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This gooey white foam is about to become the core of one of the most expensive mattresses you can buy. It is made from natural latex harvested by hand from rubber trees. Unlike memory foam, natural latex cores are hypoallergenic, biodegradable and longer lasting but those features come with a high price tag. A king-size mattress made with one of these cores can cost $2,600. A memory-foam mattress of the same size costs less than half that. So, how does tree sap become a bed? And what makes these mattresses so expensive?



Most of the country is asleep but this is when latex-tree tappers start their day. They start early to take advantage of the early-morning humidity. When the tree is wet, it releases more latex but when it is too late and too hot, the tree gets too dry and it doesn’t produce. On the contrary, it coagulates and doesn’t flow. It has a nice smell when it’s fresh off the tree. The tools the workers use to work are basically this kind of knife that they use to cut and a disinfectant that they carry here to sanitize the knife. If the tree is sick, it is disinfected so it doesn’t infect the other trees. And with this little hook here, this is what they use for making a line and not abusing the amount established that they can extract. It lets them remember that this year we can extract here and the next year from another area.If they get it wrong, what tends to happen is that the tree tends to shrivel or shrink. You end up slashing and damaging the tree. Knots form, and you can’t cut that tree the following year. So that sets us back so the depth where we have to manage and work at is 2 millimeters. If they collect the liquid latex too late, it may congeal into less valuable crumb rubber, a material good for things like car tires but useless for mattresses. During the summer low season, an average of liters of natural latex slowly seep into workers’s buckets every morning. Double that in winter. Everything the tappers collect then goes straight to a nearby processing facility. Factory workers consolidate the morning’s haul into tanks. They let it sit for 12 hours before processing it in a centrifuge to separate the rubber from the water. Then they wait another 45 days for this concentrated latex to stabilize. This will be turned into foam through a method called the Dunlop process. It’s based on a 19th-century process for turning liquid latex into foam and is the most energy-efficient method. It involves first mixing the liquid latex with a combination of stabilizers. This concoction is then whipped up into foam in this machine until it’s the preferred density then workers add a gelling agent and heat the foam with radio waves to harden or vulcanize the latex. Every week, about 40 tons of liquid-latex foam moves from the processing facility to the mattress-core factory. They need about 50 kilos of liquid latex to make one 30-kilo mattress. Once the core sets, workers wash, dry and squish the mattress cores for packaging. This factory produces around 600 mattresses per week. These particular cores will be shipped to a facility where they will be processed into the final mattresses and sold by the company. 


The latex can be certified FSC – Forest Stewardship Council. Basically, you have to have no child labor, you have to only use organic products, you have to abide the laws of your country and different things to certify that you are sustainable. The facilities are also GOLS – Global Organic Latex Standard. Products that carry the label must be made 95% or more certified – organic latex. These certifications add value to the final product and consequently, zeros to the price tag. The rise of the auto industry in the early 1900s caused the demand for rubber to explode and plantations to pop up in places like Southeast Asia and Central and South America. But a rapid increase in production quickly led to falling prices which often came at the expense of indigenous populations forced to work these forests,  sometimes at the threat of violence. Since then, the world market for natural rubber has fluctuated greatly usually moving in tandem with the demand for automobiles. In 2010, the price is very high so a lot of people started planting rubbers, started buying a lot of land, starting acquiring a lot of debt. In the last 10 years, it has been fluctuating and right now it is not a career low but there are very low prices right now because of all the war in Russia and Ukraine and all the sanctions being put in China and the lack of production in China as well. It has reduced the commodity price of natural rubber. It’s time like these that plantation workers are most at risk of exploitation which is what certifications like GOLS attempt to incentivize companies not to do. In 2021, the global latex-mattress market was valued $9.7 billion. By 2030, that number could double to around $20 billion. But maintaining the high standards that justify the mattress final price tag is not easy.

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