In my junior year, my dear and brilliant friend whom I’ll call Rose got kicked out of college. Due to the drug-related nature of her dismissal, Rose had to make a fast exit so she left me her bed — a two-month-old very expensive queen mattress and box spring — and a set of new sheets from Gracious Home, a high-end home store in New York City. I had always slept on futons or whatever was there with whatever sheets and blankets were available. My first night in Rose’s bed was a revelation. (And, before we go any further, let me pause and say, “Don’t worry about Rose.” She eventually graduated from an amazing school and has gone on to live a productive life.)
Since then, I’ve been obsessed with sheets and beds. I’ve tried dozens of kinds of sheets and sheet companies and many mattresses. My husband and I currently have the best bed I’ve ever slept in. The sheets are soft. I have an organic cotton waffle blanket that cools in the summer and traps heat in the winter. And an insanely expensive mattress manufactured with sustainably sourced natural fibers that has the perfect combination of softness and support. And most of all, the mattress has a 25-year guarantee, which allows me to sleep easily even with the crazy price.
So when the Bluedot team got together to discuss what Room for Change topic we could tackle next, we thought, “It’s winter, where do we find ourselves most?” Our answer: “Curled up in bed!” I thought, “Great. Given my 30+ years as an avid consumer, this will be easy. I can write this in my sleep.” It turns out my depth of knowledge of beds was, at best, shallow.
The reality is that the bed business is as complex and complicated as the business of clothing, which Bluedot examined a few months ago. Until very recently, the regulation and business of mattresses and bed linens has been largely focused on fire safety (fair enough) and improving sleep (also fair) rather than environmentally conscious materials and sustainable practices. This also goes for sites and organizations that specialize in evaluating these products. They do not factor in the health of the planet, the health of the people making the product, or the health of the people sleeping on it. To further complicate things, whether you want to spend $100 or $10,000, you can find “organic” or “sustainable” mattresses, sheets, pillows, and blankets. So the question is: Is the product really green or just greenwashed? Is it just the right lingo or the right practices?
Before we go any further, let me say that, as with everything, there is a starting point. That is what this article is: a place to start. This is not the Kama Sutra of beds and bedding. These are broad guidelines and things to begin to look out for as you make your way through what is really a tangle of mattresses, blankets, and sheets.
Finally, outfitting a bed is an expensive process. Very few folks can — or should — toss out everything they have and start from scratch. Beyond cost, this approach creates unnecessary waste. The point is: getting to an environmentally sustainable bed and all its accoutrements is a process. It took our family about ten years.
When it comes to beds — from the bed itself to the linens and pillows — the number one rule is pay attention to the materials.
Let’s begin with the bed itself.
Buying a Mattress
What kind of mattress should you get? This is a big and often overwhelming question.
But it becomes easy if you follow rule number one – pay attention to the materials – and rule number two, which is: Buy based on what’s actually on the mattress’s label.
A little background on why this is so important. As Laura Miller points out in her March 2020 Wired article on the mattress business, “The problem is that mattress companies don’t own the manufacturing process or intellectual property of the products they sell, which are largely made by a few U.S. foam factories that supply numerous brands.” In other words, the mattress companies don’t control the materials in the products they sell. Hence, the best approach to buying a mattress is to read the mattress’s actual label. These labels are the white floppy tags attached to the mattress that can only be legally removed by the owner. My mattress label reads, “All New Materials 46% Cotton Felt, 29% curled hair, 25% Wool Felt.” This tells me I have a bed fabricated from natural materials, which leads me to my next very important point:
There are two main things to consider — what to avoid (toxic chemicals) and what to aim for (natural materials).
How to avoid toxic chemicals
While buying a bed without harmful chemicals may seem like an obvious goal, it is not an easily attainable one. The Environmental Working Group’s Do’s and Don’ts list says it best: “Most mattresses on the market are full of chemicals that can pollute your bedroom air and harm your body.” There are four groups of chemicals to steer clear of: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), PFAS (called “forever chemicals” because they never break down), flame retardants, and vinyl (PVC).
There is a tremendous amount of information on why the dozens of VOCs, the 4,000 PFAS compounds, halogenated flame retardants, antimony, boric acid, and vinyl are bad. These chemicals have all been proven to be harmful to human health. In order to avoid these chemicals, the Environmental Working Group recommends buying mattresses (check the labels) that have:
- No less than 95% certified organic content
- No polyurethane foam
- No added chemical flame retardants
- Low-VOC certification
- No added fragrances or antimicrobials
- No PVC or vinyl
How can you know? There are some tell-tale phrases and words that indicate the presence of PFAS and VOCs:
- Avoid anything that says “moisture resistant” or “stain resistant”— these are signs that there might be PFAS chemicals in the mattress
- Avoid synthetic latex, which is made from petroleum-based compounds, styrene and butadiene — both VOCs.
