Greenwashing runs amok in the world of pillows. As part of the Leaf Score Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding, here are the most important green certifications for pillows, to help you find bedding that is genuinely safe and sustainable.
Table of Contents
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
- Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
- USDA Organic
- Made in Green by Oeko-Tex (and Standard 100)
- Greenguard Gold
- kbA and kbT
- Cradle to Cradle (c2c)
- Climate Neutral Certified
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Rainforest Alliance Certified
- B Corp
- Fair Rubber Association
If I were to pick a pillow fight, it’d be with manufacturers that continue to use toxic chemicals and synthetic materials when better natural alternatives are available. The second bout, however, would be with the marketing some companies use to promote their pillows as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ when they’re anything but.
A ‘natural’ pillow may simply be a conventional cotton case stuffed with polyester. And without proper certifications, that ‘organic’ pillow may be a polyfoam pillow with a semi-synthetic bamboo and cotton cover.
Certifications matter when it comes to pillows. Here are the ones to look for.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS requires that at least 95 percent of the materials in a pillow are certified organic, and it prohibits outright the use of certain substances even for the other 5 percent. Among other things, pillows with GOTS certification should be free of:
- Hazardous chemical flame retardants
- Azo dyes
- Regulated phthalates
- Polyurethane, the chief ingredient of memory foam
- Conventional cotton and associated pesticides.
Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
GOLS certification is similar to GOTS but applies to latex products, such as shredded or molded latex pillows. Like GOTS, GOLS ensures that a latex pillow is made of 95 percent organic latex, with restrictions on the other 5 percent of ingredients.
A pillow with a genuine GOLS certification will not contain styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR, or synthetic rubber), which is a source of VOCs that off-gas and pollute indoor air.
For a pillow to qualify for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic certification, it has to contain a minimum of 95 percent certified organic materials and to be processed without potentially harmful chemicals. The remaining 5 percent of materials cannot include non-organic fibers, meaning manufacturers can’t mix organic and conventional cotton in pillows.
For pillows labeled 100% organic with USDA certification, the product must comprise purely organic fibers and be made with only organic processing chemicals.
Once upon a time, the USDA Organic seal only applied to raw materials. Now, the certification program covers the finished product and includes elements of water conservation and biodiversity. It still has no social ethics requirements though, unlike GOTS.
Like MadeSafe, eco-INSTITUT is an independent organization focusing on the chemical composition of products. Unlike MadeSafe, eco-INSTITUT actually tests products.
The German organization maintains laboratories across the world, where it can assess the emissions and chemical composition of pillows. Typically, this is for latex pillows, rather than those made with organic fibers only.
eco-INSTITUT certification has stricter standards than Greenguard Gold and Oeko-Tex (ad the European Union!) and certifies that pillows have no or low levels of:
- POPs (persistent organic pollutants)
- Heavy metals (such as lead, antimony, cobalt, copper, and mercury)
- Pesticides (such as Captafal, Perthan, Permethrin, Telodrin, and Toxaphen)
If a latex pillow carries eco-INSTITUT certification it is free of synthetic rubber, phthalates, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
MadeSafe is a robust certification program that aims to highlight non-toxic products. The independent non-profit organization that oversees the certification has one of the most extensive lists of banned chemicals (more than 6,500 at the last count). These include heavy metals, hazardous flame retardants, pesticides, toxic solvents, VOCs, and chemicals known to be:
- Behavioral toxins
- Developmental toxins
- Endocrine disruptors
- Reproductive toxins.
Companies applying for MadeSafe™ certification must detail every chemical and material that goes into their products. MadeSafe™ then cross-references the product composition with its list and if there are any banned chemicals present, it won’t grant certification.
While the list of chemicals is robust, MadeSafe™ doesn’t actually test the products. As such, this certification relies heavily on companies being transparent and honest about their materials and manufacturing practices. It also relies on companies being in full control of their supply chains, so they know exactly what goes into products at every stage.
Another drawback of MadeSafe certification is its lack of a social or environmental component beyond material and chemical toxicity.
Made in Green by Oeko-Tex (and Standard 100)
Made in Green by Oeko-Tex is a fairly new certification program that builds on Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 and seems to have taken over the role of Standard 1000.
Standard 100 lays out limits for VOCs such as formaldehyde and outright bans the use of:
- Certain chemical flame retardants
- Carcinogenic colorants (namely azo dyes)
- Allergenic dyes
- Chlorinated phenols.
Standard 100 also limits heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates, and other hazardous materials and chemicals. However, Standard 100 doesn’t cover the wider issues of sustainability and social fairness.
Made in Green by OEKO-Tex is only achievable for pillows and other bedding that satisfy Standard 100 criteria and are “manufactured using environmentally friendly processes and under socially responsible working conditions”. To qualify, products need to be made in facilities certified by STeP by OEKO-TEX® (a sustainable production certification system).STeP covers the entire textile production chain and includes ecological and social standards.
Made in Green isn’t as well known, nor as robust, as GOTS, but it’s a good indication that a pillow was made by a company that is ahead of the game on safety and sustainability. The certification scheme also uses a convenient QR code printed on product labels, so you can scan your pillow to find out exactly where and how it was made.
