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Linen and cotton both are among the most sustainable and environmentally friendly fabrics since they are not made from synthetic materials. Both natural plant-based fibers have different benefits and environmental downfalls.
What is better for the environment, linen or cotton? Linen and cotton have different footprints depending on the way they are used. For example, linen requires more ironing which requires more energy. Whereas cotton requires more water to grow and contributes more to land toxicity in the form of chemical usage. Therefore, linen is generally considered better for the environment.
As with most things, both linen and cotton live on a sliding scale of how environmentally friendly they can be. It is very much up to how they are farmed, produced, and manufactured. And even further, how consumers care for their final products. In this article we will talk about what goes into each step to come to a final consensus about which is eco-friendlier.
Where Do Cotton and Linen Come From?
Before we can get into which one of these is better for the environment, it is important to understand where they come from. Unlike many materials that are used to make clothing and other materials we use day to day; these are not synthetic materials. Both of these materials are grown and farmed rather than made in a factory.
Cotton is primarily grown in warmer climates, but the majority of the worlds cotton is grown in the United States, Uzbekistan, China, and India. However, a decent amount of cotton is also grown in other warm countries like Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey.
Planting is generally done with a mechanical planter that also rids the soil of any weeds or grass that could pose a threat to the cotton. If the soil has other plants that remain, they will compete with the cotton for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight making it more difficult for the cotton to grow.
Manual labor has traditionally been used in the United States to pick cotton, but now all of that labor is done with machines once the cotton is ready to be harvested. Mass quantities of cotton are grown every year because the demand is so high. Cotton is used more than any other fiber and is known to be the leading cash crop in the United States.
With the production of cotton comes expenses for farmers, it is estimated that there is a cost of about $5.3 billion worth of supplies and services that accompany each year’s cotton harvest. Cotton is the number one value-added crop in America because we all use it for nearly everything.
Cotton makes up our towels, sheets, clothing and even further makes up much of our industrial products. There is no way to avoid using cotton products in our lives and, because of that, mass quantities are produced every year. However, the crop is sustainable in the way that the entirety of the plant is utilized for something.
The cottonseeds are used to make oil, meal, and hulls. We use cottonseed oil for cooking while the hulls and meal are used to feed livestock and are used as fertilizer. By reusing the stalks and leaves in the soil, it enriches the nutrients and makes future growth more successful.
Pros and Cons of Cotton
Cotton is in much of our household items and clothing. One of the reasons it is so popular in clothing is because of its soft and breathable nature. With natural fibers, unlike synthetic, any sweat or moisture is absorbed and evaporated more easily making for a more comfortable fitting piece of clothing.
Cotton is stretchy and does not break as easily as linen because of its elasticity. It also differs from linen in that it does not conduct temperature very well and insulates the body which can be helpful in keeping the body comfortable in different weather conditions. This fabric is also more resistant to static cling and is less likely to irritate the skin over synthetic fibers.
Many of our bandages and gauze are made with cotton because it is non-allergenic and suitable for the most sensitive skin. Unfortunately, cotton is also susceptible to shrinking when washed because it is elastic. Much like any natural fiber, cotton is more inclined to wrinkle and needs to be ironed. It can also get damaged from colors running in the wash or being exposed to mildew.
In addition, cotton has major environmental impacts in the amount of water used for production and dying, and the harsh chemicals that are used in the dying process. Unfortunately, the mass quantities of water used in the dying process are contaminated with heavy metals and pollutants from the dyes, creating environmental problems.
According to the World Health Organization, the spraying of chemicals to produce cotton is responsible for 20,000 individuals dying of cancer and experiencing miscarriages in developing countries. This, in addition to the water demand, is problematic; and while the chemical use issue is solved by producing organic cotton, the amount of water used to make garments is not.
