Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as an “eco-friendly” bedding, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
For something that has become a cozy bedroom necessity, sheets have some not-so-soothing impacts on our planet and health. We’re talking about sleep comfort, but this post is probably not the best pre-bedtime reading...
The EPA estimates that more than 1.5 million tons of towels, sheets, and pillowcases were produced in 2018, more than two-thirds of which went to the landfill. Bedding is an increasingly trendy category — we’ll be the first to admit to impulse-buying a new pair of sheets in hopes they might transform our tiny New York City apartments into the Joshua Tree oasis pictured in that Instagram ad.
With many brands selling seasonal styles and colors, it’s hard to resist. But with the “lifestyle” movement taking over the bedding industry, the amount we consume and ultimately the amount of bedding we send to landfill each year is only increasing.
GIVE A SHEET
Environmental implications of bedding aside, we’ve also got the health of farmers and factory workers to consider. The pesticides used on farms and the chemicals used during manufacturing can be dangerous at high levels, and who really wants to be face down on a sheet coated with nasty chemicals for more than 45 hours per week? The good news is that if you know what to look out for, it’s pretty easy to avoid the bad stuff. We’re here to drop some knowledge so that you can set yourself up for a lifetime of peaceful and healthful slumbers.
The material components of your sheets are super important and can tell you a lot about their environmental impacts. Here’s a breakdown of the most common materials used in sheets and a few recommendations to help steer you in the right direction.
Cotton is the most popular sheet material due to its soft fibers, breathability, and absorption. In general, cotton is a water intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation and heavy pesticide use. Almost 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of all insecticides come from the cotton industry. Pretty gnarly, right?
Fortunately, not all cottons are created equal. Choosing organic cotton will ensure that your purchase is not supporting the use of these chemicals, which end up poisoning our soil and waterways. If organic cotton isn’t an option for you, we are big fans of Supima cotton, which is grown responsibly on family-owned farms in the USA and is known for its extra long-staple fiber. Long-staple cottons have superior strength, softness, and color retention, and as a result, they make for more resilient and durable products.
Even if you choose a conventional cotton, keep your eyes peeled for “long-staple” in the product description for a longer-lasting sheet. Despite the imperfections of the cotton industry, we love the texture, versatility, and accessibility of this natural fiber. If you can buy organic or Supima, definitely go for it. But as a rule of thumb, anything that comes from plants is a safe bet.
Linen is one of our favorite bedding materials. It’s incredibly breathable, durable, and temperature-regulating. Linen gets softer over time, and though it is usually more expensive than cotton, it tends to last longer. Made from the fast-growing plant flax, linen is a renewable resource.
Flax is primarily grown in the Northern hemisphere where it is not associated with deforestation, and requires far less water to grow than cotton does. Overall, linen production yields a fairly low level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and few, if any, pesticides are required in its cultivation, so you don’t have to worry too much if you can’t find an organic option.
If you haven’t slept on linen before, we recommend heading in-store before buying it since it has more texture than cotton. Some companies like Parachute and Coyuchi offer fabric swatches for a few dollars each if you can’t get into a store due to COVID.
Hemp is like the valedictorian of bedding materials. This material gets all of the best (lowest) grades when it comes to land-, water-, energy-, and pesticide-use. Specifically, hemp needs just one third of the water that cotton needs to grow and it enriches the soil in which it is planted with nitrogen and oxygen, while also removing chemicals and pollutants — way to go hemp!
Crop yield is also a huge factor in assessing the sustainability of how materials are grown and, if you compare one acre of hemp to one acre of cotton, two to three times more hemp fibers can be cultivated in the same amount of time. Hemp sheets are also known for their breathability, absorbency, strength, and hypoallergenic properties. Our favorite hemp sheets are from Buffy since they have a similarly scrumptious feel to flax linen.
Tencel is a wood pulp-based fiber invented by Lenzing, a company that creates biodegradable fibers made out of cellulose, the core component of all plants. 99% of Lenzing’s wood is sourced from sustainable forestry certified by the FSC and/or PEFC, and you know we’re all about the FSC-certified life. Because all Tencel comes from Lenzing, you can be sure that no matter where you get your Tencel sheets, the same production process is being used to create them.
This production process is a closed-loop system in which 99% of water and organic chemicals are recycled to process the next batch of Tencel fabric. Closed-loop systems are awesome because they prevent resources like water and chemicals from being wasted or released into the environment and instead rely on the reuse of resources to fuel the system.
Tencel itself is also recyclable and has a much smaller environmental footprint compared to synthetic fibers like polyester since it is produced in this closed-loop system. Of all the wood variants out there, Tencil is most commonly made from eucalyptus wood pulp, which uses about 10 times less water than cotton and doesn’t require new planting each season since it is cut instead of uprooted.
