Win-Win Textiles highly recommends the use of linen, specifically the use of organic linen, as few inputs are required in its production. However, organic linen remains a niche product with only around 0.5% of the flax grown in Europe being certified organic. Therefore, production and availability are limited. The integrity of organic flax is maintained through mandatory farm level certification, primarily the EC (834/2007) and USDA NOP, and voluntary process level certification such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Organic Content Standard (OCS).
The Sustainable Development Goals
When using linen or organic linen, brands will contribute to the SDGs:
Flax is the fibre used to make linen and comes from the flax plant. Flax is a low maintenance, rotative and renewable crop, which grows quickly, harvested approximately 100 days after planting. Linen is produced using the long fibres found on the outer stalk of the flax plant.
- In Europe, the fibres are separated using natural or dew retting techniques. This involves leaving the plants in the field for two weeks after harvesting until the fibres have naturally separated.
- Alternatively, to speed up the process, ‘chemical water retting’ can be used, whereby the flax is submerged in a tank with acidic chemicals to separate the fibres.
- Following this separation, a mechanical process called scutching is applied, which removes the fibre from the seeds and straw.
- Combing is then undertaken to clean the fibre before being spun to be ready for textile manufacturing (knitting or weaving).
Organic flax is grown differently to conventional flax, as it is farmed under organic farming principles. These include:
- Prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers.
- Banning the use of genetic modified (GM) seeds.
- Using only natural or dew retting techniques. Flax plants are left in the field for two weeks after harvesting until the fibres have naturally separated.
Linen has a well-established network of global suppliers with 80-85% of the flax being grown in Europe (Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber & Market Report 2020). France is the main European producer, followed by the Netherlands and Belgium. Outside of Europe, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and China make the biggest flax producers. It is a familiar fibre to many suppliers and readily available; therefore, integration is straightforward within the supply chain. Tracing conventional linen’s origins will depend largely on visibility within the supply chain, as there is no formal certification route for conventional linen. The Depestele Group implemented a fibre tracing system called European Flax®, which includes all flax production stages in partnership with 650 flax farmers in France. Organic linen, on the other hand, is easily traceable and product claims can be made where it is independently certified by Organic Content Standard (OCS) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). However, due to limited availability, integration may prove more difficult for organic linen. Win-Win Textiles can help you source linen with organic certification and resource intensive chain of custody requirements. A detailed paperwork trail through each stage of the supply chain is required, and manufacturing procedures will need to be certified. The cost of conventional linen remains higher than other conventional synthetic and natural fibres, with organic linen having an even higher price. Its cost is also heavily dependent on oilseed prices, as flax fibre is often a by-product of oilseed production.
Flax benefits from being a rain-fed crop, which means it is not reliant on irrigation. Flax requires few pesticides and minimal amounts of fertilisers compared to conventional cotton, helping to reduce its carbon footprint significantly. Furthermore, in Europe, a significant proportion of flax crop waste from the scutching process (bark and woody core) is incinerated for energy. The retting technique commonly used in Western Europe avoids the heavy use of chemicals. ‘Chemical water retting’ does, however, still occur in other regions of the world such as China. If not treated correctly, these chemicals can be dangerous to workers and toxic if released into the environment. The usage of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and other harmful chemicals can of course be completely avoided when choosing organic flax. Flax is a rotative crop allowing the same land to be used to grow alternative intermittent crops. This helps to minimise soil erosion. Flax is grown globally under a variety of conditions; therefore, depending on the region, yields do vary. Flax production is labour intensive and, like other natural fibres, is often produced by small holder farmers, with the risk of poor labour standards and working conditions in regions such as Eastern Europe and China. In Europe, migrant labour and broader labour rights issues within the country may affect those working within flax farming. When choosing organically certified flax, strict guidelines adhere to ILO (International Labour Standards) conventions regarding labour standards and promote decent working conditions. This includes prohibiting forced and child labour and the discrimination of workers, freedom of association and collective bargaining, as well as encouraging improved health and safety conditions. As the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are avoided, health and safety standards are also improved.
When considering linen’s sustainability credentials, it is an attractive alternative to other less sustainable natural fibres such as conventional cotton. Additionally, technologies are being developed to make linen a more direct alternative for cotton. For example, CRAiLAR from Bast Fibre Technologies Inc is an enzymatic treatment for flax fibres to make it feel softer, with functional properties like manmade cellulosic fibres. Compared to conventional linen, CRAiLAR is considered to be a price premium fibre. Another new development is BioFibre™ by Circular Systems’ Agraloop Biorefinery. BioFibre™ are fibres made entirely from food crop residues, with oil-seed flax being one example.