Many people like silk as a fabric or fibre, but some question how it is made and what impact silk’s production has.
In this short guide, we look at how silk rates amongst different measures to see how sustainable, eco friendly and cruelty free it really is.
Summary – Is Silk Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Cruelty Free To Animals For Fibre, Fabrics & Products?
Regular silk is made from animal protein – usually from silkworms.
You wouldn’t buy or use regular silk if you are vegan or you’re against animal cruelty – as silkworms are usually boiled alive to make it.
Silk is relatively sustainable and eco friendly though (although the yield is quite small – it takes about 2500 silkworms to produce a pound of raw silk).
Compared to cotton for example, there is far less impact on the land, water and air, and it doesn’t involve the use of pesticides.
Silk is very efficient from an inputs point of view (land, water, and resources required at the growing stage).
Other options to regular silk might be Peace silk, and other types of silk like Art silk and spider silk.
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this. But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Some other dot points from the above summary and the information in the guide below are:
- The animal cruelty concerns with silk are when silkworms are dissolved alive inside their cocoons – Approximately 2500 silkworms die to make 1 pound of raw silk
- There’s a version of silk called ‘Peace Silk’ or Ahimsa Silk that allows silkworms to hatch out of their cocoons, but it is more time and cost intensive
- Other vegan or cruelty free silks are Spider silk and Art silk
- The water footprint, carbon footprint, chemical footprint, and land footprint for silk is very small compared to other fibres
- One of the problems with silk is the low yield – the amount of usable silk from each cocoon is small
- Also, large amounts of mulberry leaves and silkworms are required to produce a silk piece of clothing.
- You also have to consider though that mulberry leaves come from mainly the White mulberry plant – so, there is a land, water, and chemicals footprint required to grow and harvest them
- The major silk producers in 2005 were China (54%) and India (14%)
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that silk production and manufacturing may differ by country
* Different silk farming technology and methods, and other factors can impact how silk is produced
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers). So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
Cruelty To Animals (Silkworms) In The Silk Industry
- Extracting raw silk starts by cultivating the silkworms on mulberry leaves.
- Once the worms start pupating in their cocoons, these are dissolved in boiling water in order for individual long fibres to be extracted and fed into the spinning reel.
There is a form of making silk called Peace Silk, where silkworms are allowed to hatch out their cocoons, but it is more costly and takes more time.
How Much Water Does Silk Use For Farming & Processing/Manufacturing?
Compared to other fibres, it uses very little.
Water is used to both boil silk cocoons, and to clean the silk of sericin just before the yarn or even woven fabric stage.
Water is also used in the water footprint for the mulberry leaves that the silkworm larvae are fed.
Carbon Footprint Of Silk, & Energy Use
Carbon footprint is very small.
There are energy inputs to grow the mulberry trees used to extract the mulberry leaves to feed the silkworm larvae.
Mulberry trees actually provide a carbon sink – sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
How Much Pesticide & Fertilizer Does Silk Use
Very little – only what is used to grow the mulberry trees.
Silk, & Soil Health & Land Degradation
There is very little soil and land impact for silk.
Mulberry trees can be reasonably sustainably grown.
Also, silkworms are usually bred not on land, but in a box and then moved to gauze – essentially it can be done in commercial silkworm facilities.
The Yield Of Silk, Efficiency To Process Silk, & How Effective Silk Farming Is
- The amount of usable silk in each cocoon is small, and about 2500 silkworms are required to produce a pound of raw silk.
- To produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms.
- It takes about 5000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono.
How Many Chemicals Does Wool Use In The Processing Stage?
Although it can be dyed or have chemicals applied to it once it’s turned into a fabric.
Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Silk During Farming & Processing
Nowhere near as much as other fibres.
Wool for example deals with issues like methane from sheep. Whilst cotton deals with pesticides, fertilizers, processing chemicals, and dyes and bleaches all being able to pollute water, soil and land.
Silkworms leave less of an environmental pollution impact.
Impact Of Silk On Humans & Human Health
Impact Of Silk On Wildlife & Animals
Obviously there’s a huge impact on silkworms.
Approximately 2500 silkworms die to make 1 pound of raw silk.
Biodegradability & Recyclability Of Silk
In it’s natural form, silk is biodegradable and recyclable.
If it’s been treated with synthetic chemicals or combined with synthetic fibres in a fabric though, it may not be.
More Information About Mulberry Trees & Leaves (Used To Feed Silkworms)
The White Mulberry Tree is the one with the leaves usually used to feed silkworms.
Read more about it here:
- The Essential Guide To Mulberry (permaculturenews.org)
Top Silk Producing Countries
- The major silk producers in 2005 were China (54%) and India (14%)
Vegan Alternatives To Regular Silk
- Peace silk, or Ahimsa silk – where silk worms are allowed to hatch from their silk cocoon naturally. This silk can have different capabilities though because the silk fibres are now shorter compared to if the egg was in tact
- Spider silk – made from yeast, water, and sugar
- Art silk – made from bamboo ‘silk’ in a chemical manufacturing process
Note though that Peace silk may increase the price of the final product, and may still involve a difficult life for the silk worms involved in the production (craftsmanship.net)