If I was going to pick a pillow fight, it’d be with the casual use of toxic chemicals and environmentally damaging materials to make almost all pillows sold in stores and online today. The second bout, however, would be with the marketing some companies use to promote their pillows. Greenwashing runs amok when it comes to household textiles, making it hard to figure out if that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ pillow is nothing but toxic fluff with no meaningful green certifications.
Terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ often carry no clout, and even when a pillow claims to be certified organic or compliant with Oeko-Tex Standard 100, this might just apply to one small part of the product, such as the outer cover or part of the filling.
Fortunately, there are some robust green certifications for pillows that can help you figure out the most eco-friendly product for a good night’s rest. These typically assess the product as a whole, providing reassurance of quality and environmental and ethical standards.
For a pillow to qualify for the USDA Organic seal, for instance, it has to contain a minimum of 95 percent certified organic materials and to be processed without potentially harmful chemicals. Few pillows meet the USDA Organic standards, but we’ve found some that do.
Some certifications go beyond the materials that make up the final product, covering growing conditions for raw materials, manufacturing processes, worker conditions, non-human animal welfare, and social and environmental impact overall.
My overall top pick for an eco-friendly pillow is the Organic Kapok Pillow from Savvy Rest (View Price on Savvy Rest). Scoring 5 out of 5 leaves, this pillow is stuffed with pure organic kapok and is encased in certified organic cotton. The cotton used in their pillows is free from pesticides, herbicides, and toxic finishing chemicals, as certified by GOTS. Savvy Rest are also a certified B Corporation, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability and good working conditions. You can read our full review of their kapok pillow here.
Two of the most important logos to look out for when buying a pillow are GOTS and GOLS.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS requires that at least 95 percent of the materials in the mattress be certified organic, and it prohibits outright the use of certain substances even for the other 5 percent, such as chemical flame retardants and polyurethane, the chief ingredient of memory foam.
Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
GOLS ensures that a mattress with latex is made of 95 percent organic latex, with restrictions on the other 5 percent of the mattress’s components. Natural-latex mattresses may have both the GOTS and GOLS labels.
Greenguard and Greenguard Gold
Greenguard is one of the most common green certifications and requires testing of a finished pillow for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. The related Greenguard Gold has more stringent emission limits for VOCs. Both were developed by UL Environment and Greenguard worked with ANSI to become an official standard-setting organization. Neither certification offers reassurance that a product is free from toxins, however, nor do they include a social or animal ethics component.
Green America certifies businesses that actively use their business as a tool for positive social change. To be certified with Green America a business must also:
- Operate a “values-driven” enterprise according to principles of social justice AND environmental sustainability;
- Demonstrate environmentally responsible practices in the way they source, manufacture, and market their products and run their operations and facilities;
- Be socially equitable and committed to extraordinary practices that benefit workers, customers, communities, and the environment; and
- Be accountable for their work by continually improving and tracking their progress and operating with transparency in every facet of their business.
Green America has been evaluating and certifying small businesses since 1982 and has worked with companies such as Seventh Generation and Honest Tea, as well as Malouf, a pillow manufacturer I recommend in my round-up of the best companies to consider for eco-friendly, non-toxic pillows.
There is also a Green America Gold certification that is reserved for companies who are industry leaders for responsible, sustainable business practices.
Cradle to Cradle Certification
Cradle to Cradle is one of the best eco certification programs around but is yet to gain traction in the pillow and bedding industry. Cradle to Cradle is both independent and fairly robust, offering various levels of certification for products. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization, making this a third-party certification program.
Cradle to Cradle demonstrate that good green credentials are not the only considerations when buying bedding. Their ‘social fairness’ component means that you can rest assured that you’re sleeping soundly on bedding that wasn’t made using child labor or other exploitative working practices, for instance.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard is awarded to products that are sustainable and eco-friendly and created by manufacturers who demonstrate continual improvement in environmentally friendly industry practices. For example, products are assessed in terms of the amount of water and sustainable energy involved in their manufacture, rather than just the presence of VOCs in the final product.
