What kind of filling for your sofa cushions?

12 05 2015


One thing that most people care about is how the cushions feel to them – do you like to sink down into the cushions or you like a denser, more supportive cushion? Either way, the cushions are important.

Before plastics, our grandparents filled cushions with feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting – even straw (one of the earliest stuffing materials). This stuff often shifted, meaning that you’d have to plump up the feathers, horsehair or batting to make the sofa look, and feel, good.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 55 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP and it behaved!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is: start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Polyurethane foam for cushions are generally measured by two values:

  1. The density or weight per cubic foot. The higher the number, the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8, for example, contains 1.8 lbs. of foam per cubic foot and foam that has a density of 2.5 would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  2. The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35.

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/30 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block 33%.

After choosing which foam to use, it is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually:

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
  • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
  • Both are on the List of  Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors.  However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains in his series “Killing You Softly”, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2] The fact that California has amended the old law that required fire retardants in polyurethane foam doesn’t affect the fact that in a fire, the toxic gasses released by the foam (such as hydrogen cyanide) would incapacitate the occupants of a house in just a few minutes.

The newest entry in the green sweepstakes is what’s called a bio-based foam made from soybeans. This “soy foam” is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe. To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  • it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  • it reduces our dependence on fossil  fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. If you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’. It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.”

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”. Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is  toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain; the EPA finds nervous system effects such as depression, loss of concentration and a potential for cancer(4).  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex  can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a  combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of  synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.


[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

(4) Technical Fact Sheet on: Styrene; Environmental Protection Agency; http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/pdfs/factsheets/voc/tech/styrene.pdf



Sofa shopping

17 04 2015

We did a series of posts on how to evaluate a quality sofa about two years ago, and judging from the questions we get from people, we thought it might be time to re-post these!  The 3-part series is divided into evaluating a sofa frame, cushioning materials and fabric (of course!).  Herewith, the first post:

So you’re shopping for a sofa, and you see this one in a store.

camille 1

In a different store, you see the one below.

blue sofa

One sofa (the one on top) costs $3000;  the other costs $1500.  Why the wide disparity in price?

Shopping for a sofa is fraught with anxiety – we don’t do it often (for most people it’s every 7 – 10 years) so we don’t know how to shop for it.  Knowing what to look for, and how to evaluate a sofa, might take some of the anxiety away.  And knowing a bit about the components and how they’re put together will explain some of the difference in price.  It’s important to keep that in mind while you’re being seduced by the alluring upholstery, svelte arms and come-hither cushions.  But if your darling’s joints are weak, springs loose and cushions flat, you’ll quickly lose that lovin’ feeling.  Not to mention the additional chemical guests you’ll be inviting into your home with the sofa.

Start by asking yourself questions such as who will use the sofa  – will the kids dump themselves and their bags on it right after school or is it in a room that’s just used for entertaining?  How long do you want it to last?  Do you want to sink into the cushions or sit up straight?  Nap on the sofa?

One of the first things you should do – really before doing anything else –  is look at the sticker price and concentrate on the amortized cost  (cost per day) of buying each one.  There is a reason for the price disparity – they have to cut corners someplace, so lower quality materials are used

And construction is …  well let’s just say it’s not built to last.  “Quality” translates into “useful life”.  For simplicity, let’s assume the top sofa will last 20 years while the bottom sofa will last just 5.  That would mean the top sofa costs $0.41/day while the bottom sofa costs $0.82/day = exactly double.  The cost of owning the top sofa is half as much as the cost of owning the bottom sofa.

Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, in his book The Millionaire Mind, observed: “By definition, millionaires tend to be accumulators, a trait they inherited from their parents who were collectors.  Their parents and grandparents held on to things that had value. So the majority of millionaires have a family legacy of collecting, saving, and preserving.  Waste not, want not is a theme acted out by first-generation millionaires today”.[1]

With regard to how this trait applies to buying furniture: They deliberately purchase furniture they can pass on to the younger generation.  This, in essence, is their definition of quality furniture.  It will outlive a person’s normal adult life span, will never lose its appeal, and will probably appreciate in value.[2] A good quality sofa is an investment, like any other quality purchase that you expect to last.

