Unsure of the type of duvet to buy? Here are the pros and cons of the best natural duvet materials to help you make an eco-friendly decision.
In this Leaf Score series on eco-friendly, non-toxic duvets, I’ve already looked at what to watch out for in conventional duvets and the perils of polyester. You can also check out my top picks for sustainable duvets.
This time, I’ll take a look at the best options for natural, eco-friendly duvets.
The best natural duvet materials
Regardless of which bedding set-up you prefer, choosing a duvet made with natural materials is better for breathability, comfort, durability, and all-round health. A quality duvet can easily outlive your mattress and may last for several decades without needing to be replaced. If more people chose an eco-friendly duvet this would help to keep millions of tons of material out of landfill.
Why would you want a duvet with natural fill and a non-synthetic, eco-friendly cover? Well, natural fills don’t off-gas, have a lower carbon footprint (typically) than synthetic fills, and are more easily recycled, upcycled, or able to break down naturally. Some eco-friendly duvet materials to look out for include:
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
- Wild harvested ethical silk
- Down and Hypodown®
Let’s take a look at each material in turn to see how they perform, how they’re made, and the pros and cons of each.
Pros and cons of kapok comforters
- Lighter than cotton
- Very sustainable
- Cultivation requires no pesticides
- Hard to find
If you haven’t yet heard of kapok, you’re in for a treat. This silky fiber is harvested from the seed pods of tropical trees called Ceiba pentandra. Also known as Java cotton, Kava kapok, silk-cotton, Samauma, or ceiba, kapok It is significantly lighter than cotton, feels very similar to down, and is wonderfully sustainable.
In the right conditions, the kapok tree can grow up to 13 feet in a year, and some trees reach over 160 feet high, forming the canopy of a rainforest. Kapok fibers are harvested from seed pods after they fall once the rainy season is finished. This means that the trees do not need to be chopped down or harmed in any way to get the fibers.
Kapok cultivation does not require pesticides and may help maintain important eco systems while providing good jobs for workers in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, northern South America, and tropical west Africa.
Kapok duvets are very soft, fluffy, and luxurious, making kapok a natural alternative to down. Kapok is also hypoallergenic, and resistant to mold, and dries quickly.
To care for a kapok duvet, machine wash on a gentle cycle. Kapok duvets can also be dried on a cool cycle in the dryer.
Pros and cons of organic wool duvets
- Natural moisture wicking
- Stay cool in summer and warm in winter
- Naturally mold resistant
- Natural flame retardant
- Requires animal cultivation which comes with ethical issues
Wool naturally wicks moisture away from your skin, so wool duvets are excellent for maintaining a constant temperature. A fluffy, breathable, organic wool duvet will help you stay cool on summer nights while keeping you warm and cozy in winter. Wool does have a heavier, stiffer feel than down, kapok, or synthetic duvets, though, and will drape over your body like a blanket. A winter weight wool duvet is similar in terms of warmth to a regular weight down duvet (look for a winter wool duvet weighing around 800 g per square meter; a summer wool duvet would weigh around 500 g per square meter).
The resilience, softness, and ability of wool to maintain loft depends a lot on how the wool is processed, including techniques called carding and garneting. Companies like Holy Lamb Organics and Rawganique use these traditional techniques to create higher quality wool products that stand the test of time, making their products much more eco-friendly and cost effective in the long-run.
Most wool is from sheep, but some is from goats, alpacas, or other animals. To care for an organic wool duvet, spot clean with a dilute vinegar solution and then air the duvet outside in the sun or on a sunny window ledge indoors. These duvets can be fluffed in the dryer with tennis balls.
Wool is also naturally resistant to mold and mildew, has natural flame-retardant and antimicrobial qualities, and is resistant to dust mites, making it a great option for allergy sufferers. Wool also offers the most organic options in this category. If you see a cheap wool duvet, check to see if it is organic by looking for the USDA Certified Organic label or, ideally, GOTS certification. To really up your eco game, look for an organic wool duvet that carries the European kfB certificate awarded to products made with wool sourced with minimal animal exploitation. In the US, wool duvets marked with the PureGrow™ label use wool from Californian farms that practice sustainable sheep ranching. EcoWool is another excellent standard that provides reassurance that wool is sourced from small US farms where farmers manage their flocks humanely and care for the environment.
Also, look for wool that is processed without the use of any dyes or bleaches. Bleached wool contains toxic compounds including dioxins. Conventional processes used to treat wool include: Carbonizing, a process which uses carbonic acid to dissolve chaff; Shrink proofing; Chemical scale removal; and moth proofing, all of which can involve harsh chemicals that result in contamination and off-gassing.
Pros and cons of organic cotton duvets
- Warm in winter
- Conventional cotton is very resource hungry
Conventionally grown cotton is resource-hungry and involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals that damage the environment and are bad for human health. Organic cotton is grown and processed without pesticides, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals and is very soft, making it an excellent option for cozy comforters.
Many eco-friendly duvets have organic cotton covers, but some are entirely made with organic cotton. These duvets tend to be heavier and feel firmer, making them a good option for an extra layer in winter. Cotton duvets can become flat over time, however, and because cotton shrinks when washed in warm or hot water, it is best to wash on a cold gentle cycle and air dry, or simply spot clean with dilute vinegar solution.