- Avoid foam or memory foam mattresses. This includes beds with gels or gel pods. As with synthetic latex, these are petroleum-based products that offgas VOCs. Look for 100% natural latex (more on that — keep reading).
What natural materials to look for
Look for at least 95% wool (a natural flame retardant!), flax, cotton, horse hair, 100% natural latex (rubber), hemp, kapok.
It’s even better if these materials are organic, regeneratively farmed, and responsibly harvested. Look at a company’s website: If they are not boasting about these additional attributes, their materials are probably not.
For those not familiar with natural latex, it’s an amazing material. Latex is most commonly harvested from rubber trees, but can be found in nearly 10 percent of all plants. When harvesting natural latex, a rubber tree is tapped and milky liquid flows out. A tapped tree will continue to live for about 24 to 30 years and then its latex production will slow down. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call it “100% natural latex” because to make the milky substance into a solid, you must add something. Some companies use synthetic chemicals. Others heat the natural latex and add 2 to 5% of charcoal, zinc oxide, or sulfur — the preferred natural choice. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, Ocean Breeze sells Ergovea mattresses, which are 100% organic and natural latex. “As people realize the benefits of certain materials such as natural latex, the mattresses are really growing in popularity,” owner Bethany Scanlon says. “Natural latex is a bit bouncier than a memory foam mattress, but still gives you all the support you would want and need.”
Let’s get into the sheets. While mattress companies are pretty opaque, bed linen companies tell us a ton. Look at the company’s About Us section on their website — it’s usually revealing. I’m confident buying bedding if I see a few key terms and explanations:
- Regenerative agriculture
- Discussion of chemicals and dyes they are using in their manufacturing – making sure they are not harmful to the planet, factory workers, or consumers
- Traceable supply chain
- Some mention of labor rules/standards/human rights/women’s rights
- Discussion of manufacturing — water and energy use awareness
- Shipping – carbon offsets, responsible shipping/packaging practices
- Awareness/conversation about waste/recycling
- Giving back — who they support
- Respected certifications (see box)
Unfortunately, finding great sheets is trial and error. It is impossible to know if a product is great for you until you’ve tried it. Or at least felt them, which you can do at a few stores here on the island which sell organic sheets: Lauren Morgan, Ocean Breeze. Le Roux at Home. Vineyard Decorators offers linen sheets and duvet covers — linen is widely considered one of the most sustainable fabrics. My mom recently purchased some organic cotton sheets for her bed and her guest room. These sheets ticked all the right boxes in terms of best labor and farming practices. She thought they were great because they were so heavy, but then a friend slept on them and thought they were, “Crunchy.” My point? Bed linens are personal. I love our sheets. My husband says they are too “loud” because they make noise when one of us rolls over in our sleep. Alas, we’ll see how long these last and then try for the dream sheets again when they wear out.
Buying pillows and comforters
I assumed that the feathers in my down products were benign byproducts of birds. Not so. Some down feather products are from birds that have been force-fed or live plucked. So, if you like a down pillow or duvet, make sure that the pillow you are buying is Responsible Down Standard Certified or has a Global Traceable Down Standard. This means the animals were not “subjected to unnecessary harm.” If you really want to rest easy, buy a natural latex or responsibly harvested kapok pillow.
Speaking of duvets, there are now fabulous wool duvet inserts that have the added benefit of weighing more than a down duvet. Heavy or weighted blankets have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, improve sleep quality, and relieve depression. In the winter, I sleep with a 30-pound wool blanket that my godparents gave me 21 years ago. It’s a dream.
Ok, if you have not yet drifted off, the last thing I will leave you with is this simple thought:
Better choices = better sleep.
I mean this sincerely. Knowing that I’ve taken the time to investigate and invest in products that simultaneously support the planet, the people who made them, and my family, brings me peace and truly helps me to sleep better.
Look for one or more of these certifications
Certified B Corporation; American Down & Feather Council Certified; Responsible Down Standard Certified; Global Traceable Down Standard; Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS); GOTS certified organic wool; GOTS certified organic cotton; Made Safe; 1% for the Planet; Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS); OEKO-Tex, Cradle to Cradle; Greenguard; Clean Energy Partner Certified; Climate Neutral Certified; Forest Stewardship Council Certified; Organic Soil Association; Green-e; Fairtrade; Rainforest Alliance Certified; Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification; Green Seal; ACT Label; Not Tested on Animals; GBB (Green Business Bureau); Green C Certification; WasteWise; WaterSense; Green America.