Are sustainable returns possible in the mattress industry? - The Entrepreneurial Way with A.I.


Monday, July 11, 2022

Are sustainable returns possible in the mattress industry?


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Editor's note: This article is part of a series on sustainability. You can find the whole package at our landing page.

Mattress retailers face complicated operational problems when it comes to returns. 

Consumers expect to keep a mattress around nine years, and 81% are satisfied with their mattress, according to the International Sleep Products Association. But those shoppers who aren’t content with a newly purchased mattress must enter into a return process that is full of friction for both retailers and consumers. Processes on how to dispose of returned mattresses may depend on the state a consumer lives in, and items must be in perfect condition to be eligible for donation. Those conditions lead to Americans disposing of an estimated 20 million mattresses and box springs every year — the vast majority of which end up in landfills or incinerators. 

That means retailers, many of whom are thinking through their sustainability practices, are examining their reverse logistics.

“Mattresses are always such a conundrum,” Fara Alexander, director of brand marketing and communications of returns management and reverse logistics company goTRG, said. “Not only are they really expensive to transport, because they’re bulky and heavy, but there also aren’t really a lot of ways to sanitize those products. So when you’re looking from a return perspective the options for those retailers are very limited.”

Reverse logistics and mattresses

Direct-to-consumer mattress company Avocado has enacted a nuanced approach to returns. The Certified B corporation naturally draws customers that have sustainability in mind — and that extends to reverse logistics and returns. 

The company sells green mattresses and bedding that are certified organic and non-toxic. It was also the first mattress and bedding brand to be Climate Neutral Certified. “People are already bought into our mission when they’re purchasing from us,” said Avocado Returns and Donations Team Manager Jamie Pantano. 

Avocado does not want its returned mattresses to end up in landfills, therefore the company has created systems to do what is best for the customer and the environment. The DTC retailer has 1,500 donation partners nationwide, and has a 95% donation success rate. 

That’s a high rate of success for a product that is difficult to both resell and properly give away. While a donation may ensure that mattresses stay out of landfills, products also have to be in exceptional condition to be accepted by many charities and nonprofits. That means they have to be clean with no stains, and potentially not come from a house that had smokers or pets, according to nationwide mattress and furniture removal company MattressDisposal+

Additionally, because mattresses are bulky and difficult to transport, charities simply may not have the time or space to accept them. 

Those same factors also make mattress disposal difficult for the waste industry. Once mattresses are disassembled, more than 75% of their components can be recycled. However, they are still expensive to transport, are difficult to manage and compact, and can get caught in incinerator processing equipment. 

While some areas are enacting extended producer responsibility laws, which require the manufacturer of a product to be responsible for the recycling, reuse or disposal of products, legislation regarding mattress recycling is still dependent on individual states.

That, in turn, means responsibilities when it comes to returned mattresses are unclear, and processes regarding return logistics can vary widely depending on the retailer. Most of the industry has established a trial period, typically around 100 days, where customers can use the mattress and it still qualifies for a return. Many retailers also have a minimum requirement (typically around 30 days) where customers must use a product before they initiate a return. That is because mattresses can take a little bit to break in, and time is needed to allow people to get used to how a new product feels. After that, retailers diverge when it comes to their approach. Some companies spell out what happens, saying that they try to donate returned products. Others are vague about what occurs after a mattress is returned.

