You can have a conscience as green as the sky is blue, but it’s still hard to sort out what’s real and what’s “greenwashing.” Some terms are vague and some evidence is fuzzy. Let’s look at different ways mattresses are described, so you can sort out what’s real and what’s just a pale shade of green.
A green mattress
Sounds good, right? If it is backed up by standards, company reputation and reliable certifications that indicate a manufacturer has credible reasons to say a product is “green”—that is good. But if references to a “green mattress” are just tossed in among a lot of earth-loving jargon without real evidence, sketch this one with a light green crayon.
A flame-retardant-free mattress
Now we’re getting somewhere. One of the most polluting materials used in conventional mattresses—whether they’re memory foam, gel-topped, or include any synthetic foams or fabrics—are chemical flame retardants. These nasty compounds are mixed into foam formulas and fabric coatings. And they’re toxic, carcinogenic, and damage DNA. They have even been found in Arctic wildlife. If a mattress uses an alternate form of flame retardancy, such as wool batting, that’s a very good sign.
A renewable mattress—with renewable materials
How can a mattress be “renewable?” Replaceable components mean that rather than discarding a mattress if your body’s needs change, you can adjust or change its comfort for years after purchase. Sustainable, durable mattress designs keep more “dead mattresses” out of landfills, where they consume a huge amount of space, leach toxins into groundwater, and take decades to break down. Likewise, mattress materials can be renewable, too—certified organic cotton, certified organic wool, and natural rubber (latex) foam all come from plants or animals, not plastic factories.
A low-VOC mattress
Off-gassing isn’t just about detectable odors—any product will continually degrade over time, and whatever chemicals are in it will gradually escape into indoor air and even the outdoor environment. If a manufacturer claims there are “no VOCs” or “low VOCs” (volatile organic compounds) in their safe mattress, they should offer a reputable certificate such as GreenGuard as proof of emissions testing.
A natural mattress
“Natural” is as ubiquitous as “green”—but can be a legitimate description when it’s backed by reputable, independent, third-party certifications. Claims about organic or low-VOC (non-off-gassing) materials should be proven with posted certificates, plus links to certifying authorities where you can find detailed descriptions of the required standards. Vague, invented terms such as “bio-foam” or “plant-based foam” or “natural memory foam” should trigger skepticism. They usually mean a little bit of plant oil plus a lot of petrochemicals. Most natural materials will biodegrade or can be recycled at the end of a product’s life.
An honest approach
An eco-friendly mattress of any kind does not mean that its manufacture has literally no impact on the planet. Agriculture is usually monoculture, which displaces diverse natural habitats. Shipping also has impact, because most imported materials are brought across the ocean on freighters that burn fossil fuel. Companies with conscience are taking more and more steps to offset the environmental impacts of their operations. Look for mattress brands that provide evidence of those efforts, and “green business” philosophies that seem genuine—including mattress recycling. Some eco-friendly companies are further along the curve, and others just beginning. But if the environment barely rates a mention, it’s likely not a priority.
Most consumers aren’t going to settle for a burlap shell filled with corn husks—and happily, today we don’t have to. But we can consider how eco-friendly a mattress is when making this purchase we’ll live with, and sleep with, for so many years.