In 2018, an unusual story spread through fashion press: retail giant ASOS would be ceasing all sale of mohair, cashmere, feathers, and…silk. While the fashion industry is no stranger to brands banning materials (countless luxury designers have refused to work with fur over the last few seasons, and most retailers have banned angora), a brand saying no to silk was unheard of. A frequently used material across the fashion spectrum, silk is often present but rarely talked about. It appears to slip under the radar whenever the ethical implications of fashion are discussed, and it has evaded most sustainability conversations as well.
But silk is far from innocent. For starters, it claims an astonishing amount of animal lives. Silk is, in fact, an animal material and not plant-based; silk is the fibre that silkworms weave to make the cocoons that they live in during their pupal stage. Silk workers commonly boil or gas the cocoons to unravel them, allowing workers to access the threads that the silk yarn will be spun from. During this process, worms are often boiled or gassed alive. Silk can also be made by killing the worms just before they begin spinning the cocoons and extracting their silk glands. An estimated 6,600 worms are needed to make just one kilogram of silk.
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It is a crucial tenet of vegan living that all animals have a right to live without human oppression – and that compassion does not end at dogs, cats, cows or pigs. Vegans argue that worms, however small and however different from ourselves and our companion animals, also deserve to live in peace. And when it comes to worm sentience, studies have shown that insects have responses to stimuli that may indicate they feel pain (although the scientific community remains divided on this topic).
So is silk an environmentally friendly choice? Not really. Despite the fact that mulberry trees that sustain silkworms can be grown organically, as often happens, the problem starts once we begin transforming the raw material into finished silk. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index ranks silk higher than most other fibres, due to its contribution to global warming and its use of fossil fuels in its processing stages. The 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report by the Boston Consulting Group also put silk in the second place (behind cow leather) on its list of the most polluting materials used in fashion, measured for cradle-to-gate impact per kilogram of material.
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Some brands offer something called “peace silk”, which sees worms live out their natural lifespans before the cocoons are harvested and often marketed as ‘non-violent’. But as vegans and animal rights activist have seen many times, these initiatives are often well-intentioned, but rarely trustworthy. The Indian animal rights organisation Beauty Without Cruelty has investigated peace silk farms and found that farmers could not account for what happened to the worms once the cocoons were harvested. Some of the animals were discarded or crushed. The males were kept in a refrigerator, in a semi-frozen condition, and brought out again and again to mate. After their ability to mate diminished, they were thrown away. It’s also important to keep in mind that the “peace silk” practices do not lessen the environmental impact of silk.
The most common option that has replaced silk in today’s fashion is polyester – a fabric that comes with a series of environmental issues. First of all, polyester isn’t biodegradable. Secondly, it’s a petroleum-based material, made from a non-renewable resource. Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are made to make polyester each year – a mind-boggling number. Then we also have the issue of microplastics, which polyester garments release into the environment every time they are washed.
Fortunately, a deeper dig into the world of naturally derived vegan fabrics shows us that there are many ways to replace silk that do not involve synthetics. Below are five vegan silk alternatives that fashion brands are choosing instead:
Ramie is one of the oldest existing fibre crops. It originates from the stalks of a flowering plant in the nettle family, and its properties involve the ability to hold its shape and a naturally wrinkle-free texture. It’s also highly absorbing, making it easy to dye.
Created by Italian brand Orange Fiber, this material harnesses the untapped resources of the one million tonnes of citrus fruit waste that Italy alone is responsible for each year. Entrepreneurs Adriana Santanocino and Enrica Areno have patented a unique technology that extracts cellulose from citrus fruit peels that are left over after juicing and transforms this cellulose into a luxurious silk-like material. The fibre is extracted in Sicily, where a large part of Italy’s citrus industry is based, and is later spun in a spinning factory in Spain. The material is finally sent back to Italy – this time to Como – where the end product is made. Orange Silk was included in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection two seasons ago.
Also known as Lyocell, Tencel is made from wood pulp cellulose using closed-loop technology, meaning that the water and chemicals used in the process are re-used to avoid waste. Biodegradable, resistant and wrinkle-free, Tencel is one of the most eco-friendly vegan materials in use today.
Cupro is a by-product of cotton – it derives from linter, a part of the plant that would otherwise have been waste. This soft, silky fabric is easy to drape and is frequently used in dresses.
US-based material innovation company Bolt Threads have invented a bioengineered vegan silk, made to mimic the soft yet durable and resistant properties of spider silk. Spiders have never been farmed for their silk – they are territorial, solitary animals who can resort to cannibalism if kept in groups. No spiders, or other animals, are used in the making of Microsilk, which is created by adding genes into yeast and using yeast, sugar and water in a fermentation process. The result is a supple, versatile yarn that can be spun into many different fabrics. Stella McCartney has showcased a dress made from Microsilk as a part of the “Fashioned from Nature” exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Like many animal fabrics, chances are silk will soon be obsolete and replaced by new vegan materials. Not many people are yet aware of the issues behind silk – but many will know and wear the innovative fabrics that will replace it.
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Cover image via Bolt Threads.