Cradle to Cradle have developed a Material Assessment Rating System called ABC-X:
- A – The material is ideal from a Cradle to Cradle perspective for the product in question.
- B – The material supports largely Cradle to Cradle objectives for the product.
- C – Moderately problematic properties of the material. The material is still acceptable for use.
- X – Highly problematic properties of the material. Should be phased out.
Cradle to Cradle certification levels comprise:
At the Gold and Platinum levels, products are certified as free from X materials. Platinum level also requires that the product has a Material Reutilization Score of 100, and that the product is actively being recovered and cycled in a technical or biological metabolism. In addition, Platinum certification requires that:
Renewable Energy and Carbon Management
- For the final manufacturing stage of the product, >100% of purchased electricity is renewably sourced or offset with renewable energy projects, and >100% of direct on-site emissions are offset.
- The embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is characterized and quantified, and a strategy to optimize is developed. At re-application, progress on the optimization plan is demonstrated.
- ≥ 5% of the embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is covered by offsets or otherwise addressed (e.g., through projects with suppliers, product re-design, savings during the use phase, etc.).
- All water leaving the manufacturing facility meets drinking water quality standards.
- A facility-level audit is completed by a third party against an internationally recognized social responsibility program (e.g., SA8000 standard or B-Corp).
- All Silver-Level requirements are complete.
So far, just one company is claiming c2c certification for pillows, Vita Talalay. This company began making latex as far back as 1932 in Maastricht and now makes latex pillows, mattress toppers, and mattresses. The company’s products carry a wealth of eco certifications, including c2c, Rainforest Alliance, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), essent (Green Energy), and eco Institut, and publicly state that they are, “committed to Cradle to Cradle values. Inspired by nature’s continuous cycle, this concept requires companies to use materials and design products in such a way that they will be positive to the environment and human health.”
One other c2c certified company, Lomotex, makes bedding products including pillow cases, but not pillows themselves. Lomotex do not appear to sell direct to consumer, however.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and 1000
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 lays out limits for the emission of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It also outright bans the use of certain chemical flame retardants, colorants, and allergenic dyes, but it doesn’t offer any guidance on whether materials are organic or sustainably sourced and it’s not always clear if an entire product or just a single component is certified.
The certification process for the OEKO TEX Certification is fairly robust and includes testing for a variety of hazardous chemicals, pesticides, phthalates, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals. If a pillow carries this certification, it has been tested and found to contain no:
- Chlorinated phenols
- Carcinogenic dyes
- AZO dyes
- Allergy inducing dyes
The OEKO TEX Standard 100 Certification is voluntary and must be updated each year in order to remain active.
Some pillows are certified to Oeko-Tex Standard 1000, which requires proof that the company meets additional social standards as well as more robust environmental standards. These include standards covering:
- The use of environmentally-damaging chemicals, auxiliaries and dyestuffs
- Compliance with standard values for waste water and exhaust air
- Optimization of energy consumption
- Avoidance of noise and dust pollution
- Workplace safety measures
- Child labor
- Basic elements of an environmental management system
- The existence of a quality management system
The Eco Institute, located in Cologne, Germany, is an independent organization that has more than 25 years of experience testing products for the presence of pollutants and emissions, even in trace amounts. If a product is Eco-INSTITUT certified, you can be assured that it does not contain even trace amounts of hazardous chemicals and will not off-gas undesirable chemicals and odors into your home. Some of the chemicals the Eco-Institute certification rules out include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates, formaldehyde, pesticides, heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants.
If you’re buying a pillow that contains latex, look for the Eco-Institute and GOLS certifications, as well as the FairRubber certificate.
Fair Rubber Association
The Fair Rubber Association expands the concept of Fair Trade to products made from natural rubber. The Fair Rubber Association’s aim is to promote improvements in working and living conditions of those producing goods made from natural latex (rubber), and to promote environmentally friendly rubber production that is chemical-free. The Fair Rubber logo is reserved for products which fulfill the criteria of Fair Trade in natural rubber.
