For something that has become a cozy bedroom necessity, sheets have some not-so-soothing impacts on our planet and health. The EPA estimates that more than 1.5 million tons of towels, sheets, and pillowcases were produced in 2018, and that more than two-thirds went to landfill.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
We spend around one-third of our lives in bed, so beyond ensuring the people who made your sheets got a fair wage and material extraction didn’t leave the land barren, it’s important to be sure our bodies aren’t absorbing harmful chemicals while we sleep.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Cotton is the most popular sheet material due to its soft fibers, breathability, and absorption, and it’s also the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water-intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 5% of global pesticide sales and 10% of global insecticides sales come from the cotton industry. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet (see organic cotton below). In general, a plant-based material like cotton requires less energy to manufacture than a petroleum-based alternative like polyester.
Organic cotton is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton produces 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface and groundwater use falls anywhere from 48% to 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. While we think sheets made with organic cotton are the best option, we recognize that they’re harder to come by. Less than 1% of all cotton produced is organic.
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. It’s made from the fast-growing plant flax, which is primarily grown in boreal forests unassociated with deforestation. Plus, linen uses far less water over its life cycle than cotton. While pesticides are hardly used in flax cultivation, it’s better to get linen sheets that are certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard.
Hemp is like the valedictorian of bedding materials. The production of hemp is carbon-negative, which means it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere during its growth than is emitted during its cradle-to-gate processes. Additionally, hemp requires half the amount of water and land that it takes to grow cotton and can be grown without any herbicides or pesticides. Crop yield is also a huge factor in assessing the sustainability of how materials are grown. One acre of hemp will yield 2-3 times more fiber than one acre of cotton. If we haven’t converted you to team hemp yet, know that hemp sheets are highly breathable, absorbent, strong, and hypoallergenic, which should have you resting easy.
Bamboo 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. Not bad! Unfortunately, not all bamboo products are created equal. Creating bamboo viscose involves a chemical-intensive manufacturing process through which workers are exposed to waste, including carbon disulfide, which is linked to neurological problems. Even though we prefer it in paper products, bamboo just doesn’t do it for us when it comes to sheets.
Silk is a natural protein fiber that is produced through a process called sericulture, which involves cultivating silkworms to extract silk from them. Silk farms require energy-intensive temperature-controlled environments and harvesting cocoons uses a ton of hot water and hot air. There are also some animal welfare concerns around silk: the mulberry silkworm does die in the production of this textile. Silk is just not great from an environmental and ecological standpoint. Studies have shown that the carbon footprint of silk is equal to or more than that of some synthetic fibers and that the commercial production of silk has a larger environmental impact than that of Chinese cotton, nylon, and wool. While we think it’s best to avoid silk, if you can’t live without it then look for silk sheets that are GOTS certified (see more below).
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 the fact that it’s derived from fossil fuels. Extracting petroleum (which is needed to produce polyester) involves drilling and fracking, which have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. The environmental effects of drilling overwhelmingly impact people of color and low-income folks, who are more likely to live in communities near these sites.
If that wasn’t bad enough, 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. Plus, every time polyester gets washed, it sheds tiny pieces of plastic threads that enter our waterways and devastate marine ecosystems or even find their way into our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic pollution in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. We’ll pass!
If you really prefer polyester sheets, look out for ones made with recycled materials. Recycling polyester uses significantly less energy than making polyester from scratch. Studies have found that using recycled polyester cut water requirements in production by two-thirds and that using recycled polyester could lead to a 59% reduction in energy use.
Tencel is a man-made fabric, but unlike polyester, it isn’t synthetic. In fact, Tencel is made from eucalyptus and beech wood pulp and is produced in a closed-loop system. This means that 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. All Tencel is made by Lenzing AG and 99% of their wood comes from FSC-certified sustainable forests. While this renewable material has one of the lowest environmental impacts of conventional textiles, it may not be a perfect substitute for cotton. Some people think it feels processed, and even Lenzing reports that it’s much silkier than cotton, so give it a try before committing.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on sheets.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS is the gold standard of textile certifications (which is why we like to pronounce it GOAT-S). It requires that at least 70% of the materials in the product are organic and that the product complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along its entire supply chain. If you opt for sheets made with cotton, hemp, silk, or linen, definitely prioritize finding this label.
The OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This label means that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the sheets AND the people who sleep on them.
Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA. The Fair Trade certification works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making FTC products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. This certification has intersectional impacts, including an emphasis on safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and Community Development Funds. If you want to rest easier knowing your sheets aren’t causing undue harm in their supply chain, get ones that are Fair Trade Certified.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. FSC has close to 50 forest management standards that apply in over 85 countries. If you’re purchasing Tencel sheets and want to ensure that they’re coming from responsibly managed forests, make sure it bears the FSC label.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
This is scientifically unverified, but we think there’s a direct correlation between sleeping peacefully and how well your sheets are made. When all is said and done, the best options out there are organic cotton, linen, hemp, and Tencel. If you prefer a different material, then try looking out for certifications like GOTS or Fair Trade Certified to reduce the adverse ecological impacts that they could have.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of sheets are the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” sheets because they’ll always use water and energy when they’re made and washed, our Top Products page includes our fav, most sustainable sheets based on what they’re made of.
“Is it worth buying organic sheets?”
We get it - organic sheets are pricier and it’s not always clear if the benefits outweigh the costs. When it comes to bed sheets, organic means that the material was grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides which can contaminate soil, water, and other vegetation. While we’re big supporters of uncontaminated water and soil, we understand that financially, organic may just not be an option. On average, sheets last 2-3 years, but some, like linen sheets, can last 3-5 years. Linen sheets will last longer than organic cotton sheets, but if cotton is at a more affordable price point, then keep your eyes peeled for “long-staple” in the product description for a longer-lasting sheet.
“Are bamboo sheets healthy?”
Many brands will push their bamboo sheets as a “healthier” alternative to other materials, but what even makes a bed sheet “healthy”? We’re not really into relying on these greenwash-y labels when making purchase decisions. What you need to know about bamboo sheets is that they involve a chemically-intensive manufacturing process through which workers are exposed to waste, including carbon disulfide, which is linked to neurological problems. Doesn’t sound so “healthy” to us… Plus, bamboo sheets are typically more expensive and don’t last as long as other options. Our advice is to avoid bamboo in your bed sheets.