The OEKO TEX Standard 100 and Made in Green certifications are voluntary and must be updated each year in order to remain active.
bluesign® is a Swiss certification you might see on pillows made with bamboo, PLA, or recycled polyester. This seal covers the entire supply chain and all parts of a pillow, offering assurance that there are no toxic chemicals in the product.
bluesign also covers worker safety and the overall environmental impact of products. That said, bluesign is mostly used for synthetic or semi-synthetic pillows, so could be seen as greenwashing products when more natural, even safer alternatives exist.
Greenguard Gold is a common certification on many pillows. It mostly applies, though, to pillows made with some synthetic materials, such as polyester. This is because the certification standard tests final products, in this case pillows, for emissions of VOCs such as formaldehyde. For natural products made with no toxic chemicals, the certification is a little redundant as they wouldn’t off-gas VOCs anyway.
Still, it’s nice to see Greenguard Gold certification, especially for products such as latex pillows or those made with recycled synthetic materials. Greenguard Gold has more stringent emission limits for VOCs than Greenguard but the limits are still higher than zero and (for most VOCs) higher than those for EcoLabel in the European Union.
Greenguard Gold doesn’t offer any assurance that a pillow is entirely free of toxic chemicals, nor does it encompass social ethics.
kbA and kbT
Pillows that contain cotton or wool and are made in the European Union may carry kbA or kbT certification. These certify that the pillow is made with cotton or wool sourced according to organic standards.
The kbT certification is one of the most robust available for wool as it looks at both the treatment of sheep and the use of pesticides and other chemicals. With kbT, no mulesing or tail docking are allowed, and no pesticide dips or forced reproduction is permitted.
EcoWool is not so much an independent certification as a scheme created by an American farmer to help highlight arguably more ethical and environmentally friendly wool from small farms in the U.S.
If you see a product made with Premium Eco-Wool™, for instance, this signifies that the wool has been tested for quality and came from small, sustainable farms in the Pacific Northwest. EcoWool is not an organic certification but program requirements may actually exceed those of USDA Organic.
Cradle to Cradle (c2c)
Some latex pillows carry Cradle to Cradle certification. This usually applies only to Talalay latex in pillows and not to the pillow as a whole. (Dunlop latex pillows are typically certified by GOLS as organic).
Talalay latex with c2c certification has been assessed by an independent non-profit organization (The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute) and deemed sustainable, eco-friendly, socially fair, and safe in terms of materials and chemical processes. It is not, however, an organic standard.
Climate Neutral Certified
Going beyond material safety and social ethics, some brands look to schemes such as Climate Neutral Certified to demonstrate their eco-friendliness.
This certification program asks brands to measure all carbon emissions associated with company operations and then offset 100% of those emissions. This includes emissions from shipping and manufacturing.
The downside of this certification is that it again relies on brands being transparent, honest, and accurate about their emissions. The seal doesn’t mean a company has undergone a third-party audit.
Forest Stewardship Council
Pillows may carry Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for the pillow itself but most often this seal applies to the packaging for the pillow. FSC certification can mean that packaging is made with virgin paper and card products from responsibly managed forests or from recycled or mixed wood materials.
For pillows themselves, FSC certification can apply to natural latex, and may help to substantiate claims over the organic nature of any latex in a pillow.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Latex pillows may also carry Rainforest Alliance certification. This demonstrates that the latex is natural and comes from a sustainable rubber tree plantation. The RAC has more wide-ranging social, economic, and environmental requirements than FSC but isn’t quite as robust as GOLS.
Many bedding brands have become Benefit Corporations (B Corps) in recent years. These B Corps undergo a robust third-party audit and ongoing assessment to create a B Score that shows how the company is doing in terms of people, planet, and profit (known as the triple bottom line).
B Corps are expected to continually improve and have a positive impact on local and global communities. In general, B Corps are more transparent and sustainable than competitors that aren’t B Corps, in part because they’re forced to scrutinize their existing practices and to continually develop more sustainable approaches to business.
Pillow makers with B Corp status include Avocado, Savvy Rest, Leesa, and Malouf, among others.
Fair Rubber Association
If you’re keen on latex pillows, look for those with Fair Rubber Association certification. This seal takes the idea of Fair Trade and applies it specifically to latex products. The general idea is that by buying pillows with this seal, you’re helping to improve the working and living conditions of those producing natural latex (rubber).
Many pillows now carry CertiPUR-US certification. This seal exclusively applies to the synthetic foam in a pillow and shows that the foam is slightly less toxic and bad for the environment than conventional polyfoam. CertiPur foam is free from polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE) and some of the most hazardous chemical flame retardants, and the foam is tested for formaldehyde, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, and regulated phthalates.
Still, even CertiPur foam is, well, synthetic. The petroleum-based product will still off-gas some VOCs, is made with fossil fuels, and is not biodegradable or remotely eco-friendly.
We don’t typically recommend down or feather pillows, but if you do want a pillow stuffed with these materials, look for one that uses certified recycled down (Global Recycling Standard) and carries MadeSafe, Oeko-Tex, or eco-INSTITUT certification. This suggests the manufacturer hasn’t used hazardous chemicals to sanitize and de-odorize or bleach the feathers and down for reuse.
If you want virgin feathers and down, look for the Responsible Down Standard. This third-party certification applies to marginally less cruel down and feathers that are usually a byproduct of meat production. The certification also offers assurance of traceability, and only products with 100 percent certified down and feathers can carry the RDS logo.
RDS certification doesn’t offer any assurance of how the down and feathers are cleaned or otherwise processed. So, again, pair RDS with MadeSafe, Oeko-Tex, or eco-INSTITUT certification.