Linen vs. Cotton: Which Is Greener?

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When it comes to sustainable consumer choices, there are a lot of factors to consider. Along with aiming to choose products that have a positive social impact and the lowest carbon footprint, people need to determine how each item will work for them personally — measuring comfort, availability, convenience, and cost before making a purchase. All of these factors come into play when choosing between sustainable fabrics. Below, we break down the differences between linen and cotton to decide which fabric is more sustainable.

Linen

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Linen is known for being a lightweight clothing fabric. While it's easily wrinkled, this is often a style choice, as it creates a comfortable and relaxed look. Beyond that, linen is a fabric of many talents. Because of its sturdiness, it is used as upholstery, bed linens, curtains, and even art canvases. Even U.S. currency is 25% linen.

Linen itself is made from the stems of the flax plant. Flax has been used for tens of thousands of years to make fabric, cords, and baskets, and it is known as one of the first fibers used to make cloth. The flax plant is also very versatile; its seeds are used as nutritional supplements and to create linseed oil.

Like cotton, linen is a cellulose textile with a strong structure. The extra strength also means that it is a stiffer and rougher material, which makes this ancient textile more durable — so durable that pieces of linen have been found that are thousands of years old.

Linen Production

Linen fiber is extracted from the flax stem through a process called retting. This process is essential to producing quality fiber and beneficial yields. Traditionally, there have been two methods: water retting and dew retting. Water retting involves soaking the stems in water and allowing specific bacteria to degrade them. This produces long, high-quality fibers but comes at high costs. Water retting is rarely used anymore because it polluted water ways. Dew (or field) retting is the most popular and oldest method of processing flax stems. It involves leaving the stems in the fields in even rows and allowing the moisture and indigenous fungi to do the work. While this process has reportedly yielded some of the best quality linen fiber from Western Europe, the quality is still lower than that produced from water retting.

Research has been done to discover new, different, and more effective methods of retting. Yet, so far, none of the less polluting methods yield the same quality linen as traditional methods. Instead, the research has yielded methods that reduce costs and energy usage.

Cotton

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Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics to make textiles from, outside of synthetics. Its softness and level of comfort make it a widely used fabric for apparel. Cotton is also easily washed and versatile in its usefulness as a fabric. Like linen, it can be used for bedding, clothing, and other household items. At 75%, cotton is the main material in U.S. dollar bills.

Cotton fiber is taken from the flowery portion of the plant. When the petals fall off, they leave a seed pod. Inside this pod, called a boll, lives the fiber we know as cotton. When the boll has burst open revealing the fiber, it is picked by machine and processed. Once cleaned, it can be spun into yarn to make fiber. Another benefit is that most of the cotton plant can be used in other ways, which means little is wasted.

Cotton Production

Cotton is grown in drier climates, so the plant is naturally adapted to heat and drought. Irrigation is a practice on the decline as farmers seek to develop more efficient ways of conserving water. Once harvested, the cotton fiber goes through multiple steps of cleaning, scouring (to remove the natural wax), purifying, and finally finishing. This ensures an easy process of creating the yarn. Nearly 27 millions tons of cotton are produced each year and this number is increasing.

Which Is Greener?

In terms of raw material, linen has less impact on the environment. Cotton is the heavy on the use of pesticides, even though organic cotton uses less water and pesticides. While organic cotton is a growing industry, it still makes up less than 1% of all the cotton cultivated around the world. Flax, on the other hand, is naturally pest resistant and requires less herbicides. Even though linen fibers are often blended with cotton to reduce costs, the flax plant is widely used in other industries making the fiber and it's by-products more practical when it comes to environmental concerns.

While linen is the "greener" choice, it may not be the most practical and accessible choice for consumers. It is a very labor intensive and costly fiber to process. Flax only comprises a small amount of the textile market and is considered a luxury fabric because of its rarity. The accessibility of cotton fabrics makes it an easier choice for many. If cost and convenience are significant factors in your decision, organic cotton is the way to go.

Ethical Shopping Tips

With so many companies now focused on sustainability, it can be difficult to know how and where to shop. Here are some quick tips to get you over the inevitable ethical shopping hump:

  1. Shop your closet: Maybe you don't have to go out and buy all new things. Use what you have first.
  2. Shop second hand: When it's time to purchase something "new", start with something second hand. This means raw materials didn't have to be extracted and processed to create the product.
  3. Shop small: A small, local business is not going to have the same impact on the environment that larger corporations have.
  4. Shop intentionally sustainable/ethical: Shop from companies that are prioritizing the environment and ethical working conditions. Websites like Good On You can help you decipher how sustainable a brand is.
  5. Shop quality: The longer your clothing lasts, the less negative impact it will have.
View Article Sources
  1. "U.S. Currency: How Money is Made - Paper and Ink." United States Department of Treasury.

  2. Kvavadze, Eliso, et al. "30,000 Years old wild flax fibers - Testimony for fabricating prehistoric linen." Science, vol. 325, no. 5946, 2009, pp. 1359, doi:10.1126/science.1175404

  3. Akin, Danny. "Linen Most Useful: Perspectives on Structure, Chemistry, and Enzymes for Retting Flax." ISRN Biotechnology, vol. 2013, 2013, pp. 186534, doi:10.5402/2013/186534

  4. "Cotton." OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2019-2028, ch. 10, 2019.

  5. "Get the Facts About Organic Cotton." Organic Trade Association.