturing and processing technologies. Hopefully, the industry’s marketing practices will follow the same trajectory.

In Part III (coming next month), I’ll explore certifications that customers should look for to verify mattress claims of environmental, health and social benefits.


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:

A good understanding of the principles of green purchasing is important to limit the impact that businesses, governments, and corporations have on natural resources, ecosystems, and human well-being. Gain a foundational overview of the environmental information underlying sustainable purchasing. Learn how to access, understand, and evaluate the information you need for green procurement. Evaluate business cases that illustrate how companies can boost profits and productivity by using and selling sustainable products.
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