For the next few weeks I’ll break a sofa down into component parts and talk about each one separately, starting this week with the frame and suspension system:


A very low cost sofa is probably made of engineered wood – such as plywood, particleboard, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) or glulam  –  all of which can legally be referred to as “solid wood products”.   Engineered wood (or composite, man-made or manufactured wood) are made by binding the strands, particles, fibers or veneers of wood with adhesives – most often that means urea formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) and finished with polyurethane or aluminum oxide.  In laymans terms, MDF (for example) is sawdust held together with glue.  MDF has a life span of 1/10th to 1/4th that of solid wood, properly constructed – and costs about 1/10th to 1/4th that of solid wood.  Cutting, sanding, or releasing particles of MDF into the air might be a high risk and should be avoided.  If the MDF isn’t properly sealed, it can leak formaldehyde for years, pumping it into your home or office.

Often manufacturers use wood veneers over MDF cores, and consumers have no idea that they’re not buying real wood.  Veneers are also used on solid wood (usually a less expensive wood) –that has a similar property as the veneer, allowing them to swell and contract together with changes in humidity.  They also respond similarly to stain and finish products. The bond between manufactured wood (MDF) and the veneer is not as strong or stable as that of the solid wood because MDF tends to respond more dramatically to changes in humidity and temperature, and is more rigid than solid wood, making the bond less durable.

Recognizing solid wood veneer furniture is fairly simple. Look to the bottom and back edges of tabletops, drawers and shelves. Solid wood always has grain, whereas MDF and particleboard do not. These unexposed edges will not typically be veneered.

Another thing which is often cited as a way to evaluate quality is to pick up the sofa – if it’s really heavy, it’s probably made of solid wood – or so the saying goes.  However MDF is also very heavy – so weight alone cannot really be used as a test.

At the next step up, soft woods (like pine) may be used.  The highest quality furniture uses kiln dried hard wood, like ash, maple or poplar, which offer greater strength and stability.  But not all wood is created equal: we think that it’s important to choose a wood that did not come from an endangered forest (such as a tropical forest), and preferably one that is sustainably managed, because forests, according to the National Resources Defense Council, are critical to maintaining life on Earth.  And that’s something we should pay attention to!   (See our post about wood used in furniture at https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/how-to-buy-a-quality-sofa-part-2-wood/ )  Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures that the wood used in your sofa was from a managed forest. SFI, an alternative certification created by the American Forest & Paper Association, allows such things as clearcuts, use of toxic chemicals, and conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations. So the certifying body matters!

How the wood is connected is important too.  Lower cost sofas are often stapled together, or you’ll get plastic legs screwed into the frame instead of wooden legs that are part of the posts or bolted into the frame.   Give it a year or two and the arms get loose or the frame wobbles.  Higher cost sofas are held together with glue and dowels or tongue-and-groove joints, making the joints even stronger than the wood itself.  Corner blocks (in each corner of the frame, near the legs, an extra piece of wood joins the two side rails) are important.

Finally, the wood is often stained or varnished – both of which emit harmful VOC’s of various kinds, depending on the stains or varnishes used.  A safe alternative is to ensure that the stains/varnishes used don’t emit harmful VOC’s such as formaldehyde, and are formulated without aromatic solvents, heavy metals in the pigments, toluene solvents or other harmful chemicals.


The suspension system determines the bounce in the cushions, and how they support your weight when you sit on them.   The differing degrees of pressure your body puts on the cushions causes the coils to respond, giving what is known as “ride”.  Generally, the higher the number of coils, the better the ride.  The gold standard has always been the labor-intensive, 8-way hand-tied spring system. It’s expensive to do it right, and few companies do. When done correctly each spring is set into the deck webbing and attached, with various spring rates depending on what portion of the seat deck its located. They are then tied together (8 strings per piece) and knotted at each juncture (not looped! – only knotting keeps the spring deck together if a string breaks). Much has been said about how eight-way hand-tied spring-up systems are superior to any other kind. “It’s a sacred cow in the industry,” says Professor C. Thomas Culbreth, director of the furniture manufacturing and management center at North Carolina State University [3].

