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 “eco-friendly” towels, 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.
If you’re like us, you dream of a solid 20 minutes of “towel time,” where you sit down post-shower wrapped in your towel to let the steam soak into your skin. Or maybe you bring multiple towels to the beach - one for drying off and one to use as a blanket. Either way, we can all appreciate a good towel, right?
What to be wise on:
When buying towels, it’s all about comfort and absorbency, but the devil is in the details...or materials. Stick with non-dyed or naturally dyed options that come with a sustainability certification like OEKO-TEX or GOTS. If you’re into a fluffy towel, our favorite is 100% organic cotton. If you like a thinner option, we love linen!
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
When you think of a bath or beach towel, you’re probably thinking of cotton. It’s the most common material used to make towels. That’s because cotton is crazy absorbent due to its high cellulose content, making it capable of absorbing water over 24 times its own weight.
Conventional cotton is a bit of a thirst trap in its production, too. Okay, let us explain. Cotton is often a “monocrop” meaning it’s grown by itself on the same soil over and over. Enter: pesticides. When crops aren’t rotated or supported by cover crops, they can deplete the nutrients in the soil where they’re planted leading to heavier irrigation and an increase in pesticide use to compensate for the loss.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, paints a different picture. The Textile Exchange’s life cycle assessment on cotton indicates that organic cotton needs about 90% less water than conventional. While there are many factors that influence the actual water consumed by this crop (regional climate, rainfall, etc.), this is just one impact category to consider. When compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton also has a 46% reduced global warming potential.
Generally speaking, organic cotton still comes out ahead as the more sustainable option due to other standard or certified practices like less reliance on pesticides, supporting nutrient-dense, carbon-sequestering soil, and healthier working conditions for farmers.
Psst. Did you know? “Terrycloth” is actually just cotton woven into continuous small loops! The loops give the towel more surface area and increase its absorbencyLinen
Linen is a natural fiber that comes from the flax plant. It’s been used for thousands of years and has remained a staple due to its strength and softness. Flax is super resilient, fast-growing, renewable, and can grow in not-so-great soil, consuming far less water than cotton. Usually, seasonal rainfall is enough water for these low-maintenance beauties and additional irrigation doesn’t have an impact on plant yield.
Few, if any, chemical pesticides and fertilizers are needed to grow flax. In fact, flax comes close to the organic standard without trying. A flax flex! Without being certified organic, there’s no complete guarantee that no harmful pesticides were used in its production. If the linen is organic, you can do a little happy dance. Organic flax is one of the most sustainable fibers you can use according to the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers (which gives non-organic linen a “C” rating, while organic linen gets an “A” – the best possible rating).
When it comes to linen, there are two main things to keep in mind. First thing first, stick to untreated material, meaning organic and not dyed. To get pure white linen, it has to go through a heavy bleaching process, so choose towels with naturally derived color. Think ivory, tan, or gray. Second, the safe production of flax fiber requires a lot of hand labor, so you’ll want to make sure your purchase supports fair and safe labor practices. The Fair Trade certification is a solid indicator for this. But, more on that later.
You’ve probably used a mini microfiber towel to clean your glasses or laptop screen, but microfiber towels are also wildly popular among athletes and adventurers who need to wick away moisture, folks that love giving their car a good buff and shine, and anyone who wants that quintessential post-shower look with their hair swathed up in a bundle of fabric.
Microfiber is a synthetic (man-made) material that’s primarily made of ultrafine polyester yarn or nylon. Polyester is created from non-renewable petroleum, so for starters, we don’t love that. Refining petroleum tends to have involved environmental, social, and political implications and it’s super difficult to get transparency into these supply chains. In fact, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. trade association has yet to find a company that can trace its polyester fiber back to its raw material source.
When these types of towels are washed, small plastic microfibers enter waterways and have been regularly found in fish tissue - AKA the food chain - in oceanic and freshwater environments alike. Whether it’s the global shoreline, tributaries of the Great Lakes, or the effluent at a waste-water treatment plant, microfibers make up about 70-80% of the microplastics found in these waters. Woof.
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 towels.
The Global Organic Textile Standard
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification for textiles made of organic materials. To get this certification, a product must contain at least 70% organic materials and meet all of the ecological and social well-being criteria outlined by the certifying agency. This includes, but is not limited to, workplace safety, wage gap assessments, wastewater treatment, and limitations on conventional fiber products.
OEKO-TEX offers six different certifications that determine thresholds for human and planetary health in different industries. These standards – while they focus on different materials – all involve the avoidance of harmful substances and the identification of responsible production facilities.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA, which works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making certified products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities.
Masters of Linen
Masters of Linen® is a registered mark and sign of excellence for linen that is 100% made in Europe, from field to yarn to fabric. Club Masters of Linen gathers and promotes the certified European textile companies: spinners, weavers and knitters who have opted for 100% European traceability.
Use and Disposal
- Pro-tip: Use a laundry ball to help capture fibers and prevent them from entering water streams through your washing machine.
- Untreated flax is completely biodegradable. Because landfills have such little light, air, and moisture, it’s best this process happens in a compost-friendly environment.
- Donate old (but clean!) towels to a local animal shelter. Shelters typically accept these for lining kennels.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
If you’re able to purchase organic material, that’s your best bet, regardless of material type. Organic crops are grown without the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water free from contaminants.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
What’s the best way to care for my towel?
Once you get the right towel, it’s important to make sure you take care of it so that it lasts as long as possible. Make sure it’s hung up to dry completely after each use, and wash the towel after around 3 uses. Some advise replacing your towels after three years, but if you keep multiple sets in rotation, there’s no need to “throw in the towel” too soon!
What if organic material is dyed?
Certifications are a good indicator that, even if material has been dyed, it was likely done using natural or low-impact dyes instead of conventional ones, and that health measures are in place for the folks doing the dying. For super bright “whites”, material is often bleached, which is really a catch-all term for cleaning and lightening but doesn’t always mean using the Bleach you’re used to seeing in laundry rooms. Keep an eye out for “Total Chlorine Free” bleach, which is really just hydrogen peroxide - the stuff your mom would put on your scraped knee as a kid. It doesn’t release the same toxins as your standard bleach, breaks down rapidly in water, and doesn’t accumulate in the food chain. When in doubt, stick to au-naturel!