I’ve recently had some requests for help with finding ethical and sustainable bedding. As a bed-lover myself I was not only interested to learn more, but keen to help too. The thing about bedding is that, like many other textiles, there’s a lot of stages of the production line. I spoke to the wonderful minds behind Elkie & Ark who explained
‘we need to go right back to the seed. Ensuring the farming process is GMO free and looks after workers and the environment right through the to the finished products.’
This means that if you’re going it alone and trying to find out what is ethical, it can be a bit of a minefield. Luckily, we’re here to help! Elkie & Ark have given me all the info you could ever need and more, and I’m here to try and make it easy to understand as well as give you the best options to buy bedding from across the world. Together we have everything you need to know about buying bedding that’s good for you, good for the people making it and good for the planet. An ethical powerhouse, if you will.
DISCLAIMER: below I’m about to put a ton of information on the processes of making bedding, for those who are interested in learning more and understanding the ethics. If this is not your jam then just scroll on down to the part where I tell you which companies are the best to buy from.
Now lets get started.
To begin with, when thinking about ethical bedding here are the main things that you’ll want to be aware of/avoid:
- The farming process: pesticides used can leach into farms and waterways, having devastating impacts on human and animal health. Non-organic farming has led to large numbers of suicides by farmers unable to meet the costs of pesticides, and the health impacts on the local communities that surround the farms and production factories. Slave labour during farming as well as unfair wages and working conditions are also big issues.
- Spinning and weaving mills: potential use of slavery or bonded labour.
- The dying of fabrics: toxic chemicals used in the dying process are also often leaked directly into waterways
So all of those are pretty bad. But they can be avoided.
If you’re buying bed linen and you’re not sure about the ethical implications, here are the main things you want to look for:
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)
This ensures organic products are used throughout the entire growing and processing of a fabric, including pesticides, dyes and chemicals that are used. This stops the conventional textile industry impacts on health, waterways, the environment and farmer wellbeing, as well as ensuring a number of fair working conditions for all factory workers including spinners, weavers, knitters and end ‘tailors’ or makers, so it’s a great start when it comes to ethical sourcing. In the UK The Soil Association also work alongside GOTS for products sold, so look out for either of these labels.
The World Fair Trade Organisation or Fair Trade USA mark (or other local ethical assessment groups like Ethical Clothing Australia)
WFTO can encompass the whole brand and supply chain for a product from start to finish and can really boost the quality of trade for small-scale producers. The Fair Trade USA mark can cover both the manufacturing process and underlying commodity, so all the way from seed to finished product, but do read the labels to check to see which part of the process – if not all – is covered. There are of course other local certifying bodies, like Ethical Clothing Australia, that help you to have comfort that even domestic supply chains are ethically managed.
Fair Trade International Cotton
If you’re wanting to buy cotton bedding this is one of the main ways to know that the farmers were paid a fair wage and that there was no slave labour or child labour. It also pays a premium (and a percentage of the products final sale price) back to the community to develop community projects, teaches sustainable and organic farming practices and sets a fixed minimum price for cotton to ensure workers have greater certainty. Cotton farming is also a life source for many rural communities around the world, so this is pretty important. However, and this is very important, the only raw crop in this list covered by the fair trade movement is cotton. If you’re wanting hemp or linen bedding this doesn’t mean it wasn’t ethically farmed/retted/processed, it just means it’s harder to tell from a simple mark. You may still be able to find GOTS certification which ensures a fully organic process and an ethical process from the time it reaches factories however.
The Better Cotton Initiative
This initiative seeks to farm cotton in a more sustainable, ethical way whilst supporting the education of farmers to improve their techniques and use much less pesticides. High street store Marks & Spencer are big champions, funders and supporters of this scheme
Small, direct-to-farmer businesses
If you look for them there are businesses doing direct sourcing from the seed and producing beautiful bedding. This does require more work in getting to know the businesses you’re buying from, so it isn’t for everyone, but Elkie & Ark recommends Ireland, Belgium and France as a starting point. These countries are long-term traditional growers of flax-linen, and EU regulations are much stricter on pesticide use and the environmental impact of the retting process than in other countries, so if you look for linens sourced from these countries you can know they’re coming from a much nicer source.
What about locally made?
Yes, Fair trade marks are limited in that they don’t cover western grown or made products. So it’s even more fantastic if you can find great locally made products, especially from small-scale producers. The US and Australia grow lots of cotton (just look out for certified organic. The same pesticide issues exist there too), Ireland, France and Belgium are some of the countries producing gorgeous flax, and there’s ethically sourced wool from the UK or New Zealand. However many countries will ship the raw material overseas to be spun or woven. Being “Made in” a certain country doesn’t necessarily mean the spinning or weaving process was completed there. Often this is done overseas, so look out for and support businesses who are truly keeping the whole supply chain at home and doing it ethically. Sadly, even locally made products may not be free from the ethical issues, which is why locally certifying bodies are popping up to give you greater certainty over the local ethics too.
