A Deep Dive on Cotton & Linen
While many folks begin their low waste journey by addressing their plastic consumption and overall waste output at home, we think one of the most impactful ways to address your environmental footprint is to take stock of your closet. Learning about environmentally ethical clothing production may seem overwhelming at first, but a great place to start is to simply break down different fabrics to understand how they are made and what their overall impact is. Let’s begin with cotton and linen, two building blocks of fashion that may seem similar but have big differences when it comes down to it.
The cotton industry provides more than 250 million jobs worldwide, a great number of them being in India and Pakistan, but it also has a significant environmental impact as the result of water diversion, water pollution, and the use of agrochemicals. Some experts say that cotton production and processing uses more water than any other agricultural product on the market. Organic cotton, however, has a friendlier impact on the environment as it has far less pesticide run-off and produces around 46% less CO2e than conventional cotton.
The human impact is friendlier too. While growing cotton without pesticides and other agrochemicals does tend to be more labor intensive and produce lower yields, it’s also significantly healthier for farm workers and consumers. Organic cotton farming operates under far more stringent regulations than that of conventional farming, so farmers tend to be better paid and experience fairer working conditions. However, one significant drawback to organic cotton is that it still requires a lot of water, sometimes even more than conventional cotton.
While the cost of organic cotton can be significantly higher as it trickles down the fashion production line to a finished product, it is certainly worth every penny for its effect on not only the planet, but also the folks who farm it and the health of those who buy it. Don’t fret if your budget can only accommodate cotton for now. A great way to put your mind at ease is to go a bit longer between washes, hand wash, or spot-clean your cotton garments. Although our personal impact might be lightyears smaller than that of an entire industry, it feels good to do our part too.
Like cotton, linen originates in the form of a plant; Flax to be precise. Through a series of processes, fibers are broken down, separated, spun, and then knit or woven together to create linen fabric. At face value, linen is actually stronger than cotton, however it is also more easily degradable -- fully biodegradable when untreated -- and has a bit less give (elasticity) to it which causes friction-tears and ruptures in places that tend to crease or rub frequently when worn.
Right out of the gate we know that linen has a much higher price-point than cotton and this is due to a few important factors. Linen is one of the most laborious fabrics to produce and, although machines are certainly used in current production, they tend to overprocess the materials making them less stable, so many of the most sturdy (therefore considered luxurious) linen is still processed by hand. Linen also creates some beautiful byproducts, like linseed oil which is terriffic for polishing and finishing furniture, as well as flax seeds which are a great source of Omega-3s!
Linen also requires an almost jaw-droppingly small amount of water for production compared to cotton and has extremely low amounts of pesticide usage attributed to it even among conventional growers. When it comes to organic linen production, the small amount of water and the lack of pesticide usage makes it one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics available for fashion production.
If it came down to a battle of sustainability between these two fabrics, linen would take the gold medal. But we also want to encourage you to remember that all new production has an environmental impact, especially in an industry as gigantic as fashion. One of the biggest impacts you can have when it comes to your closet is wearing what you already own and caring for those items with diligence and love. When it’s time to purchase something new, you can feel informed of how to make choices that fit within your budget and your philosophies on loving the planet. As always, we are big fans of shopping small and secondhand, and we also think that clothing swaps with friends and neighbors are a great way to continue the lifecycle of clothes that are already produced and needing more wear.
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