How Sustainable Are Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

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With a long history stretching over five millennia, linen is such a deep-rooted fabric that many say linen when they mean fabric in general, despite linen’s merely 1% volume of the global apparel fiber consumption. Linen fabrics are made with natural fibers from flax – a low-input crop with significant environmental benefits. Still, we had to ask: How sustainable are linen fabrics?

Linen is generally a fairly sustainable fabric as it’s made with natural cellulose fibers from flax – a biodiversity-promoting crop. Organic linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics, however, when chemicals are used, linen fabrics’ sustainability is significantly reduced.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of linen fabrics used for clothes and bed covers. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with linen fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Linen Fabrics

Linen fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are durable and biodegradable. Linen’s raw materials come from a highly-sustainable crop, especially in organic farming systems. However, while organic linen is ranked a class A fabric – the most sustainable, standard linen is only ranked a class C fabric.

But linen fabrics have a high energy requirement, specifically during the manufacturing and usage stages. Also, there can be problems with using chemicals. 

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Linen fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers extracted from flax stems (or so-called flax stalks). Once separated, flax fibers can be woven into yarn in a (mostly) mechanical process. 

The mechanical process sets linen (and other natural cellulose fibers, including cotton and hemp) apart from regenerated cellulose fibers, such as rayon, acetate, and cupro, which are made in chemical processes. 

To understand the sustainability of linen fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of linen fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with linen fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of linen fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of linen fabricsSourcing flax fibers for making linen fabrics is generally sustainable as flax is a low-input, multiple-output crop with a relatively short rotation. Also, flax cultivation, especially in organic farming, has significant environmental benefits. 
Manufacturing of linen fabricsBecause it is a mechanical process, manufacturing linen fabrics can be sustainable, even if labor-intensive. But the chemicals, which are sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, could cause adverse impacts on the environment. 
Transporting of linen fabricsThe transportation of linen fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Linen fabrics typically travel from fields (where flax plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of linen fabricsThe usage of linen fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing and ironing. However, linen fabrics are durable, which means a longer lifespan and lower replacement frequency. 
End-of-life of linen fabricsThe end-of-life stage for linen fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that linen fabrics are fairly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a linen bed cover, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of flax fibers, the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage, and the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy linen fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Flax Fibers for Linen Fabrics

Sourcing flax fibers for making linen fabrics is generally sustainable as flax is a low-input, multiple-output crop with a relatively short rotation. Also, flax cultivation, especially in organic farming, has significant environmental benefits. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Linen Fabrics

Natural cellulose fibers extracted from flax stems are the main material used for linen fabrics. 

(Some chemicals might be used in processing flax fibers and manufacturing linen fabrics, but we will discuss such chemical usage in the manufacturing stage.)

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Linen Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials used in linen fabrics come from flax plants – a biodiversity-enhancing crop. Sourcing flax is generally sustainable thanks to the plant’s carbon sequestration potential, low water and input requirements, and ecological benefits. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As flax plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis

    Every year, one acre of flax sequesters and stores almost 1,5 tons of carbon dioxide (or 3.7 tons CO2 per hectare).

    For example, according to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC), all the flax plants grown in Europe retain, each year, an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the CO2 emissions generated by a Renault Clio car driving around the world.
  • Land usage with multiple benefits: 

    Flax can be used as a between crop to break with monocultural farming, increasing ecosystem diversity and soil quality

    A field of these flowering plants provides food and valuable habitats for insects

    When flax is planned as a resting crop, it helps restore soil nutrition because the roots of the flax plants reach deep and aerate the soil. 

    Lastly, cellulose fibers are just one product that can be harvested from a flax crop. Other products are flaxseed and linseed oil, extracted from the plant’s seeds for different purposes. Even flax seeds have been gaining popularity as a healthy food (and a vegan alternative to eggs). 

Because of the low input requirement of the flax plants and the benefits of using land for flax cultivation, the sourcing stage of linen fabrics is highly sustainable. A systematic review of the life cycle inventory of clothing shows that linen is the virgin fiber with the lowest environmental impacts in the sourcing stage. The study also includes cotton (conventional, organic, recycled), hemp, jute, wool, silk, Tencel, modal, viscose, and several synthetic fabrics. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Linen Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Flax plants can grow in various soils and climates, but the optimal conditions for their thriving are well-drained sandy soils in temperate climates. Most of the world’s flax (85%) is grown in Europe.

