Eco-Friendly Mattresses: Do Labels Matter?

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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.

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.


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“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.

Photo: International Sleep Products Association

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Comments

  1. This is a good introduction to the slew of misinformation out there on green or organic mattresses. I am a manufacturer of organic mattresses and green mattresses. Yes they are different. To help with this myriad of confusion. We established a guideline. The NAOMI standard. That addresses each allowable item and how consumers should ask a manufacturer about their product purity and eco ness.
    In our own lines, we do not do any extra third party certifying other than the raw certification for organic on each material. The third parties, Greenguard, Oregon Tilth, etc. All are not designed to adddress organics. Merely to address eco ness. Their certifications allow formaldehyde and other chemicals at low levels. Our standards do not allow ANY chemicals without clear information given to the consumer. All our materials are tested for purity by an independent lab. This keeps the price down, by not purchasing expensive certifications that are very far from complete. I hope that others will follow our lead and be completely clear with consumers and their retailers, and stop trying to hype up an impure mattress and be deceptive by getting a sloppy, certification.
    And if anyone can please tell me what Greenguards certification allows? I have looked all over their site and cannot figure out what chemicals they even test for.

  2. I found a wonderful GOTS Certified Organic crib Mattress from Naturepedic, and they just introduced their Lightweight Mattresses that is GOTS certified as well! Check out ALL of their mattresses – from Crib to Twin, to Full to Queen!

  3. I just read Ginny’s comments and realized I should have stated that all of the Naturepedic mattress have NO chemicals, NO latex, NO polyurethane foam. They use food-grade polyethylene foam to waterproof the crib and some Twin mattresses. They use hydrated silica and baking soda to ensure that their mattresses meet all fire protection standards.

  4. Great article Alison.

    Third party certifications are businesses like any another. The easier it is to pass the certification the more businesses get on board and the more money they make.

    Consumers just have to dig in. Organic is the way to go since there’s very little play room. Green, natural and eco-friendly claims have way too much wiggle room.

    Only trust companies with full disclosure. Dig into all the mattress components, not only the ones the brochure or salesman is promoting.

    We actually wrote a piece about certipur-us on our blog.
    http://www.myessentia.com/blog/2010/05/06/certipur-us-chemical-companies-certify-themselves

  5. After 30 years of natural and organic bedding manufacturing, White Lotus Home has been able to retail a 99% customer satisfaction rate and have sold over 20 Million worth of Organic mattresses, pillows, bedding and furnishings. We do not have third party certification and this is mostly because the industry has yet to come together to a uniform standard to go by when certifying an ORGANIC MATTRESS. Once this is final, I am sure we will strongly consider certifying our products. For now, I can add that with over 200 companies carrying our organic bedding in the USA, we do lead the way in the organic bedding industry and we do this all in the USA. Our handcrafting facility and showroom is in NJ but we ship all over the USA. We have many answers to your natural bedding needs at http://www.whitelotus.net/frequently-asked-questions/

    Have a GREEN day, thanks!

    Marlon Pando, President
    White Lotus Home
    (p) 732.843.4990 (f) 732.828.4159 (w) http://www.whitelotus.net
    431 Raritan Ave | Highland Park, NJ | 08904 Mon-Fri 10-6pm and Sat-Sun 11-5pm
    Retail, Wholesale, and Private Label. Handcrafting Natural & Organic Bedding since 1981

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