Cotton is a huge part of people’s daily lives. 60% of women’s clothing are a cotton blend, and that number goes up to 75% for men. We sleep on cotton sheets, open cotton curtains in the morning, and use coffee filters made from cotton to wake ourselves up. In America, the cotton industry is part of our history and we are still a main cotton exporter country. Cotton is touted as a sustainable, good-for-the-planet textile, but we’ll be taking a closer look at these perceptions today.
The Organic Trade Association, a non-profit trade group, calls cotton “the world’s dirtiest crop” because of how much insecticide is used on the crops. Cotton crops use 16% of the world’s insecticides, even though cotton only makes up 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, according to the nonprofit Environmental Justice Foundation.
Flax plants don’t need any pesticides or insecticides, established flax plants choke out weeds by themselves and only need to be watered during periods of warm, dry or windy weather, although baby plants need to be kept moist and free of weeds.
Cotton is claimed to be a drought tolerant crop but it's actually extremely sensitive to adverse environmental conditions, so the crop has a water intensive, precise watering schedule. A single T-shirt can take up to 2700 liters total to produce! Comparatively, linen only uses 25% of that amount of water.
In terms of fertilizer, conventionally grown cotton uses a third of a pound of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer to grow one pound of raw cotton, which gets used up by one T-shirt. Fertilizer is a big deal, because the runoff seeps into lakes and ponds and eliminates the oxygen in the water- creating dead zones. The nitrogen oxide created in in the use of fertilizer also plays a big role in the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Linen is very conservative with its need for fertilizer, and does not need nitrogen based fertilizer.
There is some hope for cotton; organic cotton farming uses natural alternatives to ward of pests and weeds, and maintain soil fertility without harming the surrounding environment, such as composted manure and cover crops. This part of the industry is still a small one, but if the organic movement increase, the cotton industry can hope to get close to the much smaller ecological footprint that linen products have today.
Even so, cotton does not have the properties that natural flax linen can boast.
Flax linen becomes softer with multiple washing. Linen can absorb moisture without weakening the fibers. Linen takes 75% less natural resources than cotton to process. Bedding, duvet covers, napkins, tablecloths and clothing made from linen can last for generations and become family heirlooms.