Did you know that it takes an average of 10,000 litres of water to grow 1kg of cotton? That’s over 65 bathtubs of water to make one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. How can we as fashion consumers shop more sustainably, and combat issues like water and plastic use in a world where trends change weekly? Well, one way is to think about the materials that our garments are made from. It’s a no-brainer that synthetic fibres like polyester or nylon are less sustainable than natural options, but have you ever considered that some natural fibres are more sustainable than others?
I talked to Callum McCall, co-founder of Flax London, for some answers about why linen is a preferable fabric for creating a sustainable wardrobe. Flax London is a start-up company based in Camberwell, London, that aims to create timeless linen garments. These are made with as little impact on our environment as possible, mainly through sustainable materials, as well as low air-mileage, biodegradable packaging and an emphasis on clothing repairs using either invisible or traditional Japanese methods of Sashiko.
Molly Taylor: I’m looking forward to picking your brain about sustainability in the fashion industry, and how your start-up strives to change the way we think about fashion. Firstly, what are the benefits of using linen rather than cotton as a sustainable fabric?
Callum McCall: Well, fashion has an undeniable issue with sustainability, and the root of the problem is twofold: a boom in fast fashion and a supply chain that has huge ecological impacts. We’re committed as a company to doing what we can to improve the whole value chain and change mindsets.
Water consumption is one of the major concerns. The intensive irrigation required to grow cotton places huge stress on water resources, as shown so vividly by the near-total disappearance of the Aral Sea - once the fourth largest lake in the world. By contrast, the flax plants only need natural rainfall to flourish. More generally, thanks to its natural wicking capability and anti-bacterial properties, linen doesn’t need to be washed as regularly. It all adds up.
Intensive cotton farming also requires vast amounts of fertilisers and pesticides. The practice of cultivating monoculture crops like cotton leaches certain nutrients from the earth, deteriorating overall soil health. Additionally, crops like flax can only be sown once every six or seven years and are grown in strict rotation with a range of other crops. This has significant advantages for the preservation of local biodiversity.
MT: Wow, it seems that cotton production is having a detrimental effect on our environment. I suppose it’s important for consumers to keep an eye on what they’re actually adding to their wardrobes. Apart from linen’s sustainable qualities, in what other ways is it a preferable choice of fabric for clothing?
CM: No other fabric combines the amazing texture, unique handle, and rugged durability we love so much. Well looked after linen lasts a lifetime and only gets better with age, as it softens and takes on different characteristics. The main hurdle for us was to break linen free from the shackles of the summer wardrobe. Hailing from Northern Ireland, our shirting linen is 238 grams per square metre (gsm), versus the standard 175gsm. It’s heavier, more opaque, and is perfectly suited to all seasons.
MT: Linen in winter, what a great idea. I wonder who restricted linen to an exclusively summer material! In a world where trends change weekly, how does your company try to combat fast fashion and promote sustainability?
CM: Well, as a rule, the less washing you do, the longer a piece of clothing lasts and the lower the energy consumption of that clothing. When people refer to a piece of clothing being ‘worn out’, they’re inadvertently referring to something that’s been ‘washed out’. The solution is to create something that doesn’t need washing after every wear. Even if people wear their clothes a lot between washes, there are inevitable points of failure such as areas of friction and snags. To counter the idea that something needs to be thrown away when it’s ripped or worn through, we offer free repairs for life, using either invisible or Sashiko methods.
Furthermore, the idea of buying clothes on a seasonal basis and not thinking about how long they’ll last is a hangover from the fast fashion era. We reject the seasonal, fast fashion trends by having permanent collections. There’s also the issue of plastics used in shipping and packaging. We pick up our shirts at the factory by hand (cutting the need for single-use plastic sheets), and send them in recycled cardboard boxes. We’re also looking into reusable packaging options to inject a bit more circularity into the process.
MT: It’s so great that you’ve made sustainability an integral part of your company, by considering not only the materials, but also the way in which you source, construct, and package your products. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
CM: It’s been a pleasure. We love talking about sustainability and feel it’s important to be completely transparent about the processes that go into making our garments. Sustainability should be a vital component to any company, rather than a PR afterthought, and we hope that through our brand we can promote the importance of considering environmental impacts, and feed into the conversation about the detrimental effects of the fast fashion industry.