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Environmental footprint of different textiles and comparison of cotton and linen (flax) fabric

Environmental footprint of different textiles and comparison of cotton and linen (flax) fabric

how sustainable is…

This page provides a summary of an investigation into the sustainability of different fabrics and suggests steps that you could take to reduce your environmental footprint when choosing fabrics. We have tried to keep it as simple as possible while extracting what we think are the key points.

The report reviews several studies on the environmental impact of different garments over their life cycle, from fibre production to manufacture, use and disposal. The report suggests that the two largest impacts from a garment on the environment are its production and its use. In other words, distribution (transport and storage) and disposal have a comparatively low impact on the environment.

Environmental impact of different textiles

The report quotes a study which indicates the energy and water consumption associated with the production of different textiles:

energy and water consumptiontextileThe table shows that synthetic textiles require far more energy than textiles made from natural fibre but require far less water. Another table from the same study indicates not only the relative energy and water consumption of different textiles but also how they compare in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, waste water and land use:envionm impact of textilesIt is difficult to draw a simple conclusion from this information, as to which fabric has the lowest environmental impact overall, as textiles made from natural fibres often require more water (e.g. for irrigation) and more land than synthetic textiles. However, it would appear that natural bast fibres such as flax, hemp and nettle have an edge overall.

The report does not appear to consider resource depletion (e.g. the crude oil required for synthetic fibres) and other environmental impact categories.

Cotton versus linen (flax) shirt

The report quotes a study which compares otherwise identical shirts made from cotton and from linen (flax). It suggests that “as with other studies, the consumer use phase provides the largest consumption of water and primary energy; both approximately 80% of the total”, depending on the assumptions made (e.g. ironing of the garment). Assuming linen requires more ironing than cotton, its use requires more energy. However, the production of linen requires less water and fares better in terms of water toxicity. As a result, as per the textile comparison above, overall, the environmental impact of the linen (flax) shirt is considered to be lower than that of the cotton shirt.

Link to full report

While we make every effort to be accurate, we do not claim that this summary is representative. Please refer to our Legal Disclaimer for details.

what can I do to reduce my environmental footprint?

If you want to reduce your impact on the environment from the clothes you wear, we suggest you consider the following:

  • Buy clothes made from natural bast fibres such as hemp or flax where this is an option. Otherwise woollen garments are likely to be a good choice from an environmental perspective.
  • Perhaps more importantly, buy clothes that last and that you are prepared to wear for a while (regardless of fashion trends). A possible alternative that will also save you money is to buy second hand clothes.
  • Most importantly, don’t wash your clothes more than you need to. And when you do, make sure your washing machine is full and, whether you wash with a machine or by hand, wash at the lowest possible temperature. More on limiting your impact on the environment from washing clothes here

Report Rating: 3 out of 3

Report Published: Oct 2010

Country: UK

Author(s): Dr Adrian Chapman, Oakdene Hollins Research & Consulting

Publisher: Oakdene Hollins Research & Consulting

Funder: Mistra, The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research

Keywords: life cycle analysis, LCA, cradle to grave analysis, environmental footprint, sustainability, fabric, clothes, textiles, garments, hemp, cotton, polyester, silk, wool, nylon, linen, flax, viscose, acrylic

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