Vegans don't use animal products. Especially in diet, they don't see animals as commodities. They don't eat meat, eggs, or dairy products. They also don't wear fur or leather. But what about silk?
Vegans don't wear silk because it involves the exploitation and killing of sensitive animals, silkworms. Instead, they wear the many animal-free alternatives available today.
Before becoming moths, silkworms spun silk fibers to form cocoons in their pupal stage. People use these animals and their natural protein fibers to wove silk fabric for clothing.
Silk is considered a luxury and one of the finest fiber in the fashion world. But the fashion industry is responsible for the trapping, farming, and skinning of billions of animals every year.
To make leather, wool, fur, or down, billion of cows, calves, pigs, birds, sheep, goats, or minks live in poor conditions and are brutally slaughtered each year. Fashion also kills wildlife and puts endangered species at risk.
Like other insects, silkworms are animals. To harvest silk, many of them have to die. Silk isn't a vegan fabric. Cruelty-free fashion brands don't use silk but vegan alternatives.
Unfortunately, silk is still widely used in the textile and apparel industry today. Many clothing designers and brands use silk to make blouses, suits, lingerie, loungewear, dresses, sleepwear, and shirts.
Silk involves the suffering of other animals such as ants, wasps, bees, beetles, leafhoppers, flies, and spiders. Hundreds of thousand silkworms have to die to make silk textiles each year.
Silk production is as exploitative and cruel today as it was centuries ago. Luckily, the number of conscious consumers is growing.
More people are asking for ethical and environmentally friendly clothing. They are concerned with the compassionate treatment of animals, even insects.
To answer the increasing demand for cruelty-free products, brands and retailers open up vegan stores everywhere and make more vegan options available worldwide.
Animal products, including silk clothing, should be avoided because the industrial farming of animals is unethical, environmentally damaging, and unsustainable. Here is why.
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What is silk
To understand if vegans can wear silk, let's have a look at what silk is.
Silk is an animal-derived material widely used in the textile and apparel industry. Silk is soft, smooth, breathable, strong, durable, and highly resistant.
Just like linen, silk is considered a luxury fabric because it's expensive. It's a very versatile fabric and a great choice for a variety of clothes and accessories.
Many fashion designers and brands use silk for new collections regularly because it's a natural fiber.
Many different insects make cocoons and are used to produce silk. They are reared in captivity and called silkworms.
The most well-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori. It's a commercial species of silkworms and a caterpillar of the domestic silkmoth.
Worms go through the same stages of metamorphosis as other moths in nature: egg, larval, pupal, and adult. Most of the insects in the silk industry don't live past the pupal stage.
Sericulture is the culture of the silkworm or silk farming. The weaving of silk into textiles have been practiced for thousands of year since Ancient China.
Back in 2640 BC, the Empress Xi Ling-shi encouraged the culture of the silkworm and developed the process of reeling from the cocoon.
Where does silk come from
Today, silk is mass-produced from reared silkworms. In their pupal stage, caterpillars of the silk moth are fed mulberry leaves to make cocoons.
More than 5,000 silkworms are necessary to produce just one kilogram of silk. It takes up to 2,000 cocoons to make a silk dress.
Every year, about 168,300 tons of raw silk are produced globally. The largest producer of silk is China with 126,000 tons produced in 2014, followed by India (23,700 tons), and Vietnam (6,800 tons).
Silk is made by spinning and weaving the cocoon fibers, the long threads that make up the inner structure constructed by larvae to protect themselves during the pupal stage.
Each female Bombyx mori lay up to 500 eggs. Silkworm eggs typically hatch within 7-14 days in a warm environment. Unfortunately, many hatchlings die prematurely from dehydration or starvation.
Silkworms chew their way out of their cocoon when they become adults in nature. However, to preserve material quality, thread length, and value, most silkworms are killed in the pupal stage by placing cocoons in boiling water.
Is silk vegan
Silk is an animal-derived product and is most probably not vegan.
Dropping silkworms and their cocoons into boiling water makes them potentially suffer and kills them.
Insect nervous systems differ from that of mammals. It's difficult to estimate how much an insect can suffer or feel pain.
However, just like any other animal, silkworms want to live like they would do in nature. They shouldn't be exploited and subjected to inhumane treatments.
