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Green By Design Episode 302: Materials Deep Dive - Eco-Friendly Upholstery


Welcome back to Green By Design. This week Erica will be telling us all about foam and what green properties to look out for.


Okay. Welcome to episode two of Green By Design. I am your host, Erica Reiner from Eco Method Interiors. Today we are exploring in depth the topic of cushioning or foams, specifically in cushioning. This could be for anything from mattresses to couch cushions, recliner chairs and nurseries and everything in between.


What are the basic differences between a conventional product of this type versus alternative products that could be considered cleaner or greener?


So we're looking at conventional upholstery foams for cushioning in any of your upholstered pieces versus any alternatives, cleaner, greener products that we're gonna compare and contrast a bit. So this episode will not go into any chemistry details, but the science behind all of this is a little bit dense should you look it up. So I'm gonna do my best to keep it simple here to understand for myself and be able to explain it to you guys, just with the need to know. So it's not gonna be overly dense, just reviewing what better products there are.

Okay, so here's the deal. Most of the upholstered cushions and foams that we have on the market today are made out of polyurethane. It's because it is a product that is super attractive to manufacturers that make these pieces lightweight, quiet, resistant to mildew, other stuff like that. It's easily molded and cut in the manufacturing. And as you might have guessed, it was invented in the late fifties. And then before that, people were using horse hair, Spanish moss plant, coconut fiber as the cushions in all the upholstery pieces. So then they figured out polyurethane, it was cheap and easy to make on a mass scale. And there you have it.

So is this toxic and is it unsustainable? That's what we're looking at. So, it was really easy to find EPA articles about how spray polyurethanes are toxic and really easy to find articles about how polyurethane in a fire, super toxic, so for people, firefighters, et cetera. And then it was like, okay, we need to find just the like static substance in our furniture. What's going on there? And what I'm gonna explain has different levels of relevance depending on variables like the type of product and the manufacturer and stuff like that.So keep that in mind. Okay.

So the first problem with toxicity and polyurethane is that it requires a substance to make it that I am going to mispronounce, but it's called Isocyanates, which is a group classified as potential human carcinogens known to cause cancer in animals, and likely humans. A very commonly used type of this particular group of chemical is called, this is hard to pronounce too, toluene diisocyanate and for ease, let's call it TDI. This is classified as reasonably anticipated as a human carcinogen. Of course, a carcinogen is something that causes cancer. And that was designated by the US National Toxicology Program.

Okay, so we know there is at least one likely cancer causing agent that is required to make the foam. And then the question is, well, once it's made, is it gonna impact us in the end product? Before we get to that, it's worth mentioning that the production of this could be harmful for the workers in the surrounding community. The EPA identifies polyurethane foams, poly foams it can be called, manufacturing facilities as a potential major source of hazardous air pollutants. So that's something we wanna think about, about where it's being manufactured and those people who are having those direct impacts.

Okay, so what are the potential consequences? So the TDI and other Isocyanates could cause cancer and damage the lung, eye, mucus membranes, and the central nervous system. Not great. Okay, so I'm going to have in the show notes a graph that I'm referencing. It's linked below and what's interesting about it is, besides just what the polyurethane foam is made out of, there's also all of these things being added to it for the final product to be what they think the consumer wants. So there are a lot of additives. In the chart I'm mentioning, it shows 9% of that pie chart of the weight of this whole product is additives. And I'll explain some of those. It's also worth mentioning that 11% of this pie chart, it just says like unknown or it's not labeled. So I don't know what that could be, if that could mean even more additives. Strange.

Okay, so kinds of additives I'm talking about: flame retardants. This is especially relevant to my non-California friends or anyone with upholstered pieces from before. The retardant requirement in California was abolished in 2015, so that means they in California no longer have to make products with fire retardant on it. It can choose not to now and a lot of places are, so that's good. Okay, so flame retardants, if you don't already know, they're linked to really serious health issues including cancer, neurotoxicity, thyroid disease, fertility issues, deficits and motor skills, IQ in children, all that kind of horrible stuff.

