Material Monday EP. 7: How ethical & sustainable is silk?
We all know silk. It’s that one fabric that even has its own adjective; silky. Silk is a luxurious, shiny and smooth material, and it also has flame retardant and antibacterial properties. Silk is a natural material, but as we have already uncovered in previous Material Monday Episodes, natural doesn’t automatically mean sustainable and ethical. Let’s find out just how ethical and sustainable silk really is.
What is silk?
Silk is a natural material, a fibre that is produced by silkworms. The material is spun from the long threads that make up the inner cocoon, which the silkworms use to insulate themselves, and which are, in fact, saliva. During the process of silk production, the silkworms are killed. Normally, a silkworm moth that is ready to emerge from its cocoon will make a small hole in the cocoon to escape. As this breaks the long silk strands that make up the inner cocoon, silk producers usually prefer to boil the cocoon with the worm inside.
So as you can see, silk is not a vegan material – and there are some other ethical implications. But first, let’s talk about whether silk is sustainable or not.
How Sustainable is silk?
There are several reasons why silk can be considered a sustainable material – but unfortunately there are also some drawbacks.
Silk is biodegradable, which is always a good start. When done well, the production of silk can be also be a low-waste process, as silkworms feed exclusively on mulberry leaves, and the bark and fruit of the mulberry tree are used in several different ways. The pupae don’t go to waste either – they are a source of protein, which makes them a popular snack across many Asian countries, where the majority of silk is produced. Additionally, the outer parts of the cocoons are used as fertiliser or to stuff pillows.
The mulberry tree is easy to cultivate, however, little is known about the effect the harvesting of the trees has on the environment, and information of sustainable or organic silk production is difficult to obtain and lacks transparence.
How ethical is Silk
As already mentioned, the process of producing silk includes the killing of the mulberry silkworms, which makes silk a non-vegan material.
But the silk production doesn’t only harm the worms, but also has its effect on the people who produce the fabric. While in some parts of rural China and India the silk industry – also known as sericulture – has been an important enterprise for developing communities, in 2003, Human Rights Watch reported the abuse of child slaves in the Indian silk industry. The report estimated that around 350,000 children work in the silk industry.
Sustainable & Ethical silk
Information about ethical, sustainable and organic silk production is difficult to obtain, partly because there is no single organisation with a specific interest in alternative sources of silk.
However, there are three different types of sustainable silk currently in production – organic silk, certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard, Ahimsa or ‘peace silk’, the production of which allows the silkworm to escape the cocoon before being boiled, and silk that is verified under the World Fair Trade Organisation Guarantee System.
Another ethical and sustainable alternative is Cupro, which is a type of rayon made from cotton waste that feels and looks just like silk. Cupro is also produced in a close-loop production and is often mentioned as a vegan, sustainable silk alternative.
Where to buy Ethical & Sustainable Silk
Since silk is such a luxurious material, it is used by more and more sustainable brands. Amazing ethical and sustainable brands that use ethical and sustainable silk and/or Cupro include The Ethical Silk Company, KOMANA and OhSevenDays.
Did you know that silk isn’t vegan? And did you know that there are amazing sustainable and ethical silk alternatives out there? Vegan silk is a lovely material that will last a very long time if cared for correctly, and it feels super luxurious on your skin.
If you want to learn more about other natural materials, make sure you check out Material Monday Episode 5, where I compare organic cotton with conventional cotton or Material Monday Episode 6 about linen.
Let me know if you have any questions, thoughts or recommendations.
Thanks for reading!