Silk is a luxury fabric in the fashion world. It's considered one of the finest fiber globally. It's made from natural cocoon protein fibers spun by silkworms before becoming moths.
Silk is very expensive because of its limited availability and costly production. It takes more than 5,000 silkworms to produce just one kilogram of silk. The farming, killing, and harvesting of thousands of silkworm cocoons are resource-heavy, labor-intensive, and costly processes.
The silk fiber is a versatile and smooth animal-derived product. Clothing designers and brands in the textile and apparel industry use silk to make lingerie, loungewear, sleepwear, blouses, suits, dresses, and shirts.
What makes silk expensive
Silk is one of the most expensive fabrics in the world just like linen. It's often chosen for a variety of clothes and accessories in new collections.
Only 168,300 tons of raw silk are produced globally each year. China is the largest producer of silk with 126,000 tons produced in 2014, followed by India (23,700 tons), and Vietnam (6,800 tons).
In nature just like many other moths, silkworms go through the same steps of metamorphosis: egg, larval, pupal, and adult. In the silk industry, however, they don't go past the pupal stage. Instead, they are killed by being placed in boiling water to preserve the cocoons' value, the thread length, and quality.
Silk farmers feed caterpillars mulberry leaves to make cocoons over several weeks. Cocooning begins in as little as 28 days from the time the silkworm eggs hatched, which generally takes between one or two weeks.
Silk fabric production is slow. It requires various manufacturing processes such as farming thousands of cocoons, spinning fibers, weaving cloth, bleaching, dyeing, and treatment. That's why silk prices are high.
Silk is cruel
Silk has many qualities as fiber for garment production. It's soft, strong, breathable, durable, and very resistant. But it involves the exploitation and killing of sensitive animals, silkworms.
Many different insects make cocoons used to produce silk. Usually, people farm larvae cocoons of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori to make silk.
Other animals such as leafhoppers, flies, ants, wasps, bees, beetles, and spiders suffer and die to make silk textiles regularly. Hundreds of thousand silkworms are killed each year.
There is a lot of cruelty going on in the fashion industry. And silk production is no different. It isn't a vegan fabric. To produce wool, fur, leather, silk, and down, the fashion industry kills billions of animals every year.
Just like it was in history, silk production is as exploitative and cruel today. All animals deserve compassionate treatment, even insects.
Cruelty-free fashion brands don't use silk in their new collections. They use some of the many vegan alternatives to silk.
What's wrong with silk
The commercial farming and mass killing of animals is not only unethical but also disastrous for the environment. The large majority of silk textiles are produced with very low social and environmental standards.
Mulberry plants are grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. And silk production involves a high amount of chemicals. They are very hazardous and released untreated into the nearby environment. They pollute the air, soils, water sources, endangering ecosystems, and human health.
Silk is very costly because its production requires lots of hand labor. The silk industry employs millions of workers in the poorest East Asian countries. many fashion brands and retailers use sweatshop labor for garment production.
Silk manufacturing also includes inhumane practices. Children work more than 12 hours a day seven days a week in the silk industry.
There are many viable alternatives to silk that are also more cruelty-free, ethical, and environmentally friendly.
The best sustainable fabrics for clothing are either made from natural organic fibers, synthetic recycled fibers, and cellulosic regenerated fibers.
To get more information about eco-friendly materials, read up my list of the top 10 most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics.
Natural and organic fabrics are plant-derived materials. Cotton is the most widely used but generally requires lots of water, fertilizers, and pesticides to grow. Prefer fibers made from organic farming with a low environmental impact.
Synthetic fibers are usually dependent on the oil industry. They are made from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. Choose recycled polyester or nylon which are less harmful to the environment. Check out my list of the many sustainable synthetic fabrics.
Man-made cellulosic fibers made from renewable resources. They include lyocell, viscose-rayon, acetate, modal, and cupro. Their production is resource-intensive and consumes lots of chemicals, water, and energy. Luckily, closed-loop production processes can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals.
When shopping for sustainable materials, it's important to look for certifications from third-party organizations that verify content and quality. Read up my article on the best certification standards for textiles to learn more about them.
You also have the option of buying second-hand fashion as an alternative to expensive silk. It's a great method to be more sustainable with clothes. It decreases pollution and waste by reducing the demand for new clothing production.
I hope this was helpful to you to better understand the impact of fashion made from silk. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.