Here are some European countries where flax is cultivated: 

  • France
  • Belgium
  • The Netherlands
  • Germany
  • Denmark
  • Poland
  • Austria
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • The UK 

Flax fibers cultivated in Europe are likely to follow strict yet fair safety and environmental protection standards. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Linen Fabrics

Because it is a mechanical process, manufacturing linen fabrics can be sustainable, even if labor-intensive. But the chemicals, which are sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, could cause adverse impacts on the environment. 

How Sustainably Is Linen Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical manufacturing process of linen fabrics includes these steps: 

  1. Extract cellulose fibers from flax: After the flax plants are pulled out of the ground and combed, the flax stems/stalks are left. They are then decomposed in a retting process. Three different retting methods are:
    1. Dew retting: Using natural moisture to ferment the stems for a couple of weeks 
    2. Chemical retting: Using a solution either of alkali or oxalic acid to soak and boil the stems
    3. Mechanical retting (also known as vat or water retting): Using vats of warm water to fasten the decomposing process 
  2. Process fibers into yarns using mechanical processes, such as:
    1. Crushing 
    2. Combing 
    3. Straightening
    4. Spinning 
  3. Finish the yarns using further processes to turn the threads into the final fabrics, including
    1. Bleaching
    2. Dyeing 
    3. Washing
    4. Drying
    5. Weaving 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Manufacturing Accounts for More Than Half of Linen Fabrics’ Life-Cycle Carbon Emissions 

According to a cradle-to-grave assessment, manufacturing is the biggest carbon emitter in the life-cycle of a linen t-shirt, accounting for 58% of the total carbon emissions. 

The greenhouse gasses generated in the manufacturing stage are essentially linked to energy consumption, such as heating up water in mechanical retting or crushing and spinning using machinery. When electricity generation depends heavily on fossil fuels, which is often the case in manufacturing factories based in China or other Asia countries, carbon emissions of this stage increase accordingly. 

The Environmental Impacts of Retting Varies Depending on the Methods

Each retting process has its pros and cons, and their environmental impacts are significantly different: 

  • Chemical retting speeds up the process and guarantees the uniformity of fibers. However, harmful chemicals can cause further damage to the waterway if waste is disposed of without proper treatment.
  • Mechanical retting sometimes uses a high volume of water. The water also needs to be heated, which uses energy. 
  • When done mechanically, the retting process is labor-intensive. It leads to linen fabrics being expensive in price and minor in trade quantity. Also, there is the question of ensuring good, fair, and safe labor practices.
  • Dew retting is the most sustainable extracting method. It doesn’t require finding a water source and producing extra energy and chemicals. Also, dew retting allows nutrients to return to the soil through natural decomposition.
Enhance Treatments Might Pose Risks to The Environment 

Some manufacturers use harmful chemicals for treatments such as softeners, wrinkle-resistors, dyes, and bleaching. There are risks of these chemicals leaking into the waterways and the air if waste disposal isn’t handled properly. These chemicals can also hinder linen fabrics’ biodegradability and end-of-life options. 

Thus, you should check, for example, the type of dyes used and their environmental impacts if your linen clothes come in a dyed color rather than ivory, ecru, tan, and gray – its four natural shades. 

Where Are Linen Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Though most of the flax crops are located in Europe, linen fabric factories spread wider, with China being the largest manufacturer. The list of the biggest linen fabric producers includes:

  • China 
  • Ireland 
  • Italy
  • Belgium
  • France
  • The US (predominantly homeware linen) 
Energy Usage at Linen Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Manufacturing is not the highest energy-consuming stage in the life-cycle of linen fabrics. This stage accounts for 21% of the total primary energy consumption (in contrast to the usage stage’s 78% share), according to a cradle-to-grave assessment of a linen t-shirt made in China and consumed in France

However, because of China’s relatively high percentage of fossil-based electricity production, the manufacturing stage, in the case of this linen t-shirt, has the highest carbon footprint. 

This assessment demonstrates the importance of energy structure (fossil-based vs. renewable) at manufacturing locations and its impact on carbon emissions and global warming. 