But not all eight-way hand-tied spring-ups are built the same way, and the sinuous spring – or S –  system,  will last just as long, and for most people the comfort level is the same.  Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side.  The S springs lack the localized response of a coil system but gives a firm ride that some people prefer, and it has less potential for sagging over time.   It also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.

Next week we’ll tackle cushions, because that’s, as they say, a whole ‘nother ballgame.

[1] Stanley, Thomas J., The Millionaire Mind, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001, p.294

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/moneymag_archive/2003/03/01/337933/



The Environmental Working Group’s recent post about “five couches without flame-retardants”

27 03 2015

In a  post dated March20, 2015, the EWG’s Enviroblog had a list of five sofas without flame-retardants that you can buy right now. It is, of course, wonderful that the State of California has revised their antique law requiring flame-retardants in furniture, but shame on the Environmental Working Group for failing to point out the many other components of sofas which are impacting our health. By not pointing out the effects that these components have on our health, people believe that a fire retardant-free sofa is safe. Yes, we have a broken federal law that purports to protect us, and yes, fire retardants are finally getting the recognition as the bad guys they deserve. But having a flame retardant-free sofa doesn’t mean you’re home safe!

Of the five sofas on the list, West Elm stands out as giving no information at all on the components – a sure sign of concern. Of the remaining four, all use polyurethane for cushioning (Crate and Barrel tries to up the ante by using “soy-based polyurethane foam”, one of Terrachoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing”). Room & Board uses “engineered hardwood” (i.e., glulam or other manufactured wood glued together) and Ikea uses fiberboard. And none offer an Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabric! Those components, in terms of your health, mean:


  • If you have chosen a sofa which uses “engineered hardwood” or fiberboard, then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. See our blog post: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/sofa-shopping-frame-and-suspension/
  • For the sofas made with hardwood, no mention is made of the glue, varnish or paints used. The hardwood itself used by Crate and Barrel and Design Within Reach is not FSC certified (despite Crate and Barrel’s use of “USA certified sustainable hardwood” – by not mentioning the certification by name I assume it is self-certified). That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. See our blog post about the importance of FSC certified wood: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/what-kind-of-wood-is-best-for-your-new-green-sofa/


  • Even high-density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations, and toluene, a neurotoxin. Polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. It is one of the components of furniture that the University of Saskatchewan (among others) suggests be avoided in furniture.[1]  A study (the first of its kind) published last year by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, found over 30 chemicals which are emitted from polyurethane foam, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool.(2)  See our blog post about soy based foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/sofa-cushions-foam-soy-foam-or-latex/ and about the components of polyurethane foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/how-to-buy-a-quality-sofa-part-3-foam/


  • Produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes – because none of these sofas offer Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals[3], and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), PFOA, NPA’s. There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. That’s why a third party certification such as Oeko-Tex or GOTS can provide assurance that the chemicals which are known (or suspected) to harm human health are not in the fabric you’re living with.  See one (of many) blog posts we have done on the subject: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/what-effects-do-fabric-choices-have-on-you/


  • Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on the sofa.

It was sad that EWG chose to ignore the many small manufacturers who produce what is being called “organic sofas”, for lack of a better word. These manufacturers use natural latex (sometimes GOLS certified), FSC certified hardwoods and Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics – and have not been using flame retardants for years!  They vet all the products they use to conform to their requirements.     Instead, my heroes, the EWG, have supported business as usual.


(2) http://www.utexas.edu/news/2014/04/02/crib-mattresses-emit-chemicals/

[3] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

Why are “endocrine disruptors” a concern?

6 03 2015


In 2012, Greenpeace analyzed a total of 141 items of clothing, and found high levels of phthalates in four of the garments and NPE’s in 89 garments – in quantities as high as 1,000 ppm – as well as a variety of other toxic chemicals. Phthalates and NPE’s are among the chemicals known as “endocrine disruptors” (EDCs) – chemicals which are used often and in vast quantities in textile processing.

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth (including the development of the brain and nervous system), response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells.  The endocrine system uses these chemicals to send messages to the cells – similar to the nervous system sending electrical messages to control and coordinate the body.

Diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, is an endocrine disease, as is hypoglycemia and thyroid cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 29.1 million people have diabetes.[1] The three types of diabetes are a good illustration of the two main ways that something can “go wrong” with hormonal control in our bodies. In type I diabetes, his/her pancreas is unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the liver never “gets the message” to take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type II diabetes, the person’s pancreas is making enough insulin, but the insulin receptor sites on the liver cells are “broken” (possibly due to genetic factors, possibly do to “overuse”) and cannot “get the message.” Because the liver is unable to receive the instructions (despite the presence of lots of insulin), it does not take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type III diabetes (AKA Alzheimer’s Disease)[2], it is the neurons in the brain, specifically, which “don’t get the message,” (though it sounds like researchers have yet to determine whether that’s due to lack of the brain-produced insulin upon which they depend, or whether that’s due to receptors on the neurons that either are or become “broken”) and thus, cannot take in the sugar that they need, with the result that, without an alternative fuel source such as medium-chain triglycerides, the neurons will starve.

endocrine disruptor

Over the past 60 years, a growing number of EDC chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything we purchase. They have become a part of our indoor environment, found in cosmetics, cleaning compounds, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture and carpets, computers, phones, and appliances. We encounter them as plastics and resins every day in our cars, trucks, planes, trains, sporting goods, outdoor equipment, medical equipment, dental sealants, and pharmaceuticals. Without fire retardants we would not be using our computers or lighting our homes. Instead of steel and wood, plastics and resins are now being used to build homes and offices, schools, etc. A large portion of pesticides are endocrine disruptors.

What this constant everyday low-dose exposure means in terms of public health is just beginning to be explored by the academic community. We have learned over time that many chemical substances can cause a range of adverse health problems, including death, cancer, birth defects, and delays in development of cognitive functions. For instance, it is well established that asbestos can cause a fatal form of lung cancer, thalidomide can cause limb deformities, and breathing high concentrations of some industrial solvents can cause irreversible brain damage and death. Only relatively recently have we learned that a large number of chemicals can penetrate the womb and alter the construction and programming of a child before it is born. Through trans-generational exposure, endocrine disruptors cause adverse developmental and reproductive disorders at extremely low amounts in the womb, and often within the range of human exposure.

Recent research is giving us a new understanding of EDCs since Dr. Theo Coburn wrote Our Stolen Future.  Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development. In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.”

  1. Age at time of exposure is critical. There is even a new terminology to explain the consequences of exposure to EDCs: “the fetal basis of adult disease”, which means that the maternal and external environment, coupled with an individual’s genes, determine the propensity of that individual to develop disease or dysfunction later in life.  This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.
  2. The developmental basis of adult disease also has implicit in its name the concept that there is a lag between the time of exposure and the manifestation of a disorder. In other words, the consequences of exposure may not be apparent early in life.
  3. Exposures don’t happen alone – other pollutants are often involved, which may have additive or synergistic effects.[3]
  4. Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – or any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window[4]. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses.

    Carol Kwiatkowski, director of TEDX

    Carol Kwiatkowski, director of TEDX

  5. EDCs may affect not only the exposed individual but also the children and subsequent generations.[5]

TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) is the only organization that focuses primarily on the human health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and/or ambient exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

TEDX’s work is prevention driven, and it is the only environmental organization that focuses on the problems associated with endocrine disruption attributable to synthetic chemicals found in the general environment. While there are other national, international, and local organizations that address the public health and environmental consequences of toxic chemicals in the environment, none of them expressly emphasize endocrine disruption. By mainly focusing on substances in the environment that interfere with development and function throughout all life stages, TEDX has one of the most complete databases in the world on this topic, available for those concerned about public health and environmental quality. This database was developed because traditional toxicological protocols have used high doses on fully developed tissues and individuals that heretofore missed the consequences of chemical substances on developing tissues.

TEDX is unique because it focuses on the damaging activity of chemicals on biological systems from an entirely new approach. This new approach focuses on the effects of very low and ambient levels of exposure on developing tissue and resulting function before an individual is born, which can lead to irreversible, chronic disorders expressed at any time throughout the individual’s life.