If you’re looking for bedding rather than bed linen, here’s what to consider:
Down and feathers
Whilst these have the lowest impact from an overall sustainability, waste and biodegradability point of view they do of course come from live or slaughtered animals, which may not be what you’re wanting. In terms of the high street both Marks & Spencer and IKEA don’t source their down from live animals. There are also smaller companies that only use down that has naturally fallen off the animal but their products are often more expensive because of it.
This has a greater impact on the environment but is also biodegradable. Marks & Spencer are again your best mainstream option here, or look for small scale farmers. British wool or New Zealand ethical wool are your best other options (avoid anything coming out of China) but do look out for organic certification.
Definitely the most sustainable option in terms of how it is grown and also for its long-term durability and strength. It uses little water or pesticides (organic or non-organic) and is a hardy, fast growing crop. Sadly, no one has yet figured out how to (in an eco friendly way) make it truly soft enough for the mainstream to fall in love with. Hopefully they will get there! But if you do love hemp – then please do it! Just make sure the processing of the hemp is free from heavy toxic chemical use and try to look out for Fairtrade or GOTS certification.
Flax bed linen
From a sustainable perspective this probably comes in second to Hemp. It also requires little or no pesticides and little water. The top linens tend to come from France, Belgium or Ireland where crops are also grown under EU regulations. There aren’t that many organic sellers of linen, but its growing and processing (compared to many crops and fabrics) is not as chemically intensive. Like any material, however, the dying process and any finishing or other chemicals used can cause big environmental issues, so do look out for this and look for low impact dyes.
While bamboo is good for hard goods (like toothbrushes) and it is a wonderfully sustainable and eco-conscious crop, this should be weighed against whether the processing and full supply chain is non-toxic and ethically done. This is harder to track and we haven’t found bedding retailers who have gained certification or are giving solid proof throughout the supply chain of being organically or ethically made. So it comes down to what is most important to you. If choosing rayon fabrics look for Tencel or Lyocell branding, as the processing has been improved dramatically by a closed loop system where a large portion of chemicals are recycled for as long as possible. This process has won textile and sustainability awards for using non-toxic chemicals, almost entirely retained in a closed system in the factory, which is a great step in keeping chemicals out of waterways. You want to ensure fabric dying and finishing is also using non-toxic chemicals too. However there is limited (if any) certification when it comes to this so it may be a case of taking a company’s word for it rather than having third party proof, but look out for low impact or azo-free dyes.
Certified organic cotton
100% the most sustainable cotton fabric. It uses up to 90% less irrigated water than conventional cotton and 40% less energy due to soil health and other factors. When GOTS certified this means the full supply chain has been assessed and is heavily monitored. Many producers of organic cotton also use renewable energy in their processing (often biomass). Cotton does take arable land to grow so look out for cotton where sustainable farming processes are used, such as crop rotation and proper warehouse use so nothing goes to waste.
Conventional cotton bed linen
Just don’t do it. It sucks, the end.
Where you can buy ethical and sustainable bedding
UK/Europe/Australia/New Zealand (grouped together because our bed sizings are similar. It does differ between countries so do double check!)
- Elkie & Ark
Obviously I have to put these guys first. They sent me over ALL the information you just read, so it’s pretty obvious that they have done their research and know what they’re talking about. From my own encounters with this company I can tell you that they really really care about making products of high quality (that will also last longer) that are as ethical as possible. They’re 100% Fairtrade, GOTS organic cotton from seed to finished product, and just plain nice people.
GOTS certified Belgian Flax. More expensive, but beautiful. (Generally flax linen will be more expensive, especially when made ethically, due to high labour requirements).
- M&S/John Lewis
Cheaper options. The biggest thing here is that Marks & Spencer are at the forefront when it comes to the better cotton initiative. They may not strictly be as ethical from the farm as others but they are leading the mainstream when it comes to trying to fix these issues. It seems John Lewis has also started stocking organic, fair trade bed linen. They don’t have the mark displayed on their website so we can’t know if their farming is fair trade as well as the factories, but it’s a step in the right direction.
- Marks & Spencer/IKEA
The better mainstream, cheaper options for pillows and quilts. These two are pretty affordable, though not perfect. If available, look for organic.
- Penrose Products
A UK based, traditional manufacturer offering British made wool bedding, a very sustainable and ethical product. They were also recently awarded the Butterfly Mark from Positive Luxury in recognition of our commitment to using renewable sources of energy, protecting the environment, manufacturing locally and ensuring recycling is embedded in product development.
The type of brand to look out for additional bedding, like blankets.
bedding and bed linen
Sweatshop free organic linen, hemp and cotton bed sheets. They also make pillows, quilts and a ton of other stuff, so definitely worth looking at.
Cotton products that are GOTS and Fairtrade certified
- Boll & Branch
Bed linen that is GOTS and Fairtrade USA certified
- Also, LIBECO have a USA section too!
Ok guys I hope this helped! Whether you were looking for more information or just where to buy, I feel like this is a pretty comprehensive post. HUGE thanks to Elkie & Ark for being an incredible fount of bed knowledge.