According to Our World in Data, Italy’s share of renewable energy in primary energy is 18.36% – the highest percentage among all top linen producers. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in the biggest linen-producing countries:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Ireland: 17.58 % renewable energy
  • Italy: 18.36% renewable energy
  • Belgium: 9.34% renewable energy
  • France: 13.67% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy

Renewable energy (including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) potentially reduces carbon emissions at this stage. Linen clothes made in locations with a relatively higher renewable energy share are likely to have a lower manufacturing carbon footprint. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Linen Fabrics

The transportation of linen fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Linen fabrics typically travel from fields (where flax plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of linen clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From fields where linen raw materials are grown to the linen fiber and linen fabric manufacturing location(s)
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling/ disposing
Traveling Distances of Linen Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like linen to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that crop cultivation, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting linen fabrics: 

  • Farmers grow flax in Denmark to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in China. Final pieces of linen clothes are then shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Flax fibers are harvested from fields in France and transported locally to a high-end linen factory nearby. Linen clothes are then sold primarily to the European market.
  • Manufacturers in the US source flax from Poland and transport the raw material to factories in the US to turn into clothes and bed covers before selling them to US consumers. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing linen fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Linen Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of linen clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering linen clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your linen items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Linen Fabrics

The usage of linen fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing and ironing. However, linen fabrics are durable, which means a longer lifespan and lower replacement frequency. 

The usage phase accounts for 78% of the total primary energy consumption, according to a cradle-to-grave assessment of a linen t-shirt. This is due to the needs for washing and ironing the linen items. As linen fabrics wrinkle easily, they require relatively high ironing time during the usage phase, which contributes to a high energy consumption. 

If fossil fuels are the main sources of energy at a user’s home, such high energy consumption will result in an elevated carbon footprint. 

Linen fabrics are a strong and durable material made with natural fibers. Compared to cotton – also a textile material made with natural fibers – linen fabrics are stronger and more sunlight resistant, which could result in a longer lifespan.

Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Linen Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for linen fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Linen fabric is 100% cellulose, making it a biodegradable material. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It takes about only two weeks for pure, untreated linen fabrics to start the decomposing process. The story is different for linen treated with chemical dyes or similarly

  • In comparison, cotton fabrics typically take 11 weeks
  • and rayon fabrics (regenerated cellulose fibers) take from six to eight weeks
  • Plastic-based items could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Linen fabrics can also be recycled and upcycled. It is possible to recycle linen using the same mechanical method as cotton. However, because of the tiny market share of linen fabrics, having dedicated linen recycling facilities deems impractical. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Linen Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

It is possible to recycle linen fabrics mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the materials are pure linen or a blend. 

According to a life-cycle assessment of a linen t-shirt (fibers sourced in France and fabrics manufactured in China), the carbon emission of “wearing the shirt for a day” is 130g CO2 (cradle-to-grave). Wearing such a linen t-shirt 100 times has the same global warming impact as driving a car for more than 50 miles (about 85 km).

Other notable results from this life-cycle assessment are: 

  • In the life-cycle of the linen t-shirt, washing and ironing are the main sources of environmental impacts, followed by manufacturing. 
  • Cultivation has very low environmental impacts (including water consumption, primary energy consumption, and global warming potential) 
  • Compared to a cotton t-shirt, a linen t-shirt requires slightly more energy but only a quarter of water. The two t-shirts have roughly the same carbon footprint. 

How Can You Buy Linen Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying linen products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • USDA ORGANIC: This certificate is applied to growing the crop (raw material), ensuring natural agricultural products are produced that can be certified as “organic.” 
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown). 
  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certificate identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • MASTERS OF LINEN ®: A registered trademark signifying quality linen made 100% in Europe, from field to yarn to fabric. 

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Linen Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all linen clothes are made equally, even though linen fabrics are generally sustainable. 

For sustainably linen, you want to look for: 

  • Certified organic, both during the growing stage and the other stages in the life-cycle 
  • Dew retted 
  • Naturally colors 

If you search for sustainable linen manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:

  • Energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Chemical usages (and disposal treatments) in manufacturing 

Here we compile for you a list of some sustainable brands selling low-impact linen fabrics(in alphabetic order): 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the forth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce to pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Linen fabric is generally a sustainable material made with natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process. 

Organic linen fabrics are one of the most sustainable fabrics available. Even non-organic linen fabrics could have relatively low environmental impacts, especially if the energy sources for manufacturing and usage have a high renewable percentage. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand linen clothes, use linen clothes and household items for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

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