One other certification you’ll likely run into when looking for a new pillow is CertiPUR-US. This logo applies only to the polyurethane foam in a pillow (i.e. memory foam), certifying that it meets certain standards such as being free from polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE) and flame retardants).
This standard, which is administered by a non-profit organization in the U.S., also requires testing for formaldehyde and other chemicals including ozone depleting substances, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, and hormone-disrupting phthalates.
While this reduction in problematic chemicals is laudable, memory foam is still a resource-hungry synthetic material that off-gases VOCs. As such, it certainly has no place in my home and I’d strongly suggest you avoid buying these pillows for yours.
kbA and kbT
Products made and/or sold in Europe may carry kbA and/or kbT certifications. The former certifies that the product is made with organic cotton and the second translates roughly to ‘controlled organic livestock’, meaning that materials are sourced from suppliers using organic farming methods ‘optimally adapted to the climatic and living conditions of the region’ and using ‘species-appropriate animal husbandry in harmony with nature’ (R).
The kbT certification means that no genetically modified foods or fattening aids are allowed in the rearing of animals, no forced reproduction of the animals is allowed, and practices such as tail docking or mulesing are prohibited. kbT virgin wool also has to be free from pesticides and insecticides, a practice that applies both to the animals and to the soil on which the animals graze.
Responsible Down Standard
If only down will do for your pillows, you’ll want to look for companies who only use feathers and down from certified RDS sources. The Responsible Down Standard 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.
The RDS is an independent, voluntary global standard designed to minimize the harm that comes to geese and ducks in the process of gathering down and feathers. It also provides traceability in supply chains, so you can be certain of where the down in your pillows and other products came from.
Most of the down and feathers in pillows is sourced from waterfowl raised for meat. These birds have their down and feathers repeatedly plucked while they are still alive (causing extreme pain) and are often subjected to force feeding and other inhumane practices.
Down and feathers from RDS certified suppliers have to meet the following six conditions:
- From hatching to slaughter, there is holistic respect for the birds’ animal welfare—proper feeding and handling, proper health treatment, and a safe environment should all be provided.
- Each stage in the down supply chain is audited by a third-party certification body—no matter where an organization lies in the supply chain, it must provide proper documentation that the down has been acquired from an RDS-certified supplier.
- RDS down and feathers are properly identified, so down and feathers that aren’t RDS-certified aren’t misidentified.
- Only products with 100 percent certified down and feathers carry the RDS logo.
- Removal of down or feathers from live birds is prohibited.
- Force-feeding birds is prohibited.
While it remains arguable if RDS-certified down can be considered truly cruelty-free, it is certainly far better than standard down in terms of animal welfare. What this certification does not do, unfortunately, is offer any guarantee over the cleaning practices used in the production of end products. As such, RDS down may still be sterilized and de-odorized using toxic chemicals including formaldehyde. This certificate should, therefore, be paired with other eco-friendly certifications for increased peace of mind across the board.
Parachute and CocoMat are the best options for down pillows. These companies use RDS-certified down and CocoMat products meet GOTS and OEKO-Tex Standard 100 at least. They also have a philanthropic wing to their company.
Another company using exclusively RDS-certified down is Scandia Home. This company produces luxury products for bed, bath, and home, including premium down pillows. They use a 12-stage cleaning process for the down (although they don’t claim that this is chemical-free) and have been using only RDS-certified down since 2016. They encase the down in cotton, silk, and other fabrics that are OEKO-TEX® certified to be free from harmful substances.
The whole pillow is not certified, however, and they are yet to commit to using certified organic cotton or recycled silk. Still, of all the down pillows available, these seem to be some of the best and they carry a lifetime guarantee. That means that you might never need to buy a pillow again, hence their inclusion as one of my Leaf Score recommendations for companies making eco-friendly, non-toxic pillows.