Endocrine disruption takes into consideration the vulnerability of every individual in the population during their most vulnerable life stages. By providing this unique perspective on the actions of endocrine disruptors, TEDX fills in the very large gap in public health protection that traditional toxicology and government regulatory agencies do not fill. Drawing upon its computerized databases on endocrine disruption and coordination with researchers in the field of endocrine disruption, TEDX provides the very latest summaries of the state of knowledge and its meaning for human health and the environment.

 As the TEDX website states:   “The human health consequences of endocrine disruption are dire. Yet, no chemical has been regulated in the U.S. to date because of its endocrine disrupting effects – and no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects.. The U.S. government has failed to respond to the evolving science of endocrine disruption. While much remains to be learned in regard to the nature and extent of the impact of endocrine disruptors on human health, enough is known now to assume a precautionary approach should be taken. TEDX provides concerned persons and organizations with a science-based foundation for individuals to act and promote responsive public policy-making. Moreover, as federal government resources devoted to research on endocrine disruption have diminished due to budget cuts, TEDX must assume an even more prominent role in developing and disseminating information on the human and environmental impacts of endocrine disruption.”

To date, no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. Traditional toxicological testing protocols were not designed to test for endocrine disruption and to test at ambient or low exposure levels.



[1] http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/statsreport14/national-diabetes-report-web.pdf

[2] De la Monte, Suzanne, and Wands, Jack R., “Alzheimer’s Disease is Tyupe 3 Diabetes – Evidence Reviewed”, J. Diabetes Sci Technol 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1101-1113

[3] Crews D, Putz O, Thomas P, Hayes T, Howdeshell K 2003 Animal models for the study of the effects of mixtures, low doses, and the embryonic environment on the action of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Pure and Applied Chem- istry, SCOPE/IUPAC Project Implications of Endocrine Ac- tive Substances for Humans and Wildlife 75:2305–2320

[4] Sheehan DM, Willingham EJ, Bergeron JM, Osborn CT, Crews D 1999 No threshold dose for estradiol-induced sex reversal of turtle embryos: how little is too much? Environ Health Perspect 107:155–159

[5] Anway MD, Skinner MK 2006 Epigenetic transgenera- tional actions of endocrine disruptors. Endocrinology 147: S43–S49


Subtle effects of climate change

18 02 2015

I’m becoming anxious about climate change, and in particular what that means to my life. We humans are still in denial about climate change, and even though I’ve been told that climate change could  destroy ecosystems and economies within a generation – I like to look at the little changes that overpopulation and climate change bring about. Because the textile industry is a major contributor to the emissions which bring about these changes, I thought the topic was apt!

I was visiting a friend in Virginia recently. She and her friends were complaining about hiking conditions and how it’s so important to check for ticks after a hike because Lyme disease is so prevalent – complete with lots of stories of friends who had contracted the disease.

Less than four decades ago, scientists identified a spiral-shaped bacteria transmitted by the bite of a tiny hard-bodied tick as the cause of an arthritis outbreak among children in southern Connecticut. Since then, Lyme disease has emerged from obscurity to become the leading vector-borne (i.e., transmitted by mosquitos, ticks and/or fleas) disease in the United States. The 27,203 confirmed new cases reported to federal health authorities in 2013 marked nearly a 25 percent jump over the previous year,[1] and the total number of cases of Lyme disease has doubled since 1991. The CDC estimates that the number of infections is likely 10 times higher than reported, nearly 300,000 new cases per year based on lab test data.  Yale University researchers say that 10 percent of the population of southern New England has evidence of a previous Lyme disease infection. Why is this happening?

annual-cases-lyme-disease-us copy

While the disease is reported coast-to-coast, it is highly concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard, with a range expanding north into Canada and south through Virginia. Tick habitat and populations are influenced by many factors, but one of them is climate. This spring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added Lyme disease to its list of climate change indicators.

Scientists from Yale University have determined that climate impacts the severity of Lyme disease by influencing the feeding patterns of deer ticks that carry and transmit it.[2]  Deer ticks live for two years and have three stages of life – larval, nymphal and adult. They obtain one blood meal during each stage in order to survive. If the source of the first meal (a mouse, bird or other small animal) is infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, the tick also becomes infected and passes it on to its next meal source – be it wildlife or human – in its second life stage as a nymph.

