There’s a few different fabrics that can be used for clothing and textiles that are claimed to be sustainable or eco friendly.
In this short guide, we look at how sustainable and eco friendly Linen really is according to different measures.
Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Linen/Flax For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?
The flax plant produces the flax fibres used to make linen. This is a natural plant that generally has a more eco friendly growing and harvesting stage than say for example cotton, or compared to the making a synthetic fibre like polyester.
According to some reports, it uses less water and uses less energy than the production of cotton.
It is also good at storing carbon, is good for soil health, and needs little pesticides or fertilizer
Hemp might be a better yielding plant than flax per area of land, and the flax plant is generally used effectively in that no part of the flax part is wasted.
The processing stage of linen might be eco friendly if the linen is hand, water or mechanically retted, and the linen isn’t bleached or dyed.
Having said that, linen that is chemically retted, and heavily bleached and dyed, with no closed loop process in place to capture water and re-use bleaches, dyes and chemicals, may not be not very eco friendly and sustainable at the processing stage.
Pure white linen also uses heavy bleaching.
Bleached and chemically treated linen might be comparable to something like Bamboo which is also a natural fibre that can include synthetic chemicals in the processing stage.
The finest and best linen is quite expensive because it takes time and care to make.
Because linen fiber can be easy to break, machines have to run slower in spinning and weaving, which can increase costs and lower efficiency of production
Linen also doesn’t have as wide of a use as a fibre like cotton because it crinkles and scrunches easily – this limits it’s versatility and practicality of use.
Linen is more of a niche fibre than a fibre that can be produced at scale and in high production levels, like cotton for example.
There is also the option for organic linen that uses naturally derived chemicals and not synthetic ones.
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.
But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that Linen/flax fibre growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.
* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well the flax fibre grows, and different factories and processing plants for Linen have different procedures.
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).
So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
What Are Flax & Linen?
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant.
How Much Water Does Linen/Flax Use For Growing & Manufacturing?
- The production of linen fabric uses five to twenty times less water … than the production of cotton or other synthetic fabrics.
- The flax plant is quite hardy and grows without the use of … irrigation
Carbon Footprint & Energy Use Of Linen/Flax
- The production of linen fabric uses five to twenty times less … energy than the production of cotton or other synthetic fabrics.
- One hectare of flax can retain 3.7 tonnes of CO2 .
How Much Pesticide & Fertilizer Does Flax Fibre Use To Grow?
- The flax plant is quite hardy and grows without the use of pesticides …
- Farming flax requires few fertilizers or pesticides.
Flax/Linen, & Soil Health & Land Degradation
- Flax is easy to incorporate into modern crop rotation cycles which prevents soil depletion.
- According to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, flax respects the environment and preserves the land.
- … each year one hectare of flax retains 3.7 tons of CO2. And this is not the least of its it’s advantages.
- Flax has proven itself as an excellent break crop: renewed in rotation every 6 to 7 years, flax naturally produces optimal soil quality, thereby increasing returns on the following crops
The Yield Of Flax/Linen, & Fabric Efficiency
- … the seed takes 100 days to grow and reach 1 meter when it flowers.
- But harvesting and retting can take place some months after flowering
- [for flax plants] The yield on this particular 8-acre field was rather good: a harvest of 203 bales in total, weighing approximately 300 kg each.
- Here, the farmers harvested a total amount of 60,9 tons, or 7,6 tons per hectare. A yield of 7,5 tons per hectare (= 2,47 acres) is considered a good yield.
- Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.
- [During the weaving process of flax/linen fibres] … Linen fiber is inelastic and easy to break in the production process, so great care must be taken when spinning and weaving.
- As a result, these machines have to run at lower speeds, giving lesser yields and increasing costs [compared to cotton]
How Effectively Is A Flax Plant Used?
- Whilst only the very best fibres are used by the Linen industry, no part of the flax plant is wasted; the left over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are used in everything from lino and soap to cattlefeed and paper.
- Few products are so efficiently used as flax.
How Many Chemicals Does Linen Use In The Processing Stage?
Flax fibres need to be separated from the plant – this can be done with water, or chemically.
If done chemically, there are usually toxic chemicals used.
- The fibres first have to be naturally degraded from the plant. This is achieved through “retting“.
- Retting is the process of bacteria to decomposing the pectin that binds the fibres together.
- Natural retting usually takes place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields.
- There are also chemical retting methods; these are faster, but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibres themselves.
- Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching.
Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Flax & Linen Growing & Processing
It depends on the quality and type of linen made. For example, very high quality non bleached or dried linen that is hand or machine processed (instead of with chemicals) is going to be better for the environment than cheaper and quicker made bleached and dyed linen.
Generally, flax growing is not very polluting compared to say regular cotton growing which uses a lot of pesticide and fertilizer that can get into the soil, air and water.
Linen that uses chemicals retting, bleaches and dyes and doesn’t capture the water, and re-use the bleaches and dyes (and allows them into the water and dumps the water), could be quite polluting.
Impact Of Flax/Linen On Humans & Human Health
During the growing of flax, there probably isn’t as much risk to human health because of a lesser use of pesticides compared to regular cotton.
But, flax that is chemically retted may present risk to those who work in flax processing factories.
A linen product that is heavily bleached or dyed may also present a risk to someone that is allergic to those chemicals.
Impact Of Flax/Linen On Animals & Wildlife
If chemicals are released into the environment via water waste at the production stage of linen, this has potential to impact aquatic and other wildlife.
Biodegradability Of Linen
- made from flax plant fibres … when untreated (i.e. not dyed), it [linen] is fully biodegradable
Option For Organic Flax/Linen
Flax can be grown organically as well.
- Flax is also grown on organic converted farms.
- Its culture is certified without synthetic products (fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and regulators are prohibited), which ensures a complete absence of residues of these products in the fiber and the soil after harvesting.
- Today, nearly 200 acres of organic flax are grown in France and international specifications ensures the traceability of fibers from organic flax cultivation to final consumer (GOTS label).