The Decider: Bedding

Your pillowcase comes with an environmental price.

A wooden bed topped with soft-looking yellow, white, and checkered green bed sheets.
Photo by Hannah Garvin via Stocksy

With all the variations in colour, pattern, fabric, and thread count, bedding shopping can be a confusing chore. So, what bedsheets should you use if you want to be sustainable? The Decider is here to help you sleep well at night, knowing your sheets have done as little harm as possible to the planet. 

Textiles have an impact

From the farms growing the plants harnessed for fibres, to the factories where the fibres are processed and woven into cloth, and the vehicles transporting them to stores, textile manufacturing guzzles electricity, water, and fossil fuels, and involves harmful chemicals. The process generates greenhouse gas emissions and pollutes water with residues of chemicals used to finish and dye fabric. Not to mention, textile production may involve insecure and dangerous working conditions.

Fabrics fibres are typically derived naturally from plants or animals (linen, wool, cotton, silk), synthetically from petroleum (polyester and acrylic), or semi-synthetically from chemically treated plant cellulose (rayon). Producing any of these materials requires liters upon litres of water. A 2017 report by the Water Footprint Network estimated that it takes approximately 10,000 litres of water to grow and process cotton crops into 1 kg of fabric (though the amount of water needed varies depending on the region the cotton is grown in).

According to the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report—and many linen brands— linen (typically made from flax) is more sustainable than cotton, since flax plants require less irrigation, fertilizer, and herbicide use than the cotton plant. Linen is also biodegradable. In contrast, polyester is made from plastic pellets derived from crude oil. Processing polyester fibres also requires water—anywhere between 50,000 to 70,000 litres of it to produce 1 kg of polyester, once you factor in the water used to extract petroleum, according to an estimate by The Water Footprint Network.

Textile manufacturing generates greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes water with chemical residues, and may involve insecure working conditions.

Once the basic fabric has been produced, it is treated, dyed, and finished—a process that adds 100 to 150 litres to the production of 1 kg of textiles, according to The Sustainable Business Group.

While it’s tricky to deduce the carbon impact of a set of bedsheets, consulting firm The Carbon Trust estimates that cotton manufacturing releases 0.8% of global CO2 emissions every year. Producing 1 kg of flax in Europe releases approximately 26 kg of greenhouse gases, while 1 kg of cotton emits 23 kg, according to a 2014 report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. The same report estimates that producing 1 kg of polyester releases at least 27 kg of greenhouse gases.

A 2012 study by researchers from the University of Lille Nord de France and the French textile research facility Gemtex assessed the life cycles of eight bedsheets to determine how “raw materials, spinning processes, easy-care treatment and colour shades” influenced their longevity. The study found that sheets blended with polyester had a lower environmental impact and lasted longer, as they required less water for manufacturing, needed less ironing, and were more resistant to abrasion compared to 100% cotton sheets. However, the study did not account for the non-biodegradable plastic microfibres released by polyester-based fabrics into the water when they’re laundered and into the air when they’re worn.

Opt for natural fibres

Alden Wicker, an independent fashion sustainability journalist and founder of sustainable fashion website EcoCult, points out that, despite this complexity, the impact of a sheet is still easier to determine than many other textiles: “Sheets are a very simple product,” she says. “They’re one fabric in a long square piece so there’s actually more brands that can tell you where exactly their cotton or linen or hemp was grown.”

She recommends opting for bedsheets made from natural fibres like cotton and linen rather than natural-synthetic blends, polyester, or rayon—also known as viscose and often advertised as “bamboo.” “When it comes to bamboo [sheets], there’s a lot of claims [of sustainability] being thrown around which aren’t really true,” says Wicker. “It’s a type of viscose that is made from bamboo… It takes a lot of chemicals to turn bamboo into this super-soft fabric.”

Polyester is often advertised as odour-wicking, but it can trap odour inside its fibres.

Wicker recommends avoiding synthetic materials like polyester because they are petroleum-based, release plastic microfibres into the environment, and perform poorly. Polyester is often advertised as odour-wicking, but it can trap odour inside its fibres, and more frequent washing may be required to get the smell out. 

Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Fashion, agrees. “Synthetics get really hot. Like yeah, it’ll wick the sweat away from your body, but it’ll also make you really hot to sleep,” she explains. She also warns consumers away from natural-synthetic blends, such as cotton-polyester, since those are hard to recycle.

Buy local

Kozloski, who researches ethics and sustainability, recommends thinking of bedding the same way you would food—by opting for organic and/or locally made products that are transparent about their manufacturing process. She recommends opting for natural, and ideally organic, fibres. Organic cotton production, for example, does not use environmentally harmful pesticides and consumes less water than its non-organic counterpart. 

Kozlowski isn’t strict about her bedsheets being organic, though. “If I’m buying from a small company [and] the supply chain is transparent and they know where their cotton is coming from and they’re supporting a small local farmer, that’s fine with me,” she says. “A lot of the time small farmers can’t necessarily afford certifications.”

Like Kozlowski, Wicker emphasizes supply chain traceability, which is when a company traces all the resources used to make and transport a product, as well as how workers producing it are treated—from the point fibres are grown or created, to the stores where sheets are sold.

A lot of the time, small farmers can’t afford certifications.

To examine a particular company’s supply chain sustainability, consumers can check its website for information about what country, or even what farm, it sources its fabric from, where the company’s factories are located, and whether its products are certified. For example, the Vancouver-based bedding brand Homebird offers a full list of its suppliers—all of whom are Fair Trade certified—on its website

Wicker’s EcoCult’s also maintains a list of sustainable brands, including bedsheet-makers that offer sustainability indicators like supply-chain traceability and  certifications. Other online directories of sustainable brands include Sustainably Chic, The Honest Consumer, The Green Hub, and the Sustainable Fashion Directory.

Look for labels

Wicker recommends looking for sheets that have a certification from Oeko-Tex, an international organization with 17 partner institutes in Europe and Japan that test and certify textiles for environmental and social concerns. According to its website, Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 label indicates that all fabric, buttons, and other accessories on a textile item have been found free of formaldehydes, lead, arsenic, and other harmful substances. Its Made in Green label indicates that the textile is free of harmful substances, and has been made through environmentally friendly processes under socially responsible working conditions.

Other certifications consumers can look for are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which requires that a product be made of minimum 70% organic materials, and that it meet set environmental and social standards, such as avoiding environmentally hazardous substances and ensuring workers have freedom of association and collective bargaining. 

Keep it light and for long

Kozlowski and Wicker recommend both buying sheets in light, neutral colours. Dyeing fabric, Kozlowski explains, is resource intensive. The more vibrant or saturated the colour, the more water and heat (potentially produced with fossil fuels) were consumed in its dyeing process, making neutral colours the more sustainable option. Adding performance features like wrinkle or water resistance also requires additional chemicals, water, and heat. The production process is unregulated in the US. 

Kozlowski recommends keeping your bedding for a long time. “If you’re buying 100% organic sheets, but you’re buying yourself a new sheet set multiple times a year, that’s not great either.” This also applies to sheets you already own, regardless of the materials they’re made of, since significant resources were used to produce them. If your bed is currently dressed up in bamboo or polyester, we are not suggesting you throw those sheets out before you wear them out.

The decision

In summary: when shopping for bedding, look for natural materials in lighter colours, produced by companies that have supply chain traceability. Skip “performance attributes,” and use them for a long time.

Kozlowski points out that you might not be able to check off all these boxes—and that’s okay. Just do your best and focus on the issues most important to you. “You’re not going to find a perfect bedsheet,” Kozlowski says. “It doesn’t exist.”

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