Flax is one of the more naturally eco-friendly plants that are used for fabric fibres. Its hardiness allows it to grow in soils of almost any condition which prevents waste and reduces land usage. It also consumes a lot less water than cotton during growth and doesn’t require a lot of pesticides.
Cotton is one of the worst plants for the environment with excessive water and pesticide usage. Organic cotton is therefore held to strict standards to ensure dirty practices are avoided. Because flax growth isn’t nearly as wasteful or damaging as cotton, it is often viewed as unnecessary to grow and harvest it organically.
Unfortunately, this means that many linen products and garments aren’t held to specific standards and it is difficult to know how the flax was grown. Although linen is better than non-organic cotton, it is still often grown with some harmful pesticides like nitrates which negatively impact local ecosystems.
During the processing of flax to form fibres that can be woven into linen, there are several practices that bring the sustainability of linen into question. During retting, the separation of the useful inner fibres from the outer layer of the flax plant, alkali or oxalic acid are often used to speed up the process of separation.
This makes retting faster and easier, but the toxic chemicals are not reused and end up in local ecosystems, damaging wildlife and waterways. Water retting also successfully separates the flax fibres but takes much longer, making the process much more expensive so is much less commonly applied.
It is very rare for linen products to be labelled with environmental information including which retting processes were used or whether it was grown organically. This makes it difficult for consumers to actively choose linen products made through sustainable processes.
One solution to the problem would be to opt instead for products made of fabrics that are consistently formed through trusted processes or are certified such as Tencel™, which is always made in the same, sustained way.
As linen is a natural fibre, it is completely biodegradable. Once linen bedding or garments have reached the end of their useful life, the flax fibres break down naturally without contributing to microfibre pollution.
However, linen is only biodegradable when it is left untreated. The addition of colour dyes or anti-wrinkling chemicals blocks its ability to degrade. Natural colours of linen are ivory, tan and grey. While untreated linens can be found, dyes are frequently used to expand the linen colour palette.