Production of Cotton
Once the cotton is either picked by hand or by a machine, it is immediately put into a ginning factory where the cotton bolls are turned into fibers. The cotton ginning machinery removes the seedpods from the fibers. This is often done on the machinery that collects the cotton from the fields, but this depends on the producer.
The ginning process removes dirt, stems, leaves, and linters from the cotton and leaves producers with a clean fiber with separated seeds which can be used to create cottonseed oil later on. The linters are often used later on to manufacture paper and plastic products; therefore, nothing is going to waste in this process.
This then leads to the process of cotton spinning where the cotton fibers are turned into yarn which can then be weaved or knitted into products. The spinning of the cotton also cleans the product once more to prepare it to be dyed. Unfortunately, this is the process that makes cotton the most harmful to the environment as the dying process is highly toxic.
Not only are there harsh chemicals being used for dying, but the process also uses a lot of water that is being turned into toxic waste.
Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant stem, which is primarily grown in Western Europe as well as Ukraine. Linen is known to be one of the oldest produced fabrics in the world going back at least 10,000 years. While many countries produce high quality linen, the majority of bulk production is found in Eastern Europe and China.
To produce high quality linen, producers use the longest fibers possible. This forces hand-harvesting rather than machine harvesting where workers pull the entire plant and cut it very close to the ground for the longest possible threads. Once pulled, the plants go through a number of mechanical processes to prepare them for use.
In the past, linen use was more common with household items, in the 1970s only about 5% of linen was used for fashion. Now, about 70% of the produced linen is used for fashion with the remainder being used for household items.
Pros and Cons of Linen
Linen is a popular material because of its cool and breathable feel. It is stronger than cotton and gets softer with each wash, making it popular for a variety of products. Unlike many other materials, linen is also highly resistant to moths and dirt, making it versatile.
The downside to linen is that it does not stretch in the same way cotton does and therefore with repeated folding or creasing the threads will break and the item will not last as long as it could with proper care. It is known to be a material that wrinkles easily due to its poor elasticity and needs to be ironed frequently, causing more energy to go into one item.
When using linen for clothing, it is very easy to bleach and dye to a desired color. However, it’s natural tones are also attractive, which can cut back on dyes and chemical use in the garments. Many people like wearing linen clothing because it can absorb moisture and lose it rapidly ensuring the wearer does not feel dampness from the moisture.
This makes linen a popular choice in hot climates and during warmer times of the year. Unfortunately, linen makes its largest environmental impact by the energy used to create products. As previously mentioned, after being pulled from the ground, the flax plant goes through several machines to process it into linen.
Production of Linen
Before being able to go through the machinery, the stalks are retted either in a naturally or chemically induced way. Either the natural bacteria in the plant is allowed to decompose the pectin that is used to bind the fibers of flax together, or chemicals are used to make this process faster. However, these chemicals are extremely harsh and harmful to the environment.
Next the stalks are put into metal rollers that crush them and remove the woody parts of the plant so that the fibers can be removed. They are then combed and spun into yarn which can be woven into linen. After this process the fabric is ready to be bleached, dyed, printed, or treated in some way.
Is Linen Better than Cotton for the Environment?
Linen is better for the environment than cotton when all other factors are held constant in the farming, production, and care of the fabric. There are a number of factors that goes into making something environmentally friendly, especially when it comes to garments and fabrics since there are so many steps to turning materials into fabric for us to either wear or use in some way.
The way in which these plants are farmed and manufactured play a huge roll in how good they are for the environment. As previously mentioned, there are many pros and cons to each fabric and the most important thing to remember is that the environmental impact of the material is highly dependent on the sustainability practices used by the factories producing the garments.
There are many companies that are committed to making clothing as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. This starts all the way back in the farming process. Clothing companies that support farmers who are only using the most sustainable methods are creating change in the industry and ensuring that there is as little environmental impact as possible.
It is important that these crops are being farmed organically to avoid contaminating soil and killing off pollinators as well as other animals that may wander into the fields. Not only that, but when pesticides are used, they are often picked up in the wind and spread to the surrounding areas severely impacting biodiversity and the health of all living things in the area.
