Shopping with good intentions today carries a unique set of challenges. According to Michael Crowell, executive director of the CertiPUR-US certification program, those challenges aren’t limited to parsing the fine print on an organic food label at your local grocery store.

“When you go to buy a mattress, you can be the most intelligent, best-educated person in the world, but you might feel clueless.,” he explains, “It’s very hard to verify facts. You don’t see what’s inside. It’s a blind product.”

That’s a considerable hurdle given the investment this purchase has become. As a 2016 Home Decorating Survey by Furniture Today indicates, the most common stretch of time consumers plan to own newly bought home furnishings is 5 to 9 years—including 45 percent of mattress consumers and 36 percent for sofa buyers.

Hidden chemicals

Anticipating the degree to which consumers should be concerned about exposure to chemicals, the certification process for foam was begun back in 2008 to ensure accountability in the mattress and upholstered furniture industry. At that time, Crowell notes, “the U.S. polyurethane foam industry realized there was a lot of substitution. In some cases—in other countries, they were making foam from certain chemicals, such as ozone depleters, that were banned in this country.”

“‘There’s almost nothing on this earth that is chemical-free, and there’s a lot of things that some bedding companies say that aren’t really true.’”

To keep a few bad seeds from spoiling the applecart, comprehensive guidelines for testing foam had to be established. Consulting scientists, consumer advocates, as well as experts on furniture and bedding, the not-for-profit developed a rigorous standard capable of holding foam producers accountable and, ultimately, giving shoppers genuine confidence in their purchase. To stay certified, producers must now pass laboratory, content and durability analyses twice in the first year, then once every year after that. “It’s not an easy test to pass,” adds Crowell. “Sometimes they have to reformulate, which is the whole idea.

“We then have verification testing,” he continues. “Even though these foam plants are sending their samples to independent laboratories to be tested, we go out separately to take samples of the foam, at our own expense, to be sure everyone is being faithful and compliant.”

Being transparent

“CertiPUR-US applies high standards when it certifies polyurethane foams,” affirms Ryan Trainer, president at International Sleep Products Association (ISPA). “This program is designed to help consumers rest assured that the foam in their mattress meets these standards.” 

Today there are about 30 polyurethane foam suppliers in the U.S. and other countries that carry the seal of approval. To be listed as an approved vendor online, a mattress seller must acquire foam from one of these producers. They cannot, Crowell notes, pay to be listed. “Nobody is buying the rights to be associated with our program,” he says. “It’s really a consumer-oriented program.”

August is the largest sales month for mattresses each year. Those on the hunt for a new mattress are encouraged to visit the CertiPUR-US website, where they can check out the chemical guidelines, see exactly what a foam producer has to do to certify their foam, or ask questions. And they do: “Dozens of times a week, we are getting emails and phone calls from people who are very concerned about what they bring into their home—what their children sleep on,” Crowell says. “Often it is people who have allergies, or chemical sensitivities. They’re very focused on their indoor air quality.”

Particularly during such a busy season, shopping for a new bed or furniture can become bogged down by vague claims or misinformation. “There’s almost nothing on this earth that is chemical-free, and there’s a lot of things that some bedding companies say that aren’t really true,” Crowell sums. “One of the things we’re really proud of is our transparency. We don’t pretend to be more than we are.”

“We just want to get the truth out there. There are things you just don’t want in something you’re going to spend a third of your life sleeping on.”