Even though both linen and cotton are precious natural fibers from plants widely used in the fashion and interior design industries, they differ in texture, price, comfort, and sustainability features.
Let’s first try to shed some light on each textile’s known attributes and origins. Then, we will decipher the behind-the-scenes of each, namely, whether cotton and linen can be labeled as eco-fabrics, and if so, under which conditions.
Assessing the environmental impact of fashion fabrics and identifying the most sustainable options is a complex task. However, we intend to look at various parameters such as toxicity and the use of land/water/energy in order to for you to make informed eco-conscious fabric choices.
Rest assured, though, we have enlightening news for both cotton and linen fans!
What Is It?
One of the oldest fabrics known in human history (8000 BC!), linen is highly durable and is made from the fibers of the flax plant. In addition, flax plants typically grow in cooler climates, hence making countries in Europe the ideal location to produce the finest linen (about 80% of the total linen global production).
Belgium and France, precisely, thanks to their rich soils, are the perfect places to grow robust and resistant flax.
As you might know, linen was an integral part of the mummification ritual in Egypt, where it also served as a currency. Today, even the US dollar bill contains linen (blended with cotton!).
Linen fibers are extracted by cutting or pulling the plants from the ground. Even though mechanical harvesting has increased productivity ratios, the highest quality linens are derived from flax plants pulled out manually of the earth as this better preserves the roots (1).
This partially explained the higher cost behind linen textile and the reason why linen bedding is still a pure luxury today (more on this in the section below).
Texture & Attributes
This non-exhaustive list should help you understand the various benefits intrinsic to linen:
- because it is highly breathable, linen fabric is ideal for warmer climates (both for clothing and bedsheets)
- naturally moth resistant
- it can wick moisture without holding bacteria
- it is known for being naturally hypoallergenic
- it comes in beautiful natural colors such as ecru, ivory, ecru, or grey
- and it’s an extremely durable, long-lasting material that you can reuse for decades without quality loss, hence partially explaining the label ‘luxury fabric’ given to linen
Is It Earth-Friendly?
Linen is fully biodegradable if untreated and obviously if not mixed with any other materials. Its additional benefit is its exceptional durability, making it one of the strongest natural fabrics in the world – up to 30% stronger than cotton, to be precise (2).
Concretely, this means that if cared for correctly, your linen bedsheets can last decades and even get softer at each wash.
What also makes linen an eco fabric is the plant versatility and resilience: every part of the plant is used to create valuable products. Think linseed oil as a preservative for wood or flaxseed oil that humans can consume and have many health benefits: both are well-known byproducts of flax.
As for the plants’ resilience, flax can grow in poor soil and requires little water consumption to thrive – more often than not, flax cultivation only requires a limited irrigation system and can often function by natural rainfall alone. It is estimated that about 6.4 liters (a bit more than 1.5 US GAL) will have to be used across a linen shirt’s life cycle.
Moreover, flax cultivation is positive on the eco system diversity, hence turning this ‘militant plant‘ a champion that preserves the land and protects water and soil resources, as explained by the CELC. Concretely, a flax plant is a true « carbon well », each year one hectare of flax retains 3,7 tons of CO2.’ (3)
The only attention point related to linen is the process of heavy bleaching and the use of harmful dyes. As further explained below, it is therefore recommended to buy organic linen (or any other plant-based textile) to ensure a more environmentally friendly product throughout its life cycle (including once discarded).
As for the dye issue, it is best to buy linen in its natural dyes. If the color must be changed, go for natural dyes and bleaches without chlorine such as hydrogen peroxide.
Similarly, even though linen traditionally requires fewer fertilizers or pesticides by nature and grows in countries with relatively transparent production processes, it cannot be guaranteed that non-organic flax is farmed sustainably.
A solution to this is to opt for organic linen – a fabric scored at the top(4) in most experts’ reports on the sustainable textile industry today.
What Is It?
Cotton is a soft, stable fiber derived from the cotton plant, which typically grows in warmer climates. Fluffier than linen ones, cotton fabric has a higher thread count, which gives it a silky, cozy feeling.
After polyester, cotton is the second most common fiber being used globally today, making it a crucial source of income for many farmers worldwide. Did you know that the cotton industry supports the livelihoods of about 350 million people and is grown in over 80 countries (5)?
Additionally, this means farmers’ income is highly dependent on the volatility of global markets and crop failures, thus directly improving or worsening rural poverty in these regions.
