Linen is a great natural fabric used in a large variety of applications, particularly in the fashion world. It's versatile, low-weight, breathable, comfortable, and environmentally friendly.
Cotton is still the most widely used natural fiber worldwide. It's strong, soft, and much cheaper than linen. However, regular cotton has a disastrous impact on the environment. Linen made from flax plant fibers is much more sustainable, especially if flax is grown organically.
Cotton is universally used to make cheap clothes. The rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years made large apparel brands and retailers turn to cheap and disposable fabrics such as cotton.
Linen is one of the most expensive natural fabrics in the world. Its production is costly. Linen is considered a luxury fabric and a primary choice for high-end garments.
Let's compare linen to cotton and its impact on the environment.
What's wrong with cotton
Conventional cotton is mass-produced around the world. It represents 2.5% of the total agricultural area and uses 16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda.
Cotton production is chemical-intensive. Up to 3 kilograms of chemicals are required to produce 1 kilogram of raw cotton fibers.
And most chemicals used for farming, washing, bleaching, and dyeing cotton are toxic. Hazardous chemicals put the environment and the health of workers at risk.
They may lead to cancer, hormonal dysfunction, insomnia, nausea, immunity harm, anorexia, and behavioral problems.
3 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in an excess of 250,000 deaths, as estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO).
30.3 million tons of cotton are produced each year globally, according to the data of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The largest producer of cotton worldwide is China with 6.1 million tons of cotton produced in 2018, followed by India (4.69 million tons), and the United States (4 million tons).
And cotton requires high amounts of water to grow. Global cotton production accounts for 3% of total agricultural water, as reported by the United Nations.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton, the equivalent of one T-shirt, and one pair of jeans.
The cotton water footprint is a big issue, especially in countries affected by water scarcity. About 4 billion people, early two-thirds of the world population, experience severe water scarcity during at least one month every year.
Read up my article on fashion abusive water consumption to learn more about cotton water requirements.
Organic cotton is a better alternative to conventional cotton. It's more ethical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. But it's also much more expensive.
Organic cotton is non-GMO and grown without man-made pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. It supports soil fertility and biodiversity.
Farmers can potentially save 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kg of carbon dioxide by growing organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, as reported by the global non-profit organization Textile Exchange.
Check out my article on the case for organic cotton to learn more about better alternatives to regular cotton.
Organic cotton is soft, comfortable, breathable, strong, durable, absorbent, bio-degradable, and recyclable. It's an amazing fabric for sustainable fashion.
Linen vs Cotton
Linen is a very luxurious fabric. It symbolizes extravagance, richness, and preciousness. It's so rare and expensive, accounting for less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide.
Linen is also a natural and sustainable fabric but frequently mistaken with fake linen. Fake linen is often mislabeled and sold as linen. But it's made from cheap synthetic fiber blends.
Poor elasticity is the main drawback of real linen. It can wrinkle easily that's why it's often blended with other materials. Natural creases are evidence of real linen.
Read up my article on how do you know if a fabric is Linen to learn how to differentiate faux linen from natural linen.
Natural linen is bio-based, bio-degradable, and recyclable. It's made from plant fibers extracted from a renewable resource: flax plants.
The largest producer of flax fiber and tow worldwide is France with about 660,000 tons produced in 2018, followed by Belgium, Belarus, and Russia, according to the FAO.
Linen has many advantages for fashion. Clothing pieces made from linen fabric are well-known to be luxurious and exceptionally cool in hot weather. They make a great addition to any wardrobe, for men and women alike.
Linen is used in a wide range of other products as well such as household articles, including pillows, curtains, tablecloths, bath towels, bedsheets, rugs, and wall coverings.
Linen is a highly comfortable and breathable fabric that fares well against cotton. Linen is very absorbent, anti-bacterial, and moisture-wicking. It's also hypoallergenic and protects from bacteria, fungus, and infections.
Linen has been used for clothing for a very long time (over 6,000 years). It's much stronger than cotton, about two to three times more. Linen fabric is highly resistant, strong, durable, and rigid.
Linen is also lightweight, easy to wear and care for. Clothes made from linen don't need much ironing. Most linen fabrics weight about 200 grams per square meter.
Linen is more environmentally friendly than cotton. Flax requires less water to grow. Only 6.4 liters of water are needed to make a linen shirt, according to the European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC).
More than 85% of all flax fibers come from Europe. Flax cultivation in Europe has positive effects on eco-system diversity. It preserves soil quality and biodiversity, as reported by the European Parliament.
Flax is largely grown without irrigation or additional water. Rainfall is enough to grow flax in environmentally friendly ways.
It's best to buy organic linen made from organic farming, without man-made chemicals in dyes, fertilizers, or pesticides. Today, nearly 200 acres of organic flax grow in France.
The following independent international third-party organizations give organic certifications:
Read up my article on the best certification standards for textiles to learn more about them.
Sustainability is one of the biggest concerns in the fashion world today.
The textile and apparel industry is one of the largest polluters globally. It produces enormous amounts of wastes, chemicals, plastics, and greenhouse gases every year.
One of the best ways to encourage more sustainability in the fashion industry is to buy fewer clothes and higher quality. Linen clothing is an ideal alternative to cheaply made and mass-produced apparel.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.