The researchers found that this cycle is heavily influenced by climate, which has the following effects on Lyme disease: An acceleration of the tick’s developmental cycle, a prolonged developmental cycle, increased egg production, increased population density, and a broader range of risk areas. Once the larvae have molted into the nymphal stage, the winter forces them to remain dormant until spring. An adult tick no longer needs to hibernate during the winter, so these ticks may become active on warm winter days, yielding a larger nymph population the following year. With an earlier winter thawing, nymphal-staged ticks will become active sooner. The warmer winters will also allow for a higher survival rate of the white-footed mouse, a popular host for the ticks, meaning an increased tick population in the spring and summer.

In the Midwest, where there are greater extremes of temperature, there is a shorter window of opportunity for tick feeding, and therefore a shorter gap between nymphal and larval feedings. Because of this, report the scientists, Midwestern wildlife and ticks are infected with less persistent strains, which correlates with fewer cases of Lyme disease reported in the Midwest.

The clear implication of this research, say the researchers, is that, as the planet warms, the Upper Midwest could find itself in the same situation as the Northeast: longer gaps between nymphal and larval feeding, and therefore, stronger, more persistent strains of Lyme disease.

Deer have been the main suspect in being the carrier of Lyme disease, but research shows that the new suspect is the white-footed mouse. Both deer and white-footed mouse populations have exploded recently – largely due to forest fragmentation. Forest fragments generally have fewer species than larger forest tracts, including the predators of deer and white-footed mice, which have allowed both of these populations to explode. “Our results suggest that efforts to reduce the risk of Lyme disease should be directed toward decreasing fragmentation of deciduous forests of the northeastern United States, particularly in areas with a high incidence of Lyme disease,” says Felicia Keesing of Bard College in Annandale, New York. “The creation of forest fragments smaller than five acres should especially be avoided.”


[1] Lavelle, Marianne, “Has Climate Change Made Lyme Disease worse?”, Scientific American, September 22, 2014

[2] Gatewood et al, “Climaate and Tick Seasonality are Predictors of Borrelia burgdorferl Genotype Distribution”, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2009; 75 (8): 2476 DOI: 10.1128/AEM.02633-08

Phthalate concerns for pregnant women

29 01 2015

Three pregnant women

As if we needed something else to worry about, a peer-reviewed study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, published in December 2014, found evidence that chemicals called phthalates can impact the children of pregnant women who were exposed to those chemicals. Children of moms who had the highest levels of phthalates during pregnancy had markedly lower IQs at age 7. [1] Phthalates had previously been linked to effects ranging from behavioral disorders and cancers to deformations of the sex organs.

Why are we talking about this in a blog about fabrics?

Because phthalates are in the fabrics we use.  Generally, phthalates are used to make plastic soft: they are the most commonly used plasticizers in the world and are pretty much ubiquitous. They’re found in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragranced (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, and your car’s steering wheel, dashboard, and gearshift. (When you smell “new car,” you’re smelling phthalates.) Medical devices are full of phthalates — they make IV drip bags and tubes soft, but unfortunately, DEHP is being pumped directly into the bloodstream of ailing patients. Most plastic sex toys are softened with phthalates.

Phthalates are found in our food and water, too. They are in dairy products, possibly from the plastic tubing used to milk cows. They are in meats (some phthalates are attracted to fat, so meats and cheeses have high levels, although it’s not entirely clear how they are getting in to begin with). You’ll find phthalates in tap water that’s been tainted by industrial waste, and in the pesticides sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables.

And fabrics. People just don’t think to even mention fabrics, which we continue to identify as the elephant in the room. Greenpeace did a study of fabrics produced by the Walt Disney Company in 2004 and found phthalates in all samples tested, at up to 20% by weight of the fabric.[2] Phthalates are one of the main components of plastisol screen printing inks used on fabrics. These plasticizers are not chemically bound to the PVC, so they can leach out. They’re also used in the production of synthetic fibers, as a finish for synthetic fibers to prevent static cling and as an intermediary in the production of dyes.

Phthalates are what is termed an “endocrine disruptor” – which means they interfere with the action of hormones. Hormones do a lot more than just make the sexual organs develop. During the development of a fetus, they fire on and off at certain times to affect the brain and other organs.