Pros and cons of hemp duvets
- Very sustainable
- Doesn’t hold odors
- Hard to find
Hemp is a wonderfully sustainable, renewable resource with myriad applications across multiple industries. Hemp duvets are particularly good if you like to sleep with a duvet in summer but want to stay cool while you snooze. That’s because hemp is one of the most breathable materials, managing to keep its cool even in hot and humid temperatures, and helps wick moisture away from your skin. This means it’s good for keeping bedding feeling fresh, especially as hemp is naturally anti-microbial and anti-bacterial. Hemp is resistant to mold and mildew and doesn’t hold onto odors.
Unfortunately, hemp duvets just aren’t that widely available. It can be a fairly expensive fiber to use to fill a whole duvet, but it’s certainly worth the investment if you live somewhere particularly humid.
Hemp is also a very environmentally friendly fiber as the crop is naturally resistant to pests and grows so thick that it prevents the growth of weeds around the plants. This means that you don’t typically need to use pesticides or herbicides when growing hemp, nor do you need fertilizers as hemp actually enriches the quality of soil. Because hemp roots grow deep, they are good at using groundwater and help reduce soil erosion.
If you live in the European Union, consider buying the Landon Hemp Duvet from The House of Pillows as this carries a wealth of excellent eco credentials and certifications.
Pros and cons of silk duvets
- Natural temperature regulator
- Look for peace silk
- Ethical issues
- Harvested with toxic chemicals
- Tricky to care for
Silk duvets are luxurious but tend to be expensive and fraught with ethical issues. In conventional silk production, cocoons made by silkworms on silk farms are put in boiling water before the worm breaks out of the cocoon (which would cut the thread). The worms are then boiled alive as silk farmers unravel the cocoon to produce a continuous thread that can measure as much as 500 meters in length. This silk is typically known as Mulberry silk and comes from many generations of inbreeding of silkworms for commercial purposes. Such inbreeding has resulted in silkworm moths that are too heavy and disfigured to fly or even move naturally, and the farming practices result in significant suffering and premature deaths of the moths.
So-called ahimsa or peace silk (also known as Tussah silk) is harvested after the silkworms emerge from the cocoon. As such, ahimsa silk threads are much shorter and have to be spun together to create a single thread. The yield is also lower per cocoon, but the spun yarn is softer, stronger, and more like linen than silk. If the cocoons are harvested in the wild and the silk is not treated with toxic dyes, the resulting silk could be considered a sustainable eco-friendly fiber, especially as silkworms feed on mulberry leaves, meaning that there is little energy input (although considerable water input) involved in silk production.
If a company can demonstrate its commitment to harvesting wild silk and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals during processing, silk can be a good choice for a comforter. Silk is a natural temperature regulator and is lightweight but warm, so is a good option all year round. Silk also wicks moisture away from the skin, so is ideal if you tend to perspire a lot while sleeping or live in a humid climate. And, with proper care, silk can be very durable, lasting some 15-20 years. However, silk is a little tricky to care for. Some types of silk are machine washable on a delicate cycle, while others need to be dry cleaned (which normally involves toxic chemicals). If washed, silk should be dried by ironing while damp as it tends to wrinkle and stiffen if line dried.
Pros and cons of goose, duck, and chicken down and feather duvets
- Feather harvesting process often cruel
- Feather sterilization using toxic chemicals
Goose down and feathers are a luxurious option for stuffing and make for a soft, indulgent, lightweight duvet. A down duvet is typically around a third of the weight of an equivalent silk duvet or half the weight of a comparably warm wool duvet.
The down and feathers that fill these duvets are rarely sourced in a humane way, however, with most forcibly plucked (repeatedly) from live geese, chickens, and ducks who are reared in cages too small for them to spread their wings. Furthermore, these feathers are typically sterilized with formaldehyde, bleached, and treated with other chemicals to reduce their allergenic potential and naturally ‘gamey’ odor.
The Down Association of Canada (a non-profit organization) administers the Downmark® logo to certify that the down and feathers in a product come from birds killed for meat, i.e. the down and feathers are considered a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry, like leather and suede; the birds are not reared specifically for their feathers. This label does not, however, offer any insight into the conditions a bird experiences before they are killed.
The Responsible Down Standard is a better marker to look for if buying a down duvet. The RDS was created in 2014 through a partnership between The North Face, Textile Exchange (a global nonprofit dedicated to sustainability), and Control Union Certifications, an accredited third-party certification body with expertise in agriculture and farm systems. This certification goes beyond the Downmark® criteria and aims to minimize the harm that comes to geese and ducks in the process of gathering down and feathers. To qualify for the RDS certification, a company must be able to demonstrate that all of the down in a final product satisfies six criteria designed to lessen cruelty (these are listed in Green Certifications below). This standard helps consumers know where the down in duvets came from, but it is worth noting that animal agriculture remains the most significant contributor to climate change worldwide, so organic or wild harvested plant fibers are usually the more eco-friendly option.
It’s also worth noting that down and feathers are not the same. Down refers to the soft material under the breast feathers of geese and ducks. This material helps the birds stay warm in cold weather and doesn’t have sharp quills, which is why it is a popular stuffing for duvets and comforters. Feathers are easier to come by and are often mixed in with down to increase volume as a lot of down is necessary to fill a duvet. This is why down duvets are so expensive. A grading system is used to mark the ‘fill’ of a down duvet, with a number somewhere in the range of 300 to 800 used to indicate how much space is filled by an ounce of down. The higher the number, the firmer the duvet.
Feathers also tend to poke through duvets and both down and feathers collect dust mites, meaning that you’ll probably want to cover your duvet with a tightly woven organic cotton hypoallergenic cover.
One way to enjoy the comfort of down while minimizing the use of animal products is to opt for a HypoDown filled comforter.