Almost made of pure cellulose, cotton fabric was used in both the old and new worlds by several civilizations; it is believed that its oldest use goes back to 5000 BC in Pakistan and that ancient Aztecs used it as a payment method (6).
Texture & Attributes
Here are a few interesting facts about the cotton fabric and cotton in general:
- it is estimated that it represents between a third to a quarter of the global textile market (7)
- it is well known for being extremely convenient: easy to care for and warm temperature washable if needed.
- it can absorb up to 27 times its own weight, making cotton fibers the most absorbent fiber in the world
- it is soft and comfortable as of first use and is known as wrinkle-free fabric
- there are about 43 different varieties of cotton thriving globally today
- it is known for being water, energy, and land-intensive compared to other fabrics – thus ranking conventional cotton last in most reports assessing the environmental impact of natural and synthetic materials in fashion today.
Is It Earth-Friendly?
Even though cotton textiles are widely used and labeled as ‘natural’ so good-for-the-planet, there is a darker side of the story. In addition to the economic impacts on farmers described above, cotton often comes at a high cost for the environment and the workers involved in the harvesting and manufacturing phases.
Concretely speaking, across its lifecycle, a (conventional) cotton t-shirt will require the use of about 2,700 liters of water (713 US Gallons), as explained by WWF here.
In addition to the over-consumption of water, cotton plants are often excessively (or inappropriately) farmed with harmful pesticides or fertilizers – toxic for the soil, the surrounding living creatures, and the workers.
And, the consequence of pesticide poisoning does not stop there: ultimately, it will enter waterways and hence contaminate people’s food.
As pointed out by Pan UK, a charity focusing on tackling the issues related to pesticides, cotton crops cover “just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides (and 16% of insecticides), more than any other single major crop.
Thousands of cotton farmers and their families suffer from pesticide poisoning every year, and many commit suicide as a result of debt-related, at least in part, to high chemical costs.
Smallholder cotton farmers spend up to 60% of their annual income on pesticides.”
All in all, yes, cotton is a durable, renewable natural fiber, but under certain conditions: it has to be farmed and processed sustainably and in a way that there are no human rights abuses.
Unfortunately, fast fashion models have exacerbated these questionable practices, and it is now time to reverse the trend.
How? As you might have guessed by now, prefer recycled cotton and organic cotton. Ideally, buy from brands that are GOTS certified, whether for cotton, linen, or hemp.
It is the leading organic textile standard, which ensures “credible assurance of organic origin of the product, as well as environmentally and socially responsible processing.”
Linen vs. Cotton: Who Wins?
Even though both linen and cotton natural fabrics are ideal for luxurious, extremely comfortable bed sheets, the choice can be more complex depending on various factors.
In the linen vs. cotton debate, we opt for linen fabric for our bedsheets, kitchen, and table cloths. On the other hand, we opt for organic or recycled cotton towels and clothes.
In a nutshell, whether you choose linen or cotton bedding mainly boils down to comfort and price preferences.
However, whether you look at this debate from an environmentally friendly perspective, experts agree that linen fibers offer exceptional durability and sustainability levels – thus lengthening most of its items’ lifespan.
Here are more details on the rationale behind our personal preference.
For Its Comfort & Texture
In this category, the linen vs. cotton battle is rather tight as both natural fibers bear advantages. Let’s start with flax fibers that we choose for home linens for three reasons:
- Linen is a durable, more robust textile that will last longer than cotton. And it will not shrink!
- With time, linen will soften and age well, while cotton might disintegrate and lose its quality due to repeated washing.
- Linen textiles are perfect for a good night’s sleep for everyone in the house: because of their wicking and temperature regulating qualities, they will keep you warm when it is cold and vice versa.
As for clothes and towels, we opt for cotton fibers mainly for their convenience:
- Cotton can easily withstand regular (and warm) washing machine cycles. If you tend to exercise often or live in hotter climates, it is difficult to wash the bad smells away at cold temperatures with mild detergent (as it is required for linen).
- Similarly, cotton wrinkles less easily than linen and thus save us the trouble of ironing (or the risk of damaging our favorite linen clothes!).
- Its lightweight, soft and comfortable feel make it a better candidate for t-shirt and underwear than linen – which comes with a coarse sense at first. Cotton, and organic cotton, in particular, is ideal for sensitive skin.
- Color-wise, there are more options with cotton, which we find more convenient – guilty here, we love bright and shiny colors! As explained above, we prefer cotton that was not dyed or bleached with questionable chemicals.
For Its Price
In this category, cotton wins since it is most often more affordable than linen. This is mainly due to the location and production process of the linen fabric.
