Ordinary beds contain many chemicals. These include flame-retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), which Washington State’s government says might affect how a baby’s brain develops during pregnancy; wood varnishes, which offgas chemical fumes; and rubber and vinyl, which are often partly petroleum-based and some say can cause cancer. With all of that, a good night’s sleep might be hard to find.
There are few hidden chemical threats in a natural futon. A simple version is just puffy cotton or wool, sometimes certified organic, within a cover made of cotton or other material. Layering several futons on the floor and storing them in the closet can save space. You can also buy a wooden futon frame, which gives you a couch during the day and a bed at night.
People who can’t handle perfumes, off-gassing or the presence of common chemicals sometimes find natural bedding a must, not an option. “Most of our customers are chemically sensitive,” says Jacquie Flood of organic-focused Heart of Vermont. The company sells double and full-sized futons starting at $405.
Even people who feel fine in their current bed might consider going natural—for the environment’s sake. “It’s important to ask about all the different materials used,” says Mary Cordaro, who designs natural bedding and teaches its virtues as H3Environmental’s president. (The company’s collection does not include futons, however.)
Most futons are made out of cotton, but not all cotton is created equal. The standard product absorbs 25 percent of all pesticides, and is sprayed both during the growth cycle and again after it’s harvested. So-called “green cotton” is usually grown with pesticides, but is not sprayed after it is picked. Certified organic cotton avoids chemicals at all times.
Wool and Rubber
Many “green” futons also contain wool, a natural fire-retardant. Government regulations in the U.S. require that bedding be made with fire retardants, unless buyers obtain a doctor’s prescription stating they must avoid the chemicals for health reasons. Wool allows some manufacturers to meet the fire-safe standards without requiring a prescription. The fabric also has other benefits: “Dust mites don’t like wool,” says Flood. Wool also lets more air circulate, meaning that owners sleep cooler. “You’re not as clammy,” Flood says.
Heart of Vermont’s wool is kept chemical-free after farmers shear the sheep. People allergic to typical wool sometimes do fine with such a product, because they may actually be allergic to chemicals added to the wool.
Lifekind Products’ wool avoids chemicals even while the sheep are wearing it. The pastures are pesticide-free and farmers do not feed the sheep antibiotics, says president and co-founder Walt Bader. The company, which makes futons ($545 to $1,395), mattresses and other natural home products, runs the only bedding factory that is certified organic by an independent third party, Bader says. He compares organic claims to pregnancy: You can’t be a little bit organic.
Lifekind also puts all raw bedding materials in an ozone chamber to remove contaminants—including mold—encountered on the way to the factory.
The main complaint futon customers have, Bader says, is that the beds “get thin too soon.” Cotton compresses easily, so an all-cotton futon could quickly flatten. Both rubber and wool slow the process. Lifekind’s mattress-futon combo is made with natural rubber.
There’s no environmental issue when rubber is harvested sustainably from trees, says Cordaro. “It’s a renewable resource,” she explains. Much like wool, people allergic to typical latex sometimes find this product is fine. However, Cordaro says consumers should ensure the rubber is 100 percent natural. A blend might include avoidable chemicals.
Northern Naturals leaves rubber out of the mix. The company sells affordable natural futons (from $115) that contain cotton and a poly-fiber blend. Organic versions are available. The company says that, unlike the polyurethane foam used in conventional futons, its “Airlay” does not release dangerous chemicals and won’t break down when exposed to air. The fiber softens the futon, says owner Brett Rosen.
A final purchase you”ll likely consider is a bed frame. Most natural futon stores sell wooden frames, which means you may want to ask if the wood comes from sustainable logging operations. To avoid any petroleum chemicals, buy the frame unfinished. Finish it yourself with a natural product.
You should order a natural futon about a month before you want it, because many companies hand-make them to order.
Once you’ve made the purchase, you”ll need to keep your new bed clean. Natural material usually requires more attention than synthetics, says Hoffman. Mold can also cause problems, he says. Hoffman compares futons to bread, suggesting that prospective buyers leave some whole-grain organic bread on the counter alongside some generic white bread and “see which one molds quicker.”
To avoid a nasty mold problem, owners should flip the futon regularly, especially if it’s on the floor. Rosen suggests that owners who eat in bed place a mattress pad between the futon and the sheets, lest they spill anything. “You can’t throw your futon in the wash,” he says. If the futon does get messy, Cordaro suggests sunning and spot cleaning it.
As with organic apples and fair-trade coffee, the biggest reason not to buy an Earth-friendly bed is cost. “It’s easy to walk into a regular mattress store and get everything at once,” Cordaro says. “But those mattresses are not reflecting the true costs.” Pesticides and pollution cause health problems that cost taxpayers.
Finally, some of these beds just look cool. Take Rawganique’s all-organic, all-hemp hypoallergenic futon (from $300, mattress only). Put that in your room, and you’re guaranteed that at least your conscience will sleep easier—atop a bed that’s good both for you and the planet.
ADRIAN LAROSE enjoys researching natural products.