What mattress retailers disclose about their returns process differs widely
Company Return policy notes
Avocado A Returns Team member will ask questions “to ensure that you are getting the most out of your new Avocado purchase.” Customers turn in photos of the product, and then the Sustainability Team helps coordinate a donation.
Birch A pickup partner collects the mattress and removes it. “We do our best to ensure that all returned mattresses and ancillary products are either donated or recycled. We have a network of partners nationwide that help us donate or recycle as many products as possible. 
Casper A courier packs and removes the mattress. “Our team will try their best to donate your product to a charity or recycle it.” 
Helix A team of Sleep Specialists walk customers through the returns process and arrange mattress pickup.
Layla The company partners with nonprofits and charitable organizations to donate products. If local laws prohibit donations in a customer’s area, the mattress will be picked up and disposed of at no cost to the customer.
Leesa The company will coordinate a pickup from the customer’s home, and all mattresses must be clean and undamaged to be eligible for a return. “Whenever possible, in line with our social mission, our goal is to donate any returned mattresses to a 501(c)(3) organization or charity partner.”
Mattress Firm After 21 nights if a customer isn’t comfortable, the company tries to match them with another product within 120 days. Mattresses may be exchanged once, with a return delivery fee of $99.99. Customers will receive a refund of “the purchase price of your original mattress less a restocking fee equal to 10% of your original mattress purchase.” If customers still aren’t satisfied, they can return it with a return delivery fee of $99.99 and receive, as a refund, “the purchase price of your new mattress less a restocking fee equal to 20% of your new mattress purchase price.” 
Purple To be eligible for a return, the mattress must be clean and undamaged. Customers will be refunded the full product price of the mattress less the value of any discount, interest accrued, and/or shipping charges.
Saatva If a customer wants to return or exchange the mattress during the trial period, the company will pick up the product and provide a refund, less a $99 processing fee. Mattresses are never resold, “instead, we donate them to veterans’ shelters or offer them to employees and associates across our network of more than 150 delivery centers.”
Simmons If the mattress has already been unboxed, customers will not be able to physically return it. Simmons works with customers to find a local donation center “so we can avoid throwing away a perfectly good mattress.” Upon proof of donation, a refund is issued to the original form of payment. Only one return or exchange is allowed per household per year.
Tuft & Needle The company helps customers to get mattresses donated to a charity or nonprofit organization. Customers are “welcome to donate to any organization you’d like to support.” If the company can’t find a donation location in the customer’s area it will “always find a way to help you return the mattress.” After a mattress is donated, customers upload a copy of the donation receipt, and the company will process the refund. Products purchased through third-party companies need to be returned directly to those parties by their preferred return methods.
Tempur-Pedic If the mattress doesn’t work the company works with the customer “to address your concerns.” If that doesn’t work, the company will take the mattress back and issue a refund, less shipping charges. If products are purchased from a retailer that carries Tempur-Pedic products, the purchase is subject to the return and exchange policies of that retailer.
Zinus If the customer’s old mattress and/or box spring was picked up through the company’s service partners for disposal, then a service fee of $75 per unit will be deducted from the refund. If a Zinus product was purchased at any partner site, then the return window and conditions are defined by that specific retailer.

Most retailers listed have a 100-night sleep trial, with many requiring or suggesting customers sleep on their new mattress for 30 days.

“[M]ost mattress companies do not, and cannot, accept the mattress back into their ownership,” Christian Alexander, CEO and President of Nest Bedding, wrote in emailed comments. “Moreover, only three states in the USA have instituted mattress recycling programs that help brands take ownership over the waste they contribute to. This leaves either disposal (the dump), donation (which is challenging), or 3rd party marketplaces like Facebook or Craigslist.” 

Those three states that have enacted mattress recycling laws are California, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Together, those areas have collected over 10 million mattresses, and have diverted 380 million pounds of steel, foam, fiber and wood from landfills. 

Oregon recently announced that it is the fourth state to establish a statewide mattress recycling program. That program, like the others, requires mattress manufacturers to both set up and operate a recycling structure overseen by the state which makes it easy for consumers to recycle products. In Oregon, retailers collect a fee from consumers to fund the program. 

Massachusetts, which discards around 600,000 mattresses and box springs annually, is enacting a waste ban on those products starting on November 1. Retailers in the state are encouraged to search for recycling service providers for mattresses. In response to the ban, Massachusetts is pointing businesses to its recycling assistance program, which is funded by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, that helps businesses reduce waste and maximize recycling options. 

Stopping returns before they start

One of the best methods of halting mattress returns is preventing them from happening in the first place. 

