Is Wearing Silk Ethical?

silkworm on leaf

Silk is used all over the world for clothes, bedding, and art. Most people believe silk is a harmless material that creates beautiful, soft products. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silk not only causes the deaths of billions of silkworms every year, but it is also heavily reliant on slave labour and child exploitation. We’ve included some cruelty-free, ethical alternatives for you to try instead.

Silkworm cocoons
Trays of silkworm cocoons.

What is a silkworm?

A silkworm is not actually a worm – they are the larva or caterpillar of a silk moth. They go through the same metamorphic stages of other moths – egg, larval, pupal, and adult. Although there are a variety of silkworms, the most commonly exploited species is the mulberry silkworm, Bombyx mori [1].

What is silk?

Silk is a natural protein fibre that is produced by silkworms to make cocoons. At 35-days-old, the worms spin egg-shaped cocoons where they will stay until they transform into moths. A single silkworm will produce 915 metres of silk in just 3-days! Their transformation into moths takes 16 days. When the moth leaves the cocoon, they release a liquid to burn an exit hole. Unfortunately, this damages the silk – something the industry does not want. 

silk moths leaving cocoon
Silk moths leaving their cocoons.

To protect the silk, the cocoons – with the pupal still inside – are either submerged into boiling water or treated with hot air, steam, before the 16 days are over, boiling the silkworms alive. These processes are called stifling. All of these processes make it easier to unwind the cocoon in a single, unbroken filament, which can then be woven into silk thread [1].

Around 6,600 silkworms are killed to make just 1kg of silk.

silkworm cocoon
Worker unravelling the cocoons.

There is a variety of silk called “Peace Silk” or “Ahimsa Silk” that doesn’t involve stifling. Animal-welfare advocates are sceptical of how humane this method is, as there is no certification to make sure the process meets standards. A group in India reported that female moths are stored in trays to lay eggs, while the males were “put into the refrigerator and kept in a semi-frozen condition” until they are needed to mate. Once they could no longer mate, they were discarded [2].

Do Silkworms feel pain?

Little research has been done on whether caterpillars feel pain or not. In saying this, they share many similarities with worms – who do feel pain. Until proven otherwise, we must conclude that if worms feel pain, so too do caterpillars.

In 1979, Swedish Scientists found that worms do feel pain, despite past studies suggesting that they do not. Their research showed that earthworms produce two kinds of chemicals — encephalin and beta-endorphins — which have been identified in human brains as similar to opiates in their ability to affect sensations of pleasure and pain. It is believed that the production of these substances by an animal is to help the animal endure pain. This Swedish team also found that these substances are localized in immunoreactive nerves in the earthworm’s equivalent of a brain – the cerebral ganglion. [3]

What about the workers?

The silk industry is responsible for the suffering of workers. Most of the world’s silk is produced in China, followed by India. Research into the industry has found it is heavily related to child slavery.

The most common form of modern slavery is debt bondage or debt slavery. Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. Children are often forced to help pay off their parents debts. The people are tricked into working for little or no pay, with no control over their debt. In this situation, most, or all, of the money they earn, goes to pay off their loan. The value of their work becomes far greater than the original sum of money borrowed. Bonded labour flourishes because of poverty and widespread caste-based discrimination. Limited access to justice, education, and jobs for discriminated groups make it difficult to get out of poverty. This is most widespread in India and Pakistan. 

Children are used during every stage of silk production. From as young as 5-years-old, they are made to work 6 to 7 days a week, for 12 or more hours a day. Many suffer from burns and blisters, as they are working with boiling water. They also breathe smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead worms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers. Those that assist weavers sit at cramped looms in damp, dim rooms. They do not go to school and are often beaten by their employers. By the time they reach adulthood, they are impoverished, illiterate, and often crippled by the work. [4,5,6,7]

silk workers
A silk factory in China.

Humane and environmentally friendly alternatives

There is a range of luxurious, cruelty-free silk alternatives available.

“For thousands of years, silk has been associated with luxury. From the emperor’s robes to concubine’s scarves, the fabric represented wealth, refinement, and sensuality. Of course, this is all true today, too, but we can add ‘sustainability’ to that list – silk is a biodegradable material that takes to dye quickly, meaning that unlike some other fibres, it doesn’t need multiple dye baths, which is good news for the environment. But silk can be bad news for animals!

Most people know that the refined textile is the outcome of the silkworm spinning a fibroin protein into a cocoon, which can be comprised of up to a hundred metres of silk thread. To emerge from its cocoon, the silkworm secretes a fluid which burns a hole through the strands. But since this damages and breaks the fibre, farmers habitually boil the silkworm alive to save the silk. Finding this to be cruel, various designers to find alternative ways of making silk”.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi Senior Features Writer Eluxe Magazine (Italy)

Sugar and yeast silk

Synthetic spider silk, by Bolt Threads, is made using proteins inspired by natural silks through bioengineering. Genes are added to yeast, which is left to ferment with sugar and water, and the liquid silk proteins are extracted. This process is similar to the production of rayon and acrylic – only more eco-friendly. This material is also renewable, as the main component is sugar, which comes from plants that are replanted – unlike polyester, which is the usual vegan replacement for silk and made from petroleum [8].

This eco-friendly silk alternative has the power to rival traditional silk, which is not only harmful to silkworms, workers, and the environment but also quite difficult to care for. [9] 

vegan silk
Bolt Threads synthetic silk with Stella McCartney

Lotus flower silk

Lotus silk, by Lotus flowers, is still highly popular commercially. The Lotus stems – which are left behind after the blossoms are cut and considered waste – are used by textile makers to produce luxury items. This process is highly laborious, with around 6,500 lotus stems being used to create a single length of handwoven fabric [10].

Bamboo silk

Bamboo silk is increasingly being often used to make carpet and is filling stores with dresses and sleepwear, yoga clothing, sheets and bed covers, jackets, coats, and shirts. There are stores in Australia branding themselves as “bamboo.” It is soft, durable, and beautiful. Bamboo silk is a natural viscose. Cellulose is extracted from the plant and formed into a sticky paste, after extraction, the cellulose is left to dry, and is then expelled to become a soft silky fibre [11].

Orange silk

Orange Fibre is an Italian company that creates silk-like fabric using citrus fruit by-products. They break them down into citrus cellulose, which is then used to make a sustainable silk-like fabric. Orange silk is already being used by fast-fashion giant H&M is their Conscious Collection [12].

Ramie silk

Ramie silk is derived from a flowering plant in the nettle family. It has been used for over 6,000 years for the production of fabric, mainly in China, Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and it has the look, feel, and drape of raw silk [13].

vegan silk

Other ethical options are those that aren’t derived from animals such as polyester, Tencel, milkweed seed-pod fibres, silk-cotton tree filaments, and rayon.

The future

With so many alternatives available, we no longer need to exploit silkworms for their cocoons. If you have any questions, comments, or favourite products, leave them in the comments below!

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