Is linen more eco-friendly than cotton? Why we love linen

Girl in linen dress on beach

Is linen more eco-friendly than cotton? Why we love linen

Best known for its cool, airy properties, linen is a popular choice for warm summer days and holidays abroad. Linen is also widely considered to be a sustainable fabric. But is linen more eco friendly than cotton? We take a look and find out whether investing in this earth-friendly fibre is a good idea.

What Is Linen? 

Linen is made from the flax plant, a blue-flowered plant that grows especially well in Western Europe. (Belgium and France are major producers).  It’s one of the oldest known fibres in the world. A team of archaeologists and paleobiologists discovered flax fibres that were more than 34,000 years old! 

Linen’s use in fashion has been gaining popularity in recent years. In the 1970s only about 5% of the linen produced was used for fashion while the rest was used for household items. Nowadays, about 70% of linen is used for fashion.

So what makes this ancient fibre so special? Before we look at linen’s pros and cons, let’s first understand how it’s produced. 

Blue flowering flax plant used to create linen
Blue flowering flax plant. Photo by Cathy Holewinski on Unsplash

How is Linen Produced?

To produce high-quality linen it’s important to harvest the flax stems as long as possible. For this reason, hand-harvesting – where workers pull the entire plant – is preferred over machine harvesting. 

After harvesting, the seeds are removed and the plants then go through a process called “retting” to extract the fibres. ‘Dew’ (or ‘field’) retting is the most popular and oldest method of processing flax stems. It involves leaving the stems out in the fields and allowing moisture to break down the stalks naturally. However, chemical retting is also used and it has a much higher environmental impact. 

Once extracted, the flax fibres can then be sorted. The longest pieces are spun into yarn and the yarn is then woven into a fabric. It’s a laborious process and one of the reasons that linen commands a higher price as a fabric.

The Advantages of Linen Fabric

We love linen for its breezy simplicity. From summer blouses and trousers to work suits and chic dresses, linen has an air of casual elegance. But it’s not just in the looks department that linen differs from cotton. 

Linen has some pretty unique properties that make it a great choice for both people and the planet. Is linen more eco friendly than cotton? Let’s take a look. 

Sustainable Production

In terms of how the raw material is grown, linen has a lower impact on the environment than cotton. 

Blue linen clothing more eco friendly than cotton
Casually elegant linen clothes. Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

Carbon Positive

European flax cultivation retains 250,000 tonnes of carbon each year. The equivalent to the CO2 emissions generated by a Renault Clio car driving around the world.

Low Water Usage

Linen can be grown with far less water than cotton. Rainfall is usually enough. Cotton on the other hand is known as the world’s thirstiest crop.

Low Fertilisers and Pesticides

Linen is a resilient plant and can easily be grown without the use of chemical inputs. (To ensure that no pesticides have been used, opt for organic certification.)

Low Waste

Every part of the flax plant can be used. A common by-product of flax is linseed oil. The flax plant can also be grown for its nutritious flax seeds which are high in omegas!

Locally Grown in Europe

85% of the world’s flax is grown in Europe, which is great in terms of linen’s carbon footprint. It’s important to note, however, that sometimes unprocessed flax is shipped overseas for production. Look out for the MASTERS OF LINEN® mark. It’s a registered mark awarded to linen that has been 100% Made in EUROPE, from field to yarn to fabric.

Can Be Recycled

Linen fabrics can be recycled into paper and insulation materials for the car industry.

Linen’s Special Qualities

Linen is a pretty unique type of fabric. It has several qualities that contribute to its overall sustainability as well as making it a dream for the wearer! 

Linen dress with necklace
Linen with its many qualities. Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

Strong and Durable

Linen fabric that’s been well cared for can last up to three decades. In some European traditions, linen bedding is handed down to the next generation as a family heirloom. We love the thought of doing this with clothing too! 

Moth Resistant

A definite bonus adding to the fabric’s durability!

Becomes Softer Over Time

Linen becomes softer the more it is washed and used. Meaning the love for our linen pieces grows and grows so they remain a wardrobe staple for years to come! 

Lightweight and Breathable

Perfect for the summer months, linen’s hollow fibres allow air to pass easily through the fabric, keeping you cool and fresh. For more on the cooling benefits of linen check out our article: Clothes that keep you cool: MagicLinen review.

Great Ability to Absorb Water

Flax fibres can absorb up to 20%* of their weight without feeling damp to the touch. Perfect for wicking moisture away from your body and keeping you sweat-free.

Good for All Seasons

Linen’s not just for summer! Linen’s hollow fibres also mean that linen has good thermo-regulating properties. This makes it a great choice of fabric all year round. 

Resistant to Sunlight

Linen doesn’t fade like cotton, adding to the fabrics longevity. (Another reason why linen curtains are so great!)

Absorbs Dyes and Prints Well

The textile dyeing and finishing industry is one of the most chemically intensive on the planet. Anything that can be done to reduce the amount of dyes used is a good thing!

Fully Biodegradable

Untreated linen is fully biodegradable. 

Is Linen More Eco Friendly Than Cotton? 

With so many great advantages, are there any disadvantages to this wonder fabric? Well yes, a few. And they’ll help us to find out whether linen is a more sustainable fabric than cotton. 

The Disadvantages of Linen Fabric

Girl in linen shirt which is more eco friendly than cotton
While highly sustainable, there are some disadvantages to linen too. Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Labour Intensive

Linen’s fibre preparation is labour intensive with much of the process still carried out by hand. It’s also more difficult to weave into fibres. If the work isn’t supported with fair and safe labour conditions then, as with cotton production, it can spell human rights abuses. The amount of labour involved also makes linen, on the whole, a more expensive fabric.