Many mattress retailers have therefore established return policies that encourage customers to try out their product before a return is initiated, knowing it may take a little time to get used to it. 

Avocado, which tells customers to try out their mattress for 30 days, has a system that asks questions to customers when they begin a return. Is the mattress too firm or too bouncy? There may be a way to troubleshoot and find a solution that makes a customer happy and that completely halts a return from happening at all.  

Sometimes it turns out that a customer needs a better foundation that properly supports a mattress, or it needs a topper. Or, a comfort solution may easily be addressed simply with pillows. 

“We do find that pillows really have a much larger impact on the overall sleep experience than just the mattress alone,” Avocado’s Pantano said.

Additionally, a new mattress simply may feel different than what someone is used to. “If you were using the same mattress for 15 to 20 years, to come to a brand-new, super supportive mattress — it’s going to feel different. And so we want to make sure that you’re really getting the full experience, and we don’t feel that fully happens until you’ve slept on it for at least a month,” Pantano said. 

Zinus also recommends that customers try out its mattresses. If they are not satisfied with their product after 100 days, they can contact the company for a full refund. Mattresses must be returned in good condition and, once returned, Zinus processes each mattress to determine the condition of a product. Depending on its condition, mattresses are either returned to inventory or disposed of properly, a company spokesperson said. 

Allowing customers to test out a mattress can be part of a larger marketing strategy for retailers, Alex Savy, founder of and certified sleep science coach, said in emailed comments.

“A chance to test the mattress without committing to it encourages shoppers to make more purchases,” Savy said, noting that in-home mattress testing became favored when bed-in-a-box mattress companies rose in popularity. “[E]ven though many models end up being returned, mattress companies still generate more sales thanks to easy return policies.”

Savy also said that mattress companies overall have problems staying sustainable when it comes to returns. “It’s simple: they sell too many mattresses and cannot physically process all returns sustainably (by donating to charities or shelters).” To achieve sustainability, Savy believes mattress-in-a-box companies may have to grow their return departments by hiring more personnel and allocating more money toward sustainable returns.

Nest Bedding has introduced another path to sustainability through its Lifetime Renewal Exchange program. In 2018, the company added zippers to its mattresses so that its free exchange program (which allowed the complete exchange of a mattress to another firmness) would be focused on the layer inside the mattress that controls its feel. Mattresses can therefore have a different firmness while the lifespan of the product is extended. The company compares it to replacing worn tires on a car or getting new soles for shoes. And, the program worked. 

“In our pursuit to further improve the customer experience of products and policies, I introduced zippers to the pillow-top design of our beds,” CEO Alexander said. “Such a change created a hugely positive impact on our customers' lives, ultimately helping us win more customers, lower our returns, and improve our environmental responsibility.”

“Our mattresses are of the highest USA-made quality, but like all mattresses, will still break down over time,” Alexander said. “This can be due to a number of variables including temperature, pressure, moisture level, and age of the mattress. Our [Lifetime Renewal Exchange] mattresses can be serviced at home by simply unzipping the bed, rotating, and flipping the layer for even wear. That said, eventually, customers will need to replace their mattress. However, with our [Lifetime Renewal Exchange] Program, they won’t have to replace their entire mattress because they can renew it and can reuse it ultimately helping to reduce waste.”

While Avocado and Nest both have fresh approaches to sustainability, the mattress industry overall still doesn’t have a cohesive approach to reverse logistics. The practicality of the size of the product will always be in play, but all retailers are facing increased questions regarding sustainability from customers, the government and stockholders. Manufacturers in particular may have to increase their scope if additional states place requirements on how companies deal with waste. 

But, as Avocado points out, sustainability has to be in all areas of a company, including returns. “We can’t really have just one person who owns it. It has to be part of everybody’s job,” Jessica Haan, Avocado’s vice president of brand marketing and sustainability, said. “Yet we do need people in different areas to champion it and communicate it.”


Kaarin Vembar, Khareem Sudlow