If you’re going to buy sheets made from eucalyptus, we recommend buying eucalyptus-derived Tencel since you’ll get more of a guarantee that it’s responsibly produced. Tencel sheets are a bit silkier than cotton, so think about whether you’re into that sort of thing before buying. If you’re not totally sure you want to get silky sheets, Lenzing also makes a cotton-Tencel hybrid called Refibra, which has a texture closer to that of the cotton sheets you may be accustomed to.
Bamboo itself is a fast-growing resource that stores four times more carbon dioxide and releases 35% more oxygen than the average tree. This means that bamboo is able to fight climate change more efficiently than most trees by removing greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere at a faster pace. Unfortunately, most bamboo fabric worldwide is bamboo viscose, which involves a nasty, chemical-intensive manufacturing process. The workers in viscose manufacturing plants are exposed to the waste produced by the process, including carbon disulfide, which is linked to neurological problems...yikes. Despite the hype that bamboo products are getting right now, we’re not huge fans of this material when it’s used in sheets.
For those of you who love title drops… not today, satin! Silk is among our least favorite sheet materials for a few reasons. For starters, the price tag on silk sheet sets is so high that it makes this option pretty inaccessible to most people. Also, since they exist mainly in hot climates like Thailand, but must be kept at 65 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal cocoon production, silk farms use an immense amount of energy for air conditioning.
The humidity control and steaming systems required in production are also energy suckers. Every geographic region has a unique “energy mix”, which is the combination of primary energy sources used in meeting the region’s needs (stay tuned for another post breaking down this topic soon). A given region’s energy mix can come from a combination of fossil fuels (think oil and coal), nuclear energy, and renewable energy (think wind and solar).
Due to the location of most silk factories, the energy required for most silk production likely comes from coal-fired plants, which release more greenhouse gases per unit of energy generated than any other source. Gross. There are ethical issues with this material too; PETA reports that about 3,000 silkworms must be killed to make one pound of silk. Worms are people too!
Polyester is a synthetic material that is popular for its durability and low price tag. Sure, durability and accessibility are both great, but polyester has major downsides, including that it’s derived from fossil fuels. The production process required to turn crude oil into petroleum and petroleum into polyester is wasteful and environmentally damaging.
The chemical treatments used by polyester manufacturers are toxic and known to cause neurological damage and even cancer at high levels of exposure, putting factory workers at risk. It’s true that polyester doesn’t retain as much water as cotton and other natural fibers and therefore requires less energy to launder, BUT every time a polyester bed sheet is washed, it sheds tiny pieces of plastic that are so small they are invisible to the naked eye. These tiny pieces of plastic called microfibers enter our waterways, devastate marine ecosystems, and even end up in our bodies.
The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic polluting in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. We’ll pass!
Ok, that was a lot of information to take in. When all is said and done, the best options out there are organic cotton, linen, hemp, and Tencel.
When shopping for your sheets, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for certifications that offer insights into which chemicals are used and what labor practices are employed along the supply chain. We love OEKO-TEX, GOTS, and Fair Trade for bedding.
The OEKO-TEX certification guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde. This certification tells us that the product is harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the sheets AND the people who sleep on the sheets.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is like a more rigorous version of OEKO-TEX and requires that at least 70% of materials in the product are organic. It’s the cream of the crop when it comes to textile standards. If a product has a GOTS certification, it complies with environmental and social criteria along the entire supply chain. In a perfect world, every textile would have this certification.
Fair Trade USA works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making Fair Trade Certified products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. Fair Trade prioritizes people and the planet, and we’re here for it.
BSR estimates that laundering accounts for 40-80% of the GHG emissions for items requiring washing, drying, and ironing. That means that how you wash your sheets and with what methods (i.e. hot vs. cold water, tumble dry vs. air dry) is super important. When it’s time to wash your sheets, we recommend doing full loads using a low-heat wash cycle and a low heat, high-spin dry cycle. We love wool dryer balls because they shorten dry times and prevent static cling. Air drying is by far the most energy efficient drying method, so take advantage if that’s an option for you. If so, us New Yorkers can live vicariously through you as we envision sheets strung up along a clothesline blowing majestically in the wind like that scene from Greatest Showman (08:35).
Avoid products with wrinkle releasers and fabric softeners. Sheets labeled “wrinkle-free” or “iron-free” are finished with gross chemicals that could include formaldehyde, which is a skin and respiratory irritant that is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program.
Sheets last an average of 2-3 years. After reading this, don’t toss the sheets you already have to go get fresh linen ones. The most sustainable thing you can do is to get as much use out of existing materials you already own! That said, once you are done with your bedding, try repurposing it into cleaning rags or donating it to a local pet shelter. If you get your sheets from Coyuchi, utilize their take-back program to ensure your sheets are being properly recycled.