“The developing brain relies on hormones,” Dr. Factor-Litvak, the lead scientist of the study, said. Thyroid hormones affect the development of neurons, for example. There might be a window of vulnerability during pregnancy when certain key portions of the brain are forming, she said, and kids whose moms take in a lot of the chemicals during those times might be at risk of having the process disrupted somehow.

“These findings further suggest a potential role for phthalates on neurodevelopment,” said Dr. Maida P. Galvez, who did not work on the study but has a specialty in environmental pediatrics. The associate professor is in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “While this requires replication in other study populations for confirmation, it underscores the fact that chemicals used in everyday products need to be rigorously evaluated for their full potential of human health impacts before they are made widely available in the marketplace.”[3]

In the United States, the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) banned certain phthalates from use in toys or certain products marketed to children. In order to comply with this law, a product must not contain more than 0.1% of any of six banned phthalates. But just these six – the class of phthalates includes more than 25 different chemicals.

Gwynne Lyons, policy director of the campaign group, CHEM Trust, said: “The number of studies showing that these substances can cause harm is growing, but efforts by Denmark to try and get EU action on some phthalates had run into difficulties, largely because of concerns about the costs to industry.” [4] (our highlight!)

[1] Factor-Litvak, Pam, et al., “Persistent Associations Between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years”, PLOS One, December 10, 2014; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114003

[2] Pedersen, H and Hartmann, J; “Toxic Textiles by Disney”, Greenpeace, Brussels, April 2004

[3] Christensen, “Exposure to common household chemicals may cause IQ drop”, CNN, December 11, 2014 http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/11/health/chemical-link-to-lower-iq/

[4] Sample, Ian, “Phthalates risk damaging children’s IQs in the womb, US researchers suggest”, The Guardian, December 10, 2014

The problem with down jackets

8 01 2015

I love my down jacket –  especially now in the cold and dark – it’s light and warm, both really important considerations whenever I’m stuffing a backpack for a few nights in the backcountry (which, o.k., I admit doesn’t happen often) – or even when I’m walking the neighborhood.

Nothing is quite as good as down, the original fill for jackets and sleeping bags, and still the super hero of insulation. Down comes from waterfowl, which have down clusters under their waterproof feathers to keep them warm in the cold, wet conditions in which they live.  Unlike feathers, which have a stiff shaft with barbs sticking out on either side, down clusters have a soft, fine stalk crowned with a puff of very fine fibers at the top.  High quality down is so light that if you closed your eyes and someone dropped a pile of it into your hand, you wouldn’t even feel it (until it started to get warm). Down comes in a range of qualities (low quality down, for example, is usually mixed with a certain percentage of feathers): duck down tends to be lower quality than goose down (with the exception of down from the arctic eider duck, which is very high quality). Hungarian goose down is generally regarded as the best source of down.

But one thing is for sure: pound for pound, nothing insulates like good down.

Down keeps us warm by trapping the maximum amount of air (for warmth) with the minimum amount of material (for light weight and packability). That means that a down jacket will be lighter weight than a comparably warm synthetic. It will also be easier to pack and will stuff down smaller.

Down also has the advantage of durability: Properly cared for down gear can handle being stuffed and unstuffed hundreds of times, and can last a lifetime. Last but not least, down is comfortable; it is hard to beat the feeling of being enveloped in the light, soft warmth of down, and down’s higher breathability gives down gear a little broader comfort range than synthetics.

But what I have read about the horrific way down is harvested left me a more than a bit sick to my stomach.

Most down comes from what is known as “live plucked” birds. Live plucking means that, typically, geese and ducks are lifted by their necks, their legs are tied, and their feathers are pulled out in large chunks in a process that the industry refers to as “ripping”[1]  The birds struggle and panic, sometimes even breaking limbs in an attempt to escape.  A 2009 Swedish television program, Kalla Fakta, produced a two part documentary on the topic of live-plucking in Hungary which revealed:

…birds on their backs screaming and struggling to free themselves from their tormentors as their down is ripped from their bodies at rapid speed. Afterwards, several birds are left paralyzed on the ground with large flesh wounds. The birds with big gaping wounds are then sewn back together with needle and thread on site by the workers themselves and without any anesthetic.[2]

 Birds are live-plucked for the first time at about ten weeks old, and are plucked again four to six times a year until they’re sent to slaughter at about four years old.