In addition, when the material is processed, if synthetic dyes and harmful chemicals are used, it impacts the environment even further. Due to these reasons, it’s important to pay attention to where you are buying your cotton and linen and inquire about where they are sourced.
Therefore, it is less about which fabric is better for the environment, and more about which producers are working to better the environment with their methods.
Buying Environmentally Friendly Cotton
For producers who are not paying attention to how environmentally friendly their linen production is, cotton can easily be better for the environment. It is critical to only buy garments that are made with sustainable and environmentally friendly cotton so that you are having less of an impact on the land in which the cotton is being grown and on water contamination.
By buying products that are 100% cotton, you are cutting back on the amount of polyester, nylon, or microfleece which are all synthetic and made with petrochemicals which are unhealthy for the skin. In addition, with 100% cotton you do not risk getting plastic microfibers into your water when you wash your fabric.
These contaminants from clothing can get into the food systems, water ways, and soil and cause microplastics to be found in the foods humans are living off of such as fish, crab, and even minerals like sea salt. By only wearing clothes that are made from natural materials, you avoid contributing to the larger pollution problem we are facing.
In addition, by buying organic cotton you are assured that it is grown safely and is not being processed with toxic chemicals. Organic cotton retailers ensure that the dyes and treatments of their garments are non-toxic so that there are no residual pesticides and dyes found in the finished garment.
Recent studies have shown that agricultural pesticides and plastic use can trigger health issues such as food allergies and impact our body on deep levels. This is because non-organic cottons are treated with chemicals such as flame retardants which can impact the nervous and reproductive systems by accumulating both in our environment and in the human body.
When these clothes are purchased for children, they are exposed to harmful toxins during their development. Those working in these factories where poly-fluorinated chemicals are being used on clothing have been found to develop cancer, organ damage, suppressed thyroid function and harm to their reproductive organs.
If these chemicals can cause such harm to the workers making these garments, they should not be worn by consumers! Therefore, we are not only benefiting the planet, but our own health by buying 100% organic cotton when we are shopping for clothing and household items. Unfortunately, even with organic cotton it takes about 700 gallons of water to produce a t-shirt.
Fair Trade Cotton
It is also important to consider workers’ rights, especially when it comes to the fashion and garment industry. There are workers around the world who are producing household items and clothing at unfair wages and suboptimal working conditions. This is common in fast fashion where using synthetic blends and chemicals on clothing are also extremely common.
By opting to buy fair trade cotton, you are ensuring that the workers in the factories and on the farms growing the cotton are being treated fairly, working in a safe and clean environment, and are being paid a fair wage. Along with fair trade comes an end to child labor, discrimination in the workplace, and excessive work hours that overwork employees.
When looking for a more environmentally friendly product, it is common that the clothing made with organic and eco-conscious materials are also fair trade. These are the values that are important to nurture in the fashion industry and across farms worldwide in order to make the changes necessary to clean up the planet and keep people safe and healthy.
Buying Environmentally Friendly Linen
The same goes for linen, it can be much more eco-friendly than cotton if the cotton being produced is using harmful dyes and pesticides. Buying linen from producers who are conscious of their global footprint and are working to lessen the energy expenditure being put into their product are the eco brands that are worth supporting.
It is common for flax farmers to use chemical weed killers and pesticides to keep their plants growing strong without any competition or predation. By opting to buy organic linen, you are supporting the farmers and brands that value not using pesticides and chemicals in their land and therefore are contributing to a less contaminated earth.
The same for harsh dyes. Linen is often used for sheets, which we are exposing our skin to for prolonged periods of time every single day. If we are sleeping on sheets that have been dyed using chemicals, there is a higher likelihood of those chemicals affecting our bodies; whereas if we are only buying organic linen sheets, there will be no residual dyes getting into our skin.
