The idea to launch Savvy Rest, a mattress and bedding company that provides “healthy alternatives” to conventional mattresses, started germinating when owner Michael Penny’s wife Heather began experiencing health issues. The Pennys eventually pinpointed their chemical-laden bed as the cause.
“Heather began developing these awful headaches that she never had before,” says Laura Wallace, vice president of marketing and director of brand development and training for Savvy Rest. “One morning, just on impulse, they decided to ditch their memory-foam pillows, and her headaches vanished just like that. That made him go, ‘Wait, what’s in this stuff?’”
The Pennys started researching that question, and what they found shocked them. They discovered that many conventional mattresses include toxic chemicals that act as flame retardants, pesticides, and bleaches, which studies have shown can have negative effects on human health, even with low-level exposure (see p. 39 for more on chemicals in conventional mattresses).
“They’re in your couch, they’re in your TV, they’re in your baby seat, in your carpet, your drapes,” says Wallace. “Unless people seek out organic materials, there is a risk that flame retardants, pesticide residues, and other types of chemicals are used to produce pleasant-looking and -feeling fabric finishes.”
For example, formaldehyde, which is used for stain resistance, is linked to cancer. And the conventional cotton that covers many mattresses is one of the most toxic crops in the world, in terms of pesticide use.
The Pennys tried to find a comfortable mattress made without harmful chemicals, but when they came up empty— because it was 2003, and few companies were making green mattresses at the time—Michael eventually realized that he’d need to create his own.
And as he talked to people who seemed eager to have similar nontoxic beds in their lives, he decided to launch a mattress company to meet their needs, too.
“That’s the motivation, to make something that was actually natural and healthful rather than greenwashed,” he says.
Michael set to work swapping the chemicals and synthetics of conventional mattresses with natural, healthy materials. For example, he decided to replace toxic flame retardants with certified organic wool batting—which is naturally fire-resistant. He also settled on natural rubber and certified organic cotton as key ingredients for the perfect mattress.
The core of a Savvy Rest mattress, he decided, would be natural latex, harvested from rubber tree plants, which meant finding a trusted and reliable latex supplier.
“Michael went to a sleep product and trade show and met an Indian man whose company made natural latex in Kerala, India,” Wallace says. “Because Michael had lived in a yoga ashram for two decades and was deep into meditation, this man extended him credit on the strength of a hand shake because they had that world view in common.”
In 2003, Penny opened the first Savvy Rest store in Charlottesville, VA. Today, the company customizes the three layers of its mattresses to suit individual needs. For example, it offers mattresses made with two different types of natural latex, to accommodate sleepers who want a firmer or softer resting spot.
People suffering from nerve-related back pain may benefit from a firmer mattress, while plus-sized sleepers or people who have chronic muscle-related backaches may enjoy a softer mattress. For customers who aren’t sure what to choose, Savvy Rest service specialists can help recommend the perfect mattress based on your height, weight, favorite sleep positions, and the “feel” you’d prefer.
Buyers can even put different layers on each half of a mattress, to give couples the level of comfort and support they each need.
Savvy Rest now also provides bedding and accessories, including an organic allergy mattress encasement as well as a naturally finished wooden platform bed.
One customer told company representatives that she originally purchased an organic mattress from Savvy Rest to avoid the chemicals in conventional mattresses, particularly to limit her young daughter’s exposure. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that the customized mattress she purchased helped her fibromyalgia symptoms as well.
In addition, Savvy Rest as a company is certified by GOTS, which goes beyond organic to ensure that the organic wool and cotton that make up the outer layers of Savvy Rest mattresses aren’t coated with toxic finishes, and that the company responsibly manufactures its products according to strict social and environmental criteria.
The company’s natural Talalay latex supplier is certified Cradle-to-Cradle Silver, which means the entire product cycle is factored into its manufacture. Savvy Rest also goes the extra mile to close waste loops, in part by recycling customers’ old mattresses through its retail division.
Savvy Rest became an employee-owned company in 2012, meaning that each worker—from the marketing representatives to the skilled workers who cut, package, and ship the mattresses—has a say in how the company is run and shares in its profits.
What started as a small-scale operation is now a nationwide retailer, with an online store and over 200 independent dealers and four Savvy Rest Natural Bedroom brick-and-mortar stores in Rockville, MD; Charlottesville and Vienna, VA; and Berkeley, CA. The company plans to launch more stores in the future.
“Sleeping in close contact for literally years on something synthetic- and petroleum-based—which is emitting toxic chemicals that are associated with cancer, infertility, developmental brain disorders and obesity—just makes no sense,” says Wallace.
“Once consumers realize this, there’s no stopping them. You ‘turn green’ one item at a time, but the bed you sleep in has got to be near the top of the list.”