Environmental Impact of Non-Organic Linen

Not all linen is sustainable or environmentally friendly. It depends on how it’s grown, whether chemicals and pesticides are used and how the fibres are prepared. The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, which assesses the impact up to the production of yarn or fabric (but not the full lifecycle of a material), ranks conventional flax as Class C and organic flax as Class A. The most eco-friendly choice, therefore, is to opt for organic linen. 

Heavy Bleaching

In order to get a pure white colour, heavy bleaching is needed. The most eco-friendly choice you can make here is to embrace linen’s natural hues. 

Creases Easily

You only have to look at linen and it creases! In terms of eco-friendliness, the problem comes with ironing. Ironing a shirt consumes around 7 times more energy than washing. As a linen shirt takes longer to iron, the energy consumption is slightly higher for linen than for cotton. 

Low Elasticity

Linen fibres don’t stretch. The fabric will eventually break if it’s folded and ironed at the same place constantly. But as we saw, linen is otherwise very strong and durable. Handle it with care and you’ll be able to hand it down to your great-grandchildren!

Growing flax and weaving it into linen is the least water and energy-intensive part of linen clothing’s life cycle. The main environmental impact comes from the ‘user’ stage (when we wear and care for our linen garments). Almost 80% of linen’s energy and water consumption derives from washing and ironing the garment over a lifetime.

So, is linen more eco friendly than cotton? To answer that, we need to turn our attention to cotton and its lifecycle. 

How Is Cotton Produced?

Globally, 25.9 million tonnes of cotton is produced every year. Eight countries – India, China, USA, Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Mexico – account for more than 85% of total production. 

Cotton is primarily grown in warmer climates and is traditionally harvested by hand. In the US mechanical harvesting has taken over but manual picking of cotton is still common in the remaining counties that produce it. Hence the need for transparency in supply chains to make sure that cotton workers are being paid a fair wage and that no child labour and forced labour is being used. 

The cotton plant
The cotton plant. Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

After harvesting, cotton is taken to a ginning factory where the seedpods are separated from the fibres. The next stage is spinning which turns the cotton fibres into yarn ready for weaving into fabric. 

So what are the advantages of this hugely versatile fabric?

The Advantages of Cotton Fabric

Natural, Plant-based Fibre

Like linen, cotton is a natural, renewable fibre. It avoids the pitfalls of synthetic fabrics like polyester that are linked to the petroleum industry and the issue of microplastics. Cotton is also biodegradable. For more info on microplastics, see our article here. 

Low Waste

Almost all parts of the cotton plant can be used. The seeds are separated into three products – oil, meal and hulls. The stalks and leaves of the plant are ploughed back in to enrich the soil. 

Easy To Care For

Cotton is a very forgiving fabric. It can be washed at high temperatures if necessary. 

Can Be Recycled

Cotton can be recycled back into clothing, helping to keep textiles out of landfills and reducing cotton’s ecological footprint. See our article on Recycled Cotton Fabric for more info. 

Can Be Sustainably Grown

The gold standard for sustainably and ethically grown cotton is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). For more about GOTS certification see our article What Does GOTS Certified Mean? 

mark-adriane-girl in linen dress against gate
Cotton has many advantages too. Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

The Disadvantages of Cotton Fabric

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of conventionally grown cotton are many. We’ll examine a few to help answer our question “Is linen more eco friendly than cotton?”

Pesticide Intensive

Conventionally grown cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Pesticide poisoning affects thousands of cotton farmers and their families each year as well as harming the environment. While organic cotton is a growing industry, it still makes up less than 1% of all the cotton cultivated around the world.

High Water Usage

Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop, accounting for 69% of the water footprint of all textile fibre production. To put that into context, the cotton industry alone is heavily blamed for the drying up of the Aral Sea.

GM Cotton

In 2019, genetically modified cotton accounted for 79% of the global area planted to cotton. GMO seeds have been modified so they can’t reproduce. This means farmers can’t save their seeds for the following crop but must buy new seeds each year, often getting into debt in the process. The environmental impact of ‘plant escape’ where GM crops cross-pollinate with neighbouring non-GM crops is also an issue under current investigation. 

Supply Chain Issues

The sourcing of sustainable cotton is a major issue for the fashion industry. The complicated web of farmers, processing plants, factories and sellers creates a supply chain that is very challenging to monitor. Forced labour in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, particularly in Uzbekistan. For this reason certifications including GOTS and Fairtrade are hugely important. 

So, Is Linen More Eco Friendly Than Cotton?

For the most part – yes! In terms of the raw material, linen has less impact on the environment. It can be grown with much less water and chemical inputs compared to cotton. 

However, it’s important to remember that the sustainability of a material is highly dependent on the practices adopted at each stage of the supply chain. These include the sustainability practices adopted by the farmers, the fabric producers and the factories producing the end garments. 

We also need to take into account the impact of the user stage and consider how we wash and care for the garment. 

Two girls in linen dresses which is more eco friendly than cotton
Overall linen is more eco friendly than cotton. Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Choosing The Most Sustainable Linen

We think linen is one of the best sustainable fibres out there and definitely worth investing in. For the most earth-friendly linen, make sure you:

Choose Organic Certified

As a seed-to-shelf assurance, GOTS certification lets you know that the flax has been grown and processed without the use of chemicals. 

Choose Timeless Design

Strong and durable, linen is the perfect slow fashion fabric. Choose timeless designs that you’ll want to cherish forever and perhaps even pass down as a family heirloom!

Embrace the Crinkles!

We can reduce energy consumption by simply not ironing. (Who really wants to iron anyway) The key is to pick linen clothes that are easy to wear and where the crinkling doesn’t pose any issues. On the contrary, they can add to linen’s breezy charm.

Have you fallen in love with linen? Maybe you have a favourite linen piece in your wardrobe already. Let us know all about it in the comments below!

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