By purchasing 100% organic linen, you are reducing the chemicals that are being put back into the earth from the production of flax plants and are ensuring your health is not compromised by the pollutants used to make these household items and clothing.
Finding out What your Clothes are Made of
Luckily, it is pretty easy to figure out what our clothing is made out of. When shopping online, most companies list the percentages of different materials used in their garments. This will specify if they are using organic materials, recycled materials, or if everything is synthetic and dyed.
The same goes for in store. Be sure to look on the tags of household items and clothing to better understand the materials that make up the item you are looking to purchase. If you are unsure, asking a sales associate or representative will give you a lot more information into how their garments are made.
Most companies that use sustainable and environmentally friendly methods are very open about this both in stores and online. A number of brands have sections on their websites for sustainability and how they source their garments, these are great brands to support as they are making it clear to consumers that they care about their carbon footprint and global impact.
While it can be easy to blame farmers or blame certain brands for their unsustainable methods, it is more helpful to look towards consumers. Where we as consumers put our money matters. By supporting companies that are paying farmers to be environmentally minded and conserve their land, we are able to make that the new normal.
It is not until consumers stop supporting fast fashion and synthetic materials that they will stop being produced in such large quantities and the more natural fabrics and methods will become more and more common. Therefore, for those who are looking to make environmentally conscious decisions about the materials they buy, looking at company ethics is important.
Continuing to support companies who are using 100% organic natural fibers such as cotton or linen will ensure the trend starts to shift more towards chemical free and sustainable clothing.
What Other Materials are Sustainable?
If you are interested in trying out other fabrics that are eco-friendly, there are more plant-based fibers to look for! Hemp is considered the most eco-friendly and versatile plant. Hemp can produce food, clothes, household materials, and beauty products. In terms of clothing, hemp is a breathable and moisture wicking fabric that is very durable.
Hemp gets softer with each wash and wear and when you are done with it, it is biodegradable! Hemp plants do not require much water and because of that can produce two to three times the amount of fiber per acre when compared to cotton. Hemp is also sustainable in that it replenishes the soil it grows in rather than being a nutrient suck.
These are a few of the reasons why hemp is considered the most sustainable and eco-friendly fabric, just above linen and then cotton. Bamboo would be next. The bamboo plant can create silky and durable fabric. While bamboo does not require much water, fertilizer, or pesticides to grow and is biodegradable, it is chemical intensive on the other side.
Once the bamboo is harvested the process of turning it into fabric is chemical heavy which produces a decent amount of waste. This significantly reduces its sustainability as the chemical use is hard to avoid in the production.
Whether you are looking to replenish your wardrobe or simply want to learn about more ways to save the planet, buying plant-based clothing and household items is a major step towards more sustainable living. While linen is more environmentally friendly than cotton, buying items that are 100% of either one of these fabrics’ beats buying synthetic materials.
Both linen and cotton are biodegradable since they come from plants and can be a great way to minimize the amount of microplastics entering into our waterways and food systems. In addition to these materials, hemp and bamboo are also natural fabrics that are environmentally friendly.
Linen is a great eco-friendly staple as it not only is comfortable and breathable but does not require massive amounts of water for production and when produced organically does not contribute to chemical pollution in water and in the soil. While it does take energy intensive machinery to produce linen, the flax footprint is not as great as that of cotton.
While cotton is still an environmentally friendly material, it does require a lot of water to produce. Even when being farmed organically to take away the chemical usage in both the farming with pesticides and the water contamination with dyes, it is still estimated that a single shirt uses about 700 gallons of water.
Since this is unfortunately unavoidable regardless of organic or not because the plant has high water demand, it is considered less environmentally conscious than alternatives such as linen and hemp. If you are looking to make changes in your own home and want to be an advocate for the environment, be sure to pay attention to the ethics of the stores you are shopping at.
By supporting environmentally conscious companies, consumers can make changes to the health of the planet.