People love wearing linen because of its comfortable, earthy and natural feel.
This material has been helping to set trends across centuries. You even get linen sheets that have been handed down as heirlooms in many European cultures!
With no doubt about its popularity, we turn to its sustainability. How is linen produced, does this harm the environment and is linen sustainable overall?
Where does linen come from?
Linen is a fabric produced from the fibre of the flax plant.
Flax plants are grown in many different parts of the world. Much of the bulk flax production is done in Eastern Europe and China, but better quality flax plants are grown in Ireland, Italy, Belgium and the US, as well as other parts of Western Europe and India.
The fibre is obtained by a series of processing techniques done to the plant including retting (a fermentation process), drying, crushing and beating.
Commonly used to make clothes and home items like towels, tablecloths and bed sheets, linen is a durable and stylish fabric that has many uses around the home.
It’s especially popular in the summer as linen is a breathable fabric and can withstand high temperatures. It releases moisture easily and feels very cool (in various senses of the word) to wear.
What are the eco-friendly benefits of linen?
Linen is a natural fibre
Unlike synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which are produced from fossil fuels, linen comes from the flax plant. This is a fully renewable natural resource that is also hypoallergenic, just like products from the cork oak tree are.
As it is not made from a type of plastic, this also means that linen doesn’t release microplastics into the waterways when washed.
Linen is 100% biodegradable
When it is not treated or dyed, linen is fully biodegradable.
Pure natural linen can naturally decompose in around 2 weeks!
Linen production does not require much water, pesticides or fertilisers
Flax plants use significantly less water, pesticides and fertilisers than other natural fibre plants, such as cotton.
In fact, it’s a non-fussy and resilient plant that can even grow on poor soils! Linen can very much be grown in certified organic conditions, which is the best for the environment.
Flax plants absorb carbon dioxide
Like all plants, the flax plant absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it within its biomass.
It has been estimated that one hectare of flax plants can take out 3.7 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in a year!
Flax plants can be completely utilised
The flax plant is by itself very versatile. Every part of the plant can be used to create a product that leaves nothing behind.
One common product that is also derived from the flax plant is linseed oil. The oil is a fantastic eco-friendly wood protector.
What are the disadvantages of linen?
Firstly, organic linen is much more environmentally friendly than non-organic linen.
Most non-organic linen is grown using pesticides, especially in the form of nitrates. Pesticides can leach out into nearby water streams and harm aquatic life, as well as good drinking water.
Non-organic linen garment industries use synthetic, often toxic, dyes to colour the fabric. Alongside this, linen goes through an intensive bleaching process to achieve a pure white look. Therefore, sticking to more natural tones of linen are better than choosing whites or dyed linen clothes.
Although the flax plant is mainly grown in Western Europe (85% of total linen produced comes from here), it was found that Europe exported 77% of the flax crop in 2019 to be processed in China. This means that by the time the linen garment is in your hands, it has travelled twice across the world producing twice as many shipping emissions!
Another disadvantage is that the flax plant can be quite laborious to process, which makes it more expensive.
The low elasticity of the fibres gives it a hard yet smooth texture, which makes linen crease fast. This means that it has high ironing requirement. Because of this, it’s thought that 80% of linen’s energy consumption is used during its lifetime as a product!
Is linen more sustainable than cotton?
Conventionally grown cotton is one of the dirtiest crops that is cultivated – cotton requires high amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides. In its lifetime, a cotton shirt uses 2,700 litres of water. Compare this to a linen shirt, which uses just 6.4 litres!
Because of the high water requirements, local populations that grow cotton also suffer as the plant can cause water shortages and drought in the regions where it is grown.
Linen that has been well cared for can last a lot longer than cotton. Linen dries faster than cotton and is a much stronger fibre. If you do use cotton products, you might be interested to read if cotton pads are bad for the environment.
Moreover, linen gets softer every time it is washed. This means that linen just keeps getting better and better with age, like fine wine.
Is linen a sustainable fabric?
Although conventionally grown linen is not the most sustainable fabric, there are options to buy sustainable linen.
Look for sustainable linen, with certifications like Masters of linen, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified linen or USDA organic.
Masters of linen certifies that the linen fabric has been grown and processed within Europe.
If you buy GOTS certified linen, you can ensure that harmful pesticides are not used and ensure that a certain threshold of organic content has been met.
USDA organic certifies that the growing of the plant has been done organically. Also keep in mind to buy from businesses which treats their workers fairly and sell ethically made linen.
Linen can be one of the most sustainable natural fabrics, provided you buy and consume it responsibly.
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Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.