Is Latex Foam Sustainable for People and the Planet?
This is a question I’ve been pondering more often of late. We’re not talking about latex blends and synthetic latex here – just the 100% Natural Latex Foam that is made from the ‘milk’ of rubber trees in Southeast Asia.
First, let’s look at a definition of sustainable:
… sustainability aims to promote healthy, viable, and equitable communities. In the same way the healthcare industry promotes healthy behaviors such as eating right and exercising; it should encourage environmental stewardship since the health of our environment affects public health.’ (from The University of North Texas Health Science Center)
I like this definition because it ties human health to environmental health, which I believe is essential.
Latex Foam Certifications
Do current latex foam certifications guarantee sustainability under this definition? To answer this, let’s take a look at the two most common (and most respected) certifications:
- The ‘Oeko-Tex 100’ certification is ranked among the highest environmental consumer product standards, and assures that the product is free of flame retardants and other harmful chemicals (eg. is safe for children), but it does NOT give any indication of the conditions ‘on the ground’ such as environmental damage resulting from clearing forests for rubber plantations, social damage suffered by communities whose livelihood is adversely effected by such plantations, or damage to individuals as a result of unfair labor practices.
- The GOLS certification (Global Organic Latex Standard – established in 2012) is much more rigorous. GOLS adheres to the stricter organic standards, tracking child labor practices and social & environmental impact. It’s important to note that there is a difference between a product that is certified ‘organic’ and one that is certified ‘made with organic’. The ‘organic’ product is tracked and certified from ‘field to shelf’, while the ‘made with organic’ product is tracked and certified only in the field (raw material growing conditions & practices). In other words, the production/factory/distributor parts of the equation are not taken into account. For a more in-depth discussion of certifications, check out the Oecotextiles blog.
As I see it, the Oeko-Tex 100 certification yields gaps that could allow exploitation of communities to slip through the cracks, while the GOLS certification has measures in place that could prevent this kind of disregard for human rights.
How are Human Health issues effected by the availability of latex foam for upholstery?
Individuals who are allergic to latex may or may not have adverse reaction to natural latex foam, depending on the nature and severity of their sensitivity. Those with allergies are well advised to seek professional advice when considering using latex foam in their furniture. Read more about latex allergies in ‘All About Latex Foam for Upholstery’.
Individuals who are sensitive to off-gassing from synthetic materials such as urethane foam often find great relief in the ability to choose natural latex foam for their bedding and upholstery needs.
What about the Carbon Footprint?
As of this writing (2019), I have not heard that any of the certifications directly address the carbon footprint of natural latex foam products from field to manufacture to distribution (sadly, there are very few products of any kind that take carbon footprint into account in pricing). With carbon becoming more of a concern as an environmental by-product of production, I hope to see it incorporated into future versions of these certifications.
Pros & Cons of Latex Foam as a Sustainable Option for Upholstered Furniture
- Health-wise, certified latex foam is free of harmful chemicals, and for some chemically sensitive individuals who can’t tolerate polyurethane foam off-gassing, it is their only option for bedding and upholstery.
- Natural latex foam ingredients & processes are relatively benign when compared to the toxic chemicals that go into urethane foam or styrene butadiene foam (synthetic latex) production.
- Natural latex foam carries a relatively heavy carbon footprint to ship from Southeast Asia to the U.S. market, with adverse climate impact.
- There is increasing concern about cultural damage to communities that are displaced by unscrupulous plantation developers. However, the GOLS organic certification assures oversight of social & cultural impacts, so choosing GOLS will effectively by-pass this argument.
- Environmental damage to old growth forests in vulnerable regions as a result of monocultural plantations is a growing issue. However, the GOLS organic certification assures environmental oversight, so choosing GOLS will effectively by-pass this argument.
The Oecotextiles blog goes into some depth on the subject of polyurethane foam.
I’m always on the lookout for better alternatives, and one prospect that has my attention is mycelium foam. It’s still a long ways from the upholstery foam market, but I love the idea of ‘growing your own’ cushion!
Note: originally published in January 2010, this post has been updated to reflect changes in our outlook and in the latex industry.
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How does this article support the claim that foam latex is sustainable? The production of latex leads to the destruction of native forests, water pollution, erosion, and land disputes — not to mention the carbon footprint involved. Here’s a report on Sri Lanka alone: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/rubber-plantation
Thank you for your comment, which inspired me to update this post (Nov 2019) to include the very important issues you have pointed out. Is natural latex foam sustainable? No it is not. But it does offer an alternative for chemically sensitive individuals who cannot tolerate conventional upholstery foams in their home environment. The GOLS certification offers some measure of assurance, but as you say, once a native forest is destroyed to make way for a latex plantation (GOLS certified or not), the consequences can be dire for local communities, as well as for cultural and environmental diversity. The question ultimately falls to the buyer to make a (hopefully) informed decision about the impact of their purchase versus personal health. It is unfortunate that we find ourselves in such a predicament. As I mentioned, I have high hopes for mycelium as a foam alternative. Perhaps if we as consumers apply pressure in the form of inquiry to mycelium product developers, the technology will advance more quickly to produce a safe and viable alternative to both polyurethane and latex foams.
Comment from GL, who sent this to me privately:
“Your post is very timely for me. I’m very “green” but the difficulty of finding upholsterers willing to work with latex foam has recently forced me to question whether latex foam is indeed a necessity for me. After reading [about] the ecological/carbon footprint concerns with latex, the question is even more complex.
As you say , it is not a simple pro and con.
One point of confusion for me is this— standard synthetic foam used to be full of toxic flame retardants. Now, one can buy flame retardant free foam. Also, my understanding is that the primary danger with poly-based foam is when it starts breaking down into inhalable dust. So, if it is encased, and in good shape, is it still a health hazard?
Bottom line, what are our options? Is there a good alternative to latex? Is there a good, better, best solution?
I would greatly appreciate any clarification— thank you for any advice and thank for the good work you do to promote non-toxic upholstery!”
Thank you GL,
You’ll find part of my response to your questions in the comment above, and part in the revisions I have made to the post. Also I will refer you to the Two Sisters Ecotextiles blog post about polyurethane which I hope will help.