As it can only grow in optimal weather conditions, flax is typically harvested in colder countries like Belgium or France, where labor costs are higher.
Moreover, both harvesting the plants and the weaving process afterward are more time-intensive. For example, the weaving process: machinery needs to run on a slower mode for linen than for cotton due to the fibers’ fragility.
Be mindful, though, that cheap cotton fibers often mean that the price had to be paid by someone else: the workers or the environment and sometimes both. As a matter of fact, cotton is known to be one of the least expensive fabrics globally (besides synthetic ones).
Thus, opt for sustainably sourced ‘upland cotton’ (a type of cotton that represents about 90% of the global production), and if your budget allows it, go for top-notch higher-quality kinds of cotton, namely Egyptian cotton and Pima cotton (known as extra-long-staple cotton).
In this category, cotton wins but under certain conditions.
For Its Sustainability
Flax is a highly renewable resource and an undoubtedly durable fabric: it grows fast and requires, by default, few if no chemical pesticides to grow optimally. In addition, it is known for often being close to the organic standard without applying its strict processes.
Moreover, as detailed in the earthly friendly section above, flax is resilient by nature; it can thrive even in poor soil and does not require significant water resources.
For example, if you look at the entire life cycle of a t-shirt, one made of 100% flax fibers will require 400 times less water than its cotton counterpart.
Considering that one of the world’s biggest challenges today is to increase food production to meet the rising population’s needs while preserving biodiversity and natural resources, flax is confirmed to be part of the solution.
Another example is that flax is a great break crop: ‘renewed in rotation every 6 to 7 years, flax naturally produces optimal soil quality, thereby increasing returns on the following crops (8)’.
Overall, conventional cotton uses a significant amount of water, pesticides, and arable land. Organic isn’t perfect either: it requires more land than GMO cotton, for example (9).
However, if ethically and sustainably sourced, organic cotton should be at the top of the list of your favorite eco-fabrics.
Moreover, bear in mind that the manufacturing process – when the cotton fiber is turned into your favorite clothes – can also require significant amounts of dying and bleaching, both chemically intensive. Therefore, the organic standard needs to be guaranteed across the entire chain of production.
Hence the advantage of certifications like GOTS as explained above.
With its growing popularity and lucrative deals, Cotton also comes with its greenwashing pitfalls: opting for natural organic fibers is a must for the environment, its living creatures, and the workers.
Do not get blinded by the fact that cotton is often hand-picked and, guess by who? Children who are breaking their backs, health and miss out on the education they should be entitled to receive.
If in doubt, look for independent standards and certifiers ensuring that the brand in question did not put their workers’ health at risk and paid them fair wages: OEKO-TEX or Fair Trade USA are great examples.
And Our Hero Is?
All in all, bearing in mind the above facts and considering environmental experts’ analysis, organic linen wins over organic cotton, even though both are at the top of the fabric choices to make in sustainable fashion (versus virgin synthetic ones, for example).
Similarly, conventional linen fabric is somewhere ranked in the middle, while conventional cotton, as you might guess, is at the back end of the list.
Lastly, if you are looking at other uses for your home and unsure of which of the two fabrics to choose (such as for drapes or upholstery), take a look at this detailed article from Wordlinen.
In general, one can argue that it is best to choose organic, plant-based fabrics as often as possible that were grown and transformed in fair trade conditions.
Even though this comes at a higher budget for the customer, this will naturally galvanize long-lasting changes in your habits: buy what you need and buy better – durable – quality.
Looking at linen and cotton fabrics, in particular, choose the option that you truly love the most. Thus, the chances of your bed sheets or clothes ending up in the trash after a few uses are significantly reduced.
If this might happen, make sure to dispose of these items responsibly: think brands’ recycling programs, donation, or second-hand sales.
Whatever the reason behind your choice of linen vs cotton – budget, color, texture – be your best friend and only buy doubt-free, fantastic items that you will enjoy re-wearing and reusing for a long while.
Lastly, constantly look for other daily actions to help save water and energy, whether with food or clothes: even if these actions might seem small at first, they contribute to a broader effort to respect and protect the planet we live on.
For example, avoid machine drying and ironing – instead, let your clothes dry on an airer and thus reduce your carbon footprint by a third!
If you are intrigued by slow fashion and vegan fashion in general, we regularly publish detailed reviews on brands and artists worldwide that put the environment’s protection and decent working conditions first on their list of business values.
Finally, if you are interested in other cotton comparisons, then take a look at our modal vs cotton article as well.