Eco-Friendly Mattresses: Do Labels Matter?

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Photo: International Sleep Products Association

Looking to buy a green mattress? Good luck. Navigating the industry’s definitions, marketing claims and third-party certifications is a huge challenge for conscientious consumers who want clear answers.

Even the most eco-savvy shoppers find themselves enrolled in a masters-level course on mattress construction and materials. Unregulated product labels such as “natural,” “bio-based,” “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” further confuse consumers trying to evaluate the importance of health, safety and environmental issues.

SEE: Breakdown of Green Mattress Labels

Significantly upping the ante: price. Purchasing a queen-size mattress made with, say, all certified organic fabrics and an all natural latex core (i.e. entirely made from the sap of rubber trees) starts around $1,400 and can travel upwards of $6,000. Green mattresses tend to last much longer – some come with 20-year guarantees – but that’s still a major investment over a conventional product that costs a third as much.

To guide consumers, manufacturers tout third-party certifications and industry trade group seals. They’re a help, buyers say, but usually still complicate the picture: what precisely is being verified and how? The material’s source or its processing or the final product? Also some certification programs or seals are still in their infancy, yet to be widely adopted across the industry.

“It’s a bit of the wild west out there,” allows Ryan Trainer, president of the International Sleep Products Association, which launched a program focusing on earth-friendly manufacturing practices and used mattress recycling.

“Consumers need to ask the right questions. They need to be educated about what they want to purchase and they need to do their homework.”

The Specialty Sleep Association, another industry group, developed a three-tiered seal for manufacturers to help them communicate environmental and safety standards to consumers, along with a disclosure label sewn on to the mattress that details its make-up.

The program’s main goal is truth in green marketing, says Vicki Worden, an environmental consultant to the Specialty Sleep Association, who helped develop the seals.

“We realized the industry needed to play a role in creating a level playing field,” Worden says. “You’ll see a lot of the use of the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ We tried to drill down and see what really applies to green mattresses.”

But some mattress makers carry third-party verifications for every component and its manufacture, resulting in a dozen or more such seals per product from different entities.

“No wonder consumers are daunted,” says Jonathan Gelbard, a conservation scientist and sustainability expert who has written about the mattress industry.

“The benefits of the labels are only as good as the standards, and even if the standards are good, the meaning is only as good as the certifiers ability to verify those claims,” Gelbard cautions.

As a consultant to mattress maker Spaldin, Gelbard found that even when a manufacturer’s claims are clear, sometimes retailers unintentionally mislead consumers anyway.

“The fact that these labels are here and yet there’s so much confusion is a symptom of poor regulation at the government level. The government has to step up and develop standards that reflect the best science,” he says. “Then we wouldn’t have people scared that the mattresses they spend a third of their life on is going to cause cancer or interfere with their endocrine system.”

The Federal Trade Commission is in the process of revising its Green Guides, directions intended to clarify marketers’ environmental claims, but the proposed changes don’t address several green terms such as “natural,” plus they’re many steps removed from regulation in the mold of USDA organic standards for food.

In the meantime, industry observers and insiders agree, the burden remains on the consumer to research mattress materials, evaluate advertising labels, and verify that third party certificates are current and reliable.

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