So if you want a study to reference, there's one from the Environmental Working Group and Silence Spring Institute, Green Science Policy Institute, UC Davis, et cetera. And I will have that link here. And so the study just shows additional evidence that the bans on the flame retardant requirements in upholstered furniture in California. So removing that requirement has helped to reduce flame retardant levels in the home. They looked at levels in the home through various stages with the previous furniture and then replacing all that stuff and the content did go down because it gets in dust and dust gets in your lungs and your skin and stuff like that. So that's the mechanism there.

Okay, besides flame retardants, other additives in polyurethane upholstered foam cushioning is gonna be stuff like anti-mildew additives, color stabilizers, if you've ever seen foam turn yellow, they're trying to prevent that from happening because people don't like when it turns yellow. And CFCs, which are an ozone depleting air pollutant. You find CFCs in like refrigerant in your refrigerator. So those are regulated too. I think there's less of that now, which is good.

Okay. There's also gonna be other VOCs. VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds. That means it's any group of chemicals that off-gas, you can smell it with varying degrees of consequences depending on the type of chemical off-gassing. Okay, so those are the additives. And so all in all, I'm not loving polyurethane for cushioning in our upholstered pieces. Whether it's the level of additives or if we're somehow being exposed to the TDI that's in the static product at the end of the day. So what are the alternatives to these conventional pieces? The cleaner and green greener options?

Okay, so soy, this is like the newest thing marketed as available to have a healthy mattress or so far, whatever it might be.Okay, so I will say I do think if the foam is made out of all plant derived foam, there could be some benefits, but soy specifically, most producers in the US, soy is genetically modified. That's not great. There could also be a lot of pesticides in the soybeans that this is being produced from. So besides soy, there could be other vegetable oils used in the production such as castor oil, palm oil, rapeseed oil, canola oil, and tung oil. You've probably heard that palm oil is not sustainable, destroyed old growth forest of Borneo and orangutan habitat and all that kind of stuff. So as for the sourcing of these oils, that is a whole other topic. So I don't know if I'm crazy about just jumping straight into that as an alternative either.

So pesticide and GMO content for these other oils besides soy, that would be a whole other topic as well to look up. And then besides just what the base oil is being pulled from, whether it's petroleum or soy or tung oil, there's still the additives to consider. And then, what we should know, is a lot of these plant urethane foams that I'm seeing as alternatives, it might only be like 10%, 20% of the whole cushion and they're still doing 80, 90% of regular polyurethane. So is that 10 to 20% better? Maybe. It's not clear yet.

Okay. So another alternative I've seen is a polyurethane foam that has a certification called CertiPur certified. And I'm gonna say I do think this is a step in the right direction. I do think getting pure certified product is better than not, but I wanna note a couple of the downsides about this or it just falls a little short. So the CertiPur is an industry related standard. It's not a third party. It's like the foam manufacturers coming together and saying, Okay, what do we want in our standard? What are we gonna get rid of? What are we not gonna get rid of?

So it is made without ozone depleters, that's the CFCs I was talking about. It is made without PBDEs or Tris type of flame retardant. So it's a type of flame retardant, but it does not say it is free of all flame retardants. It's just free of one that has been talked a lot about and shown directly to cause severe problems in human health. So I don't like the wording on that 'cause it doesn't say free of frame retardants. It says free of a type. It is made without mercury, lead and other heavy metals. It's made without formaldehyde and it's made without phthalates. But another note here, it says phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.It doesn't say made without all phthalates. So that's another question mark for me. But the foam is low VOC, so that means it's hitting a standard. It's not gonna go above a certain level of off-gassing that has been determined, which is here, 0.5 part per million. So it's not none, but it is low.

So the best option that I am seeing as an alternative is going to be made from just all natural materials, which seems like the obvious choice, but here's some good reasons why. So we are looking for things like all natural or preferably organic latex. It is like a sappy substance that kind of turns into a bouncy, rubbery form of cushion that comes from a tree. You can see them, like, tap the little tree and it makes...there's buckets... and so yeah, it's like tree goop basically. And things like organic wool, coconut coir, organic cotton, and humanely sourced down. So those are the things that we're gonna be looking for. Some manufacturers might go back to the past and look at horse hair or Spanish moss, but those are probably much harder to obtain and are, like, slightly less renewable in terms of timeline as we would like.


What certifications are out there to assist when sourcing these kinds of products?


