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Soybean Foam: Pitfalls of Non-Toxic Furniture Shopping

soybean foamI finally ordered a sectional sofa free of flame retardants, polyurethane foam, soybean foam, heavy metals, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), heavy metals, formaldehyde, etc., etc., etc. and everything else most furniture we see on the market has. All told, it took me about a year to find this furniture and get comfortable with my decision. While I was looking for the furniture, I made a mistake that cost me hard earned dollars. In this post, I want to tell you about common pitfalls that a consumer may encounter while looking for truly non-toxic upholstered furniture.


Pitfall #1: Avoid soybean foam because it is not foam made from soybeans.

Marketing is such a powerful thing that even sophisticated consumers can succumb to it. Here is what happened to me.

When I was shopping for our sofa, I did a lot of research in the Internet. I recall one time I found some information on a company’s website that said the soybean used in the furniture is 100% soybean, or I thought it did anyway. I asked some questions of the manufacturer, and, satisfied, ended up purchasing the product – a chair made with soybean foam. After the chair was delivered, I went back to the company’s website, where I now clearly see that it is made with polyurethane foam. I’m not sure how I made the mistake, but I did. And if I can be fooled, anyone can be.

Every week or so I get emails and comments from the readers of my blog, who find furniture or mattresses made of a soybean foam that is “significantly decreasing the dependence on fossil fuels like petroleum and ultimately lessening greenhouse gas emissions.” When you read this, you might assume that the mere fact of purchasing soybean foam decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and lessens the environmental pollution. There are other claims that come with soybean foam, such as “healthy for you.” So let’s look at what soybean foam truly is.

The truth is that so called soybean foam is made of 20% soybean foam and 80% polyurethane foam. That statement alone should give us a clue that soybean foam is mostly polyurethane foam with a little bit of soybean.

It gets even more interesting. Remember in the previous post I talked about the dangers of polyurethane foam. Polyurethane foam is made of 50% polyol, a type of alcohol that causes death if ingested, and 50% diisocyanate, a petroleum derivative.

So all this buzz about health benefits, decrease of reliance on fossil fuel, reduction of environmental pollution, low gas emissions, low VOCs, etc. is mostly marketing hype, to be precise more than 90% of it is marketing. Funny? To be called soybean foam, it does not need to be 100% soybean or even mostly soybean. Basically, I was “greenwashed.” (read my post about greenwashing here)

Where did I hear to be called something it does not need to be that something? Hah? Oh, I remember. The fact that Organic Color Systems is called organic is not meant to imply that it is 100% organic. Read the comments to my Organic Color Systems post here. They are hilarious. I laugh every time I think about them.


Pitfall #2: Soy is not a good material for foam. Why?

Some can say 10% of soy is still better than 0%. Is it? As you probably know most soy grown in the US is genetically modified. As a result of introduction of genetically modified crops, pesticide use increased 400 million pounds from 1996 to 2012. Widespread use of pesticides causes a real threat to the integrity of the ecological system. For instance, America’s honeybee populations have dropped 30% per year since 2006.


Pitfall #3: CertiPUR-US® Certification

Let’s talk about CertiPUR-US® certification. This is a certification a lot of polyurethane/soybean foam product manufacturers seek. By the way, if you see the soybean foam is CertiPUR-US® certified, that means that the soybean foam is indeed polyurethane foam. It is even crazy to type that.

The CertiPUR-US® claims may seem to be impressive such as no ozone depleters, no PBDE flame retardants, no mercury, no lead and other heavy metals, no formaldehyde, no phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million). (By the way, there are different ways to measure VOCs, the longer distance from the foam, the lower VOCs are. I am just saying.)

There are two points I want to make here. The listed substances are the things that supposedly the foam does not have. What I want to know is what the foam does have. And I think the very factor that the CertiPUR-US® association was established by the industry is not conducive to trust. I have a feeling the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam, an organization that administers the CertiPUR-US® certification program, spent a considerable amount of time to craft their message to impress because the mission of the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam is to educate consumers about the benefits of polyurethane foam. Is there a conflict of interest somewhere here? Just wondering.


Pitfall #4: GreenGuard Certification

While GreenGuard certification is not an industry certification and is indeed independent, it tests only for VOCs, gasses that furniture emits into the indoor air. There is no testing for heavy metals, pesticides, BPA, flame retardants or other dangerous substances.


