One of the most contentious issues in choosing the right organic bedding is the choice of fabrics - and there's a lot of misinformation about the greenest option. Here are the results of our research.
Linen, overall, has the lowest environmental impact of any sheeting fabric.
Made from flax, linen is one of the oldest fabrics known to humans. Its durability and versatility led to its use as the principal fabric for bedding and table (why we call the whole category "linens"). When woven by master craftspeople, finished linen fabric is unmatched for its natural "feel" and coolness to the touch. This resistance to moisture and heat is why linen fabric is prized in warm-weather places for clothes as its hollow-core fibers wick away liquids from its surface. Linen's reputation for wrinkling and starchiness is mostly unfounded - modern linen fibers are soft and low-wrinkle when not overdried or used with fabric softener.
As an organic bedding fabric, linen excels. The underlying plant requires no irrigation (versus cotton's heavy irrigation), and can be grown in areas with poor soil (so with lower pesticides and fertilizers). Moreover, 100% of the linen plant is used, commercially - from food to fabric. The process of turning flax into fabric can be done with minimal water and chemicals (although they are frequently used by low-quality producers). Although there is no official organic designation for linen fabric, eco-linen is offered that meets even the most stringent criteria set forth by most organic producers.
Where linen really shines is in ongoing environmental costs. Because of its structure, linen sheets require less water to wash, and substantially less power to dry - in many cases, 60-70% less time in dryer has been reported. Moreover, because of its durability, linen bedding generally outlasts cotton and bamboo - leading to greatly reduced impact over the usable lifetime of the bedding. Whereas the average cotton sheet set may last only 5-7 years, many families have linen bedding and dining items that are hundreds of years old. With proper care, and purchased from a reputable source, linen is unbeatable.
More information on eco-linen from Libeco (supplier to Linoto as well).
A note on hemp fabric: with many of the same characteristics as linen, hemp fabric is a great environmental choice for bedding. However, the fabric is not broadly available and is offered in very limited quantities/colors.
Cotton is the most popular bedding fabric in the United States, and is available in two basic flavors: organic and non-organic. Once woven, cotton's density is measured in "thread count", or the number of threads in a square inch. There are a number of finishes for cotton, including jersey and sateen, but the underlying material is the same.
Certified organic cotton should be grown without pesticides or fertilizer and genetically modified seed. In the field, however, cotton is a water-hungry plant, and non-organic cotton production is one of the most polluting crop sub segments in the US. Once harvested, the cotton plant must undergo transformation into fabric, a process that requires a substantial amount of power and produces a great deal of waste (a large part of the plant is not used).
With its fast-wearing and high-power drying nature, cotton is also a post-production resource hog. Organic cotton is certainly a better choice than non-organic, but there is still a tremendous amount of waste and petroleum that could be removed from the process.
Bamboo fabric has been heralded as an environmental solution to many of our problems. A fast growing, weed-like plant, bamboo can survive in most conditions, quickly replenishes itself, and is relatively trivial (if labor intensive) to harvest. Crops also rarely require pesticide.
In the field, bamboo is clearly a winner - but once the process of preparing it for use as fabric has begun, bamboo loses much of its appeal. Substantial chemical processes are required to convert the hard fibers of the bamboo stalk into usable fabric, so much so that the United States Department of Agriculture does not classify the finished product a natural fiber at all.
Bamboo fabric is generally referred to as "rayon" when completed, a testament to the extent of its transformation. This rayon can have a super soft hand, but is rarely offered as 100% bedding material, instead frequently combined with cotton in a 70/30 blend to improve its durability and "organic feel".
Overall, bamboo may be a good choice under some circumstances, but the intensity of the production process ultimately wipes out many of the benefits of the plant itself.