So the certifications that we want to look for that are available to us when we are sourcing a new mattress, a new sofa, a new lazy boy style chair, whatever it might be. So the first thing we're looking for is G-O-L-S, GOLS, which is for organic latex. So it has to have 95% of certified organic material. There is standards for harmful substances, they test emissions, they look at the rubber plantations for the tree sap and the processing units, all the way up to the final retailer. They also consider social conditions and monitor those in terms of the production.

Okay, so the other certification we're looking for is GOTS. I've mentioned this before in previous seasons, Global Organic Textile Standard. So this is third party verified that the product is containing a minimum of 70% organic fiber. All chemical inputs and stuff like that have to meet certain toxicological criteria and everything has to be made with a functional wastewater or treatment plant to address wet processing involved in the fabrics or the cottons and the fibers. They also have to comply with social criteria standards.

I've also mentioned OKEO-Tex 100 certification in a previous episode. This standard is not as good as GOTS, but it is assuring you that the end product fiber contains no residual chemicals of concern according to their catalog. And it is third party verified as well. It's a pretty old Swiss organization, so that's one to look for as well. Okay, so Made Safe, you might find some mattresses with this certification. So this greens ingredients against their database of known harmful chemicals, which has thousands in it from authoritative lists. They're cross referencing those to make sure that a product doesn't have one of them in it. Then they say they go above and beyond to examine ingredients for things like bioaccumulation in your system, persistence in the environment, and aquatic toxicity. So that's really good.

Eco Institut, their certification looks at how products used in homes off-gas. So again, the indoor air quality, the low versus no versus high VOC content, stuff like that. And they are testing based on international standards. You can look up their certification process. So they're looking at compounds based on select parameters of heavy metals, pesticides, and other stuff like that. Okay, Greenguard Gold. This is very common here in the states too. It's a popular certification and again, this is an indoor air quality one looking for VOC emission standard. So what you're gonna be breathing in from the end product once it's in your house. So for the natural substances that I mentioned as well, all natural substances are not created equally. So for organic wool, there is a certification I've just discovered called ZQ and this ensures that wool products have stringent regulations on the sustainable farming, animal welfare, and fair working conditions.

Similarly, same thing with DownPass. So if there's gonna be down in the couch cushions, which is so great when there is, it's so nice DownPass certified ensures high quality down and the feathers were ethically sourced. They come from traceable supply chains and they don't allow any live plucking or foie gras production down because those are not humane. Same thing with the Global Traceable Down Standard, GTDS, I believe. This also focuses on the down and feather is made without causing unnecessary harm to the animals. They have to follow local animal welfare laws, best practices, and they also do not allow live plucking or feathers from foie gras producers.

RDS is the Responsible Down Standard. Similar thing. This is managed by the Textile Exchange. Same thing about harm and live plucking, force fed animals, anything like that is a no-no. And they also ensure that the freedoms of animal welfare rules are followed. So they've got a little extra layer there. Similarly going back to the wool, there's one more called Responsible Wool Standard, RWS. And so that is going to be looking at farms that have progressive land management, which is important for sustainability and animal welfare. So again, the five freedoms of animal welfare and they are looking to certify the farmer, the traders, the yarn in the fabric in the final garment. So that's pretty good supply chain stuff. Okay, so that is it, that's all the info you need for choosing an alternative cleaner, greener product for any of your upholstered pieces. These are the things I look at when I'm sourcing for clients. And I am, you know, weighing the benefits of these alternative products against some of the things like price, availability, style, blah, blah, blah. So we kinda build that all into the method of eco method and sourcing.


What company is doing a good job in this category and what do they sell?


Okay, what company is doing a good job with all of this? I wanna shout out actually a couple companies. I'll do one for mattress and two for living room seating furniture. Okay, so for mattresses, I do like My Green Mattress. They have all the certifications you can want: GOTS, GOLS, Greenguard Gold. And they also do 1% for the Planet. So good for them. I love that. They obviously just sell mattresses. As for living room, bedroom, other kinds of pieces that you might need. Check out Medley and check out an oldie but a goody, Cisco Home. These stores are offering natural latex or organic fabrics, cotton batting, things like that that are gonna be important. And then as I promised, I will put the links to my sources in the show notes, and there you have it. That's your deep dive on upholstery.

Certifications and Organizations:



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