Pitfall #5: Foam Free of Flame Retardants

I often get emails from manufacturers of upholstered furniture about the fact they are fully compliant with the updated California flammability regulation (CA TB 117-2013) and that their furniture is now non-toxic. Wait a minute here! CA TB 117-2013 compliance simply means that the polyurethane or soybean foam is not treated with flame retardant chemicals any more. A lot of manufacturers used the fact that not everybody is super clear about the details of the change to the California flammability regulation (CA TB 117) and announced the simple compliance with the updated regulation as a conversion to non-toxic furniture. The problems such as polyurethane foam, soybean foam, heavy metals, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), heavy metals, formaldehyde, etc., etc., etc. remain.


In conclusion, marketing is a powerful tool and knowledge is power. I hope that knowing these common pitfalls will help you make the right decisions. Let others know. I will talk about shampoos in the next post and will publish a post on the furniture I recently ordered (that is definitely soybean foam-free!) when it arrives. If you are interested in knowing about my furniture sooner, let me know.



20 thoughts on “Soybean Foam: Pitfalls of Non-Toxic Furniture Shopping”

  1. I am very interested in hearing about your furniture! We are starting the search for a new sofa and I am feeling so frustrated. I’d love to know what company/brand you decided on!

  2. I have just gone through this and my furniture should deliver Friday.

    Almost got snowed on the same issues. You made excellent points in your blog. Thank you. To add to the confusion, many boutiques with furniture fall for the same green washing. Lee industries has a line that sounds good for the reasons you thankfully debunked. Don’t be misguided by the green washing. I wasted time looking at Lee. I would love to see more companies doing what Ekla is doing. Viesso is striving to get there too. I would love to hear of more. Ekla has been great to work with on customiZations too but final verdict will be once it is delivered.

    I will know more then but my search had me finally focusing on viesso and Ekla. I went with Ekla. Donna there is great.
    I also recommend the fabric maker oeco textiles that they partner with. For fabrics, Oeco textiles is available for COD with other manufacturers too. They have a very informative website. Pricing is very fair with Ekla’s oeco partnership though.

    Ekla is comfortable and has strict manufacturing policies made in then USA. By not having a showroom they keep costs down. If you are near LA or their scheduled deliveries you might be able to sit on a piece pre delivery.
    We were pleased with the quality and the healthy end product of what we saw

    I would love to see more furniture stores and healthy boutiques even spas (like the organic health focused ones) carry furniture by Ekla and viesso and others like them.

    I can update when I have the furniture.

    Thanks for the informative blog post.

  3. Thank you for the information. Last year, I was also trying to do research for a new sofa. I still have my old couch with springs hitting the floor—I became too frustrated. It seems like those I did find were very expensive compared to the usual. I had decided to wait until 2015, when I thought that manufacturers might change to a “cleaner” product because of the CA flammability regulation that would be effective in 2015. Please let us know what sofa you chose. We would be very interested. Thank you for your work!

  4. What a great article! Great job on uncovering those greenwashing practices and marketing tools, Irina. I first found out about soybean foam a couple of years ago when I advised a pregnant friend of mine to look into organic crib mattresses for her baby. She listened to my concerns about flame retardants and then she sent me 2 links of mattresses that she was considering. Both were around $130 and were made out of “organic” soybean foam. I didn’t know too much about it but it just didn’t sound right first because all the soy is genetically modified in the US ( as you have mentioned in your article) and second the price is not right for a truly “clean/non-toxic” product. So it sounds like my hunch reaction was right. I will send her this article. Live a life, learn a life. Thanks again and keep us posted on all those sneaky marketing tools that are there to fool the consumer 🙂

  5. Thanks for the info. We are badly in need of a new mattress and finding a good option has been difficult. I was hoping this post was going to have a little more specific info about companies, but I guess I will just have to wait for the follow-up.

    1. Hi Jessica, I ordered the furniture but that does not include a mattress. I am also desperately looking for a new mattress. And when I find it, I will write about it right away! Thanks.

  6. Thank you for this article and for bringing up the astounding amount of greenwashing in the furniture industry. It is amazing how hard you have to dig to find a truly non-toxic couch! I am in Canada and am having an even harder time finding something – because of course many of the custom furniture makers like Ekla don’t normally ship to Canada. I’m curious if you have looked into the Crate & Barrel “eco-friendly” couches, and what you think of them?

  7. may I ask where you purchased your sofa? Are there options to purchase a sofa and chairs in the Bay Area? I am hesitant to purchase a sofa that is not localK

  8. I am in the market for a non toxic bed as well for myself and my kids. I will be Waiting on your findings.

    Thank you for what you do

  9. Thanks so much! Could you please let me know where you ended up finding your sofa and if your are happy with it? Thank you!

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