Vegans avoid all harm and exploitation of animals, even insects because it's cruel and unnecessary. All animals have the right to live free of suffering.
Silkworms are domesticated, bred, and fed to maximize silk production. The industry wants to make the most profits without any regard for the welfare of animals.
Wild silk differs from domesticated silk as the wild silk moths are allowed to breed and lay eggs. However, the cocoons still go through the same process as the domesticated cocoons.
Ethical silk production would involve collecting cocoons left from wild insects after the adult stage when they are needed anymore. However, this process is inefficient, costly, and not viable for commercial use.
A more ethical way of wearing silk is using second-hand silk. Or any other silk alternatives.
Silkworms are sensitive beings who experience fear. They are different from mammals, but they are still living beings, and they want to continue living.
No animal should have to die to make beautiful, stylish, and affordable clothing. Animal cruelty has no place in modern societies. Life in every form is more valuable than things.
Silkworms want to have a natural and peaceful existence. Silk production is cruel and unethical. Vegans don't wear silk.
Domesticated moths are blind, can’t fly or eat. They aren’t capable of surviving in the wild. Silk farming has to stop to let wild silkworms repopulate their natural habitats and live peacefully.
We don't need to exploit insects to survive. There is simply no excuse to use animals as a resource for fashion in our society. Silkworms are bred, enslaved, and slaughtered for an unnecessary luxury fabric.
Ahimsa silk or peace silk allows moths to emerge from their cocoons and breed. Ahimsa silk was invented by Kusuma Rajaiah, a Hyderabad-based handloom technologist in 1991. He created peace silk according to his vision of living a non-violent and vegan lifestyle.
It's often seen as a more ethical solution. However, it still involves the exploitation of animals and isn't vegan. It's also difficult to produce in large quantities for commercial use.
The silk industry employs millions of workers in low-income East Asian countries. But cases of child labor and modern slavery still occur in farms and factories. Like many fashion brands that use sweatshop labor for garment production, silk manufacturing involves inhumane practices.
In 2003, Human Rights Watch interviewed children, employers, government officials and members of nongovernmental organizations in India. They reported that bonded children as young as five years old work more than 12 hours a day seven days a week in the silk industry.
Under pressure from consumers and animal rights organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), many fashion brands and retailers abandon the use of animal products, including fur, silk, and wool, for their new collections and choose better alternatives.
Silk isn't a vegan-friendly fabric. It's a natural and luxurious fabric, but it's harmful, irrelevant, and unsustainable.
Is silk sustainable
Silk is a natural fiber that has been produced for thousands of years. It's biobased, biodegradable, recyclable and has a low environmental impact.
Silkworms are fed with mulberry leaves. They require pesticides and fertilizers to grow, but much less than other natural fibers like regular cotton.
However, some silk production processes such as washing, bleaching, dyeing involve a high amount of chemicals. Most of them are very polluting, hazardous, and released untreated.
Silk contributes to pollution in China and India, even if its impact is lower than conventional cotton or synthetic fabrics such as polyester or acrylic.
More sustainable and environmentally silk production would include more transparency, organic farming, low impact dyes, wastewater treatments, recycling, and relevant certifications.
Unfortunately, most silk production facilities in China and India aren't certified. They consistently produce silk textiles with very low social and environmental standards.
Alternatives to silk
Ethical, vegan, and environmentally friendly alternatives to silk include natural organic fibers, synthetic recycled fibers, and semi-synthetic regenerated fibers.
Read up my list of the top 10 most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics to get a short overview of the alternatives.
Plant-derived material usually requires lots of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Organic farming is required to ensure a low environmental impact. Organic hemp, cotton, and linen are great choices.
Man-made synthetic materials are habitually made from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. Their recycled version, such as recycled polyester and nylon, is much less harmful to the environment.
Regenerated fibers such as rayon, viscose, modal, and lyocell are man-made fibers made from renewable resources. Their fabrication involves hazardous chemicals. Luckily, many manufacturers like Lenzing now use closed-loop production processes to minimize their negative impact.
Buying second-hand fashion is also a great way to be more ethical and sustainable with clothes. It allows to save money and protect the environment by reducing the demand for new clothes and keeping them away from landfills.
Do you know any other great vegan alternatives to silk? Let us know in the comments below.
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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.