Ducks and geese are not the only birds raised for feathers. Others include fancy roosters (for feathers used as baits for fly fishermen, and for hair extensions) and ostriches. I could continue with additional incidents of this torture but I’ll spare you (and myself).

The documentary Kalla Fakta estimates that as much as 50-80% of the world’s down is from live plucked birds. Major producing countries are Hungary, Poland and China (which produces 80% of the world’s down). The documentary was widely aired in Europe, and as a result both the European Down and Feather Association and the China Feather and Down Industrial Association argued that the percentage is much smaller and that the live-plucked down is more expensive and mainly exported to Japan, where it is especially sought after.  IKEA conducted its own investigation after the documentary, and verified the high numbers.[3]

Live-plucking is illegal now in the E.U., but there are no sanctions to enforce the law. In the U.S., live-plucking is not an industry practice, but the U.S. imports down from the major down producing countries. Surprisingly, many companies actually highlight the fact that feathers used in their products are obtained from birds who are not killed, suggesting that live-plucking is the preferred alternative. The Daily Mail did a story on live-plucking in 2012 and asked many fashion brands about the source of the down used in their products – their response, or lack thereof, is telling.[4]

Down does have an Achilles heel: moisture. Get your down jacket wet and you freeze. Wet down loses its loft and all of its ability to keep you warm – and it takes a long, long time to dry. Enter synthetics.

We are no fan of synthetic fibers, but the reality is that they are here to stay and they do make our lives easier in some ways. And synthetic insulation has not yet matched down for light weight and warmth, but it has some advantages – the biggest of which is that it keeps its warmth while wet. Because the synthetic fibers don’t absorb moisture, they do not change shape and consequently do not lose loft if they get wet. A soaking wet jacket or sleeping bag will never be comfortable or nearly as warm as a dry one, but at least a synthetic insulated bag will retain some insulating ability. It will also dry considerably quicker than down, which can take days to dry out in the backcountry. Another benefit is that synthetics, by virtue of the fact that they are man-made, are hypoallergenic and a good choice for people who are allergic to the dust that can accumulate in cheaper down. Though they vary in quality and consequently price, synthetics in general are less expensive than down and so provide a wider range of options for people who are on a budget. Finally, synthetics are relatively easy to care for. While washing a down sleeping bag takes a great deal of care and most of a day, synthetic gear can usually be machine washed and dried quickly either hanging or in the dryer.

Drawbacks are also part of the package: synthetics are not as light or packable as down. They also tend to be stiffer in feel and so not as comfortable in both clothing and sleeping bags. The other drawback is longevity. Repeated stuffing and un stuffing of synthetic fibers has the tendency to damage them and cause them to clump up, undermining even dispersion of insulation and causing cold spots.

There are a wide variety of synthetic insulation alternatives to down: PrimaLoft, Polarguard, Thermolite, Thinsulate, Thermoloft and Climashield are all alternatives to down and there are others. Synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is molded into long single threads or short staples to mimic lofty down clusters. Thinner and lighter threads fill voids and trap warm air more effectively, while thicker strands sustain the loft and durability. But many of these products include such additions as “anti-microbial protection”, which adds to the chemical burden. Being made from crude oil and sitting in a landfill for centuries is also carries a certain gravitas.

Even with the hoopla about hydrophobic down (i.e., down that “features a molecular level polymer applied to individual down plumes during the finishing process at the nano level – a chemical that by the way one source said is one of those banned in the E.U.) which is encouraging people to reassess down as their preferred insulation.  But  I will search for non down products, despite my aversion to living with synthetic fibers. I don’t think the animals deserve these fates, nor is sufficient quantity produced currently to meet the growing demand for down.








[1] Ari Solomon, Down with the Truth, Huffington Post, Sept. 22, 2009

[2] Animal Welfare Institute, Down on the Goose and Duck Farm, 2009

[3] Ibid.

[4] Boggan, Steve, “Feathers ripped from birds’ backs and gaping wounds sewn up with no pain relief: The barbaric cost of your winter coat”, Daily Mail.com, November 28, 2012.


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