Cotton Converts

Is it time to give your linen closet a do-over? Our experts weigh in on eco-friendly fabrics.

Your day spa serves as a mecca of comfort and escape, and the materials you employ to drape, dry and cocoon clients play a major part in your overall mission to nurture. “Cozy,” “delicate” and “fluffy” sum up the idea. However, recent investigations into the manufacturing processes of the linen industry reveal some unpleasant consequences that leave many environmentally conscious business owners at a moral crossroads.

Cotton, for instance, long praised by television advertising campaigns as “the fabric of our lives,” may be soft and cuddly, but its development process is water-, fertilizer- and labor-intensive. And while conventional cotton occupies only 3% of the world’s farmland, experts estimate that it accounts for 25% of pesticide usage. Which is why a number of manufacturers have begun to develop eco-friendly linen alternatives.

Still, it’s no easy task choosing a suitable option for the demanding environment of your day spa, where sheets, towels and robes endure dozens of wash and dry cycles a month—and where client comfort reigns supreme. So we’ve consulted with green-minded industry experts to review the latest in sustainable laundering options, the most earth-friendly linen alternatives on the market and the best ways to court clients with your greener linen initiatives.

The “Soft” News

Typically farmed in massive quantities, cotton plants suck soil of nutrients and require near-constant watering, as well as extensive heating and many hands for the quick, sudden harvest this crop necessitates. Processing the harvested fibers to create your day spa’s linens requires a witch’s brew of cleansers, oil emulsifiers, softeners, bleaches and flame retardants.

Some eco-savvy spa owners have dropped industrial cotton for fabrics made by organic growers who employ natural fertilizers, drip watering systems and minimal post-harvest processing. While the resulting crop isn’t sparkling white (due to the lack of chemical dye involved), it still feels, acts and wears like traditional cotton.

In recent years, fabric manufacturers have also developed various linen alternatives, all of which are ecologically superior to cotton. Though their current processing and handling techniques benefit from 21st century technology, two of these materials, hemp and flax, have actually been spun into fabric for thousands of years. Each requires relatively little water to cultivate, uses next to no insecticides or fertilizer and grows at a rapid rate.

Other plant fibers that have recently enjoyed a boost in popularity owing to their eco-friendly resource demands are bamboo and beech wood pulp (known as Modal). Both grow rapidly and can be harvested every few years.

According to Mathew Thomas, the president of organic towel and robe manufacturer Nandina, bamboo is not only more sustainable than organic cotton. “It’s also more absorbent, and tends to resist mold and mildew, so you don’t get any bad smells.”

In fact, Japanese farmers discovered that bamboo fibers are inherently antimicrobial. Ever since then, the plant’s leaves have commonly been employed as a food wrap to help resist spoilage.

Making the Switch

Linen choices are an important aspect of a green spa, but before running out to replenish your supply with eco-alternatives, it’s a good idea to examine your current laundering operations from a macro perspective.
Rianna Riego, a 20-year industry veteran and the founder of consulting firm Global SpaVantage, reminds us that it’s not only the specific linen materials that matter, but also the way they’re used. “You can prolong the duration of fabrics by using them in rotation, relying on lower wash temperatures and setting the cycle on ‘gentle’ whenever possible,” she says. “It also helps to avoid using bleaching agents.”

This raises the question of material durability, as it measures up against sustainability. “Naturally, my first inclination would be to go with organic, fair trade products,” Riego says. “But in many cases, you have to replace them more often, so in the long run, they don’t exactly help preserve the environment.”

Besides, spa professionals can’t afford to neglect business for ideological pursuits. Scott Kerschbaumer, co-owner of Pittsburgh-based and green-oriented ESSpa Kozmetika Organic Skincare, reasons, “When you’re looking at linen, you’ve got to be strategic, because a typical spa goes through a ton of it.”

Kerschbaumer’s facility, comprised of 15 rooms and 35 employees who performed more than 17,000 treatments in 2010, is in the process of a linen makeover. Rather than an all-at-once shift, ESSpa gradually switched from cotton sheets and towels to a cotton/poly blend. Kerschbaumer is now phasing in a few alternative fabrics, one test batch at time, to determine the best choice. “Linens are such a major aspect for us economically that it makes most sense to go with an incremental switch,” he says. “We can’t quite clear that hurdle in one swoop.”

An all-out move to a cotton alternative was the optimal route for Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, even though it required a large outlay of capital, admits owner Michael Stusser. “For a long time our massage therapists were independent contractors who brought their own sheets to work,” he explains. “When we began providing our own sheets, we found that this was the best way to maintain client and staff satisfaction.”

While Stusser originally wanted Osmosis, the founding facility of the Green Spa Network, to be fully decked out in organic cotton, he ran into energy-related issues. “A large part of our goal was to reduce the energy required to clean and maintain linens, and putting oil-covered cotton into the dryer turned out to be highly problematic. Plus, our therapists weren’t comfortable using water soluble oils.”

Microfiber, a non-organic, hydrocarbon-based product, turned out to be the dark horse
eco-friendly  solution. “Microfiber’s lifespan is about eight times that of cotton sheets,” Stusser says. “And since its fibers don’t absorb the oils, it’s much easier to wash. And it’s comfortable.”
Before the eco-warriors brandish their pitchforks, Riego urges spa professionals to consider the very definition of sustainability. “I could go completely organic, but if I go with a product such as microfiber sheets, they last practically forever.” She suggests purchasing them from a linen supplier that practices sustainable manufacturing operations. “The supplier I use will even recycle and reuse your microfiber linens when you get tired of them,” she says.

“Microfiber’s lifespan is about eight times that of cotton sheets, it’s much easier to wash and it’s comfortable.”

Spread the Green Love

The most ecologically sound linen initiatives will all be for naught if they don’t appeal to your guests.
Nandina’s Thomas says that the exotic nature of bamboo, hemp, beech wood and other fibers can be a selling point. “A major part of the spa experience is the escape factor,” he says. “People want to get away from the harsh, day-to-day chemicals, and see something different. Coupled with green-oriented treatment options, they’ll appreciate that your linens emphasize your commitment to a natural, low-impact lifestyle.”

Besides, going green is an integral aspect of the spa experience these days. “For many clients, the journey to well-being includes the larger perspective of planetary wellness,” Stusser says. “Demonstrate that personal and planetary healing can be conjoined, and you take the whole experience to another level.”

If your shift to eco-friendly products and services entails added cost to clients, make sure that you repeatedly emphasize the benefits.

If your shift to eco-friendly products and services entails added cost to clients, make sure that you repeatedly emphasize the benefits. “We make it a part of the script that therapists use when they’re servicing people,” Kerschbaumer says. “When receptionists escort guests to change into a robe, we make sure they take the time to explain the benefits of the fabrics and products that will be nourishing their skin.” •