Silk is often overlooked in discussions about ethical, sustainable fashion, but this is a sore mistake. 

You may be surprised to know that about 5,500 silkworms are boiled alive for less than one kilogram of silk. 

Further, many people do not realise just how environmentally devastating silk is, having the largest impact on global warming, and in fact one of the largest environmental impacts of a material overall. 

And if the impacts on silkworms and the earth weren’t enough, the silk industry is known to, in some instances, use both forced and child labour to produce the ‘luxurious’ material.

Fortunately, there are lots of beautiful, more sustainable and ethical alternatives to silk. These materials are made from plant-matter, instead of from boiled alive insects.

A silk moth. 

Silkworm and moth sentience

There is still debate about whether or not insects like silkworms (who are actually caterpillars) and moths are sentient, conscious and able to feel pain. However, it’s important to remember that the sentience of fish was widely questioned for decades, and evidence now unequivocally confirms that fish are sentient, thinking beings.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness found that ‘the absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states.’ As far back as 1979, research has indicated that worms can feel pain and have developed a similar system to humans to protect themselves against it. The study found that earthworms operate with chemicals that are also present in human brains, which act similarly to opiates in their capacity to affect sensations of pain and pleasure.

Other studies on insects, such as bees, have found that the insects can become agitated, even able to anticipate bad outcomes; a phenomenon called ‘pessimistic cognitive bias’. While not every insect has been studied, we should err on the side of caution and assume that if many insects, including worms, feel pain, so do others, like caterpillars. Further, it’s been found that moths can ‘remember’ being caterpillars


A silkworm. 

Producing silk

Silkworms are bred and eat mulberry leaves until they grow large enough for their metamorphosis. As the silkworms begin to spin their cocoons, they rotate their bodies in a figure-eight some 300,000 times. The cocoon is produced over a period of up to eight days, and is constructed from about a kilometre of silk filament. 

The intact cocoons are then exposed to or submerged with steaming hot air or boiling water. The silkworms inside are boiled alive, or die from the heat of the steam. 

Cocoons with silkworms inside who have been killed, and a cut open cocoon with a dead silkworm inside.

Enormous amounts of insects killed

To produce one kilogram of silk, a little less than 5,500 silkworms must be killed. This is an enormous amount of animals to be killed, unable to live out their natural lives, for the sake of fashion. 

A silk moth, ‘bombyx mori’, on the cocoon they have emerged from. 

Is there cruelty-free silk?

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the first people to critique silk production, based on the ahimsa principle of non-violence towards all living beings. Today, some fashion brands market ‘ahimsa silk’, which claims not to kill the silkworms in the production of silk. Instead of boiling the silkworms alive, these systems wait until the moths hatch out from their cocoons. 

There are a few notes to consider in regards to ‘ahimsa’ or ‘peace silk’. The first is that when cocoons are broken open, the filament of silk which can be retrieved from the material is far shorter, and less silk can come from this process. It would not be possible for this kind of silk to meet global demand. 

The second, and more concerning element to consider is that there are no certifications to ensure that supposed ‘peace silk’ really is harvested as above, or if silkworms are indeed boiled alive and killed. An Indian animal rights group called Beauty Without Cruelty found that in ‘peace’ and ‘ahimsa silk’ supply chains silk worms were:

  • Selectively bred for commercial production to the point that they are unable to fly or move comfortably when they come out from their cocoon
  • In the case of male moths, kept in semi-frozen conditions in refrigerators until breeding season, and discarded in bins when they are no longer of use
  • In the case of female moths, crushed after they are used for breeding, when they are no longer of use.
Layers of cocoons.

Environmental exploitation

Global warming

Data shared through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition found that silk is one of the most environmentally impactful materials to produce.

When looking specifically at the impact a material has on global warming, silk is responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions lead to the warming of our planet, the melting of our precious ice caps, and rising oceans.

The majority of these emissions comes from farm yard manure and fertiliser use in the cultivation of mulberry leaves, which is grown to feed the silkworms. 

Fossil fuel use

In the reeling and processing stages of silk production, fossil fuel use also adds to the negative environmental impact of the material.

The reeling of silk is energy intensive at every stage of production, including cocoon drying, cooking, reeling and re-reeling.

Mulberry leaves being farmed.

A wasteful material

In the production of silk, 200kg of mulberry leaves are required to be eaten by silkworms to create only 1kg of raw silk. 

This is an enormous amount of plant matter to be grown (on a significant amount of land), fertilized, and harvested. This system is inefficient as well as cruel. 

Human exploitation

Child labour

In India, ‘bonded child labour’ has been reported. Bonded child labour is when the work of a child is guaranteed to an employer in return for a payment or loan. These children are then obliged to continue to work for this employer. 

‘Low-caste’ Hindu children, in the caste system which creates a hierarchy of people who are forced into a fixed social order which oppresses many, are especially at risk of being forced into bonded child labour. 

Sometimes, the debt of children is passed onto their own children, with generations of family forced to continue to labour under the same employment. Children can work extremely long days in hazardous conditions.

Women and children working in the silk industry.
Image via
Common Objective
Children and women in Uzbekistan working with silkworms and cocoons.
Image via
Alexander Zemlianichenko

Forced labour

Forced labour has been found to occur in Uzbekistan. In this country, the silk industry is controlled by the government; officials can, and often do, threaten farmers with loss of land and agricultural supplies, as well as prosecution if production targets are not met. 

The strict government quotas and associated fines and violence associated with the industry approach conditions of forced labour, with child labour also being reported. Children in Uzbekistan, as young as five, have been reported working from 4am until midnight picking mulberry leaves and caring for silkworms, which of course results in a disruption to their lives and sleep deprivation.

Health hazards to workers

People working in sericulture, the agricultural system in which silk is produced, are exposed to multiple health risk factors.

Investigation into these health hazards have found the majority of silkworm rearers in Kashmir, India, (who harvest the cocoons) suffer from issues like eye irritation, injuries, back pain, allergies, respiratory problems and headaches. This is because rearers are exposed to multiple physical, chemical and biological agents when ‘cooking’ the cocoons and the silkworms inside them. The conditions this work is done in often involve small spaces with a lack of ventilation, where firewood is used to heat the rooms. Chemical and solid waste disposal is often a neglected issue, and the hazardous effects of chemicals are often not made clear to workers. Similar issues with exposure to chemicals are prevalent in the farming of the mulberry leaves silkworms eat, which have weed and pest controls added to them. 

Burns are also common issues, as workers put their bare hands into hot water which loosens the cocoon fibres so that the silk thread can begin to be unwound. Hot water gives blisters on the hands, which can lead to secondary irritations like dermatitis. 

Dermatitis and silk rearing. 

Alternatives

Fortunately, there are lots of alternative materials for those who like ‘silky’ materials, without the suffering and lack of sustainability. 

All of these materials are more sustainable to produce than silk, considering it is, as mentioned, one of the most environmentally impactful materials to produce. However, synthetic materials – which some alternatives are – will not biodegrade so need to be bought with consideration. As the fashion industry becomes more circular and has more collection and recycling facilities, this problem will be solved.

Many ultra-sustainable fibres – including sugar and yeast silk being produced by Bolt Threads, orange fiber made from fruit juice waste, lotus and ramie silk – are all sustainable alternatives, though they are less commonly available in our fashion market (for now). 

See below some of our favourite, vegan, ethically-made silk-free garments. These materials are more readily available, so you can access them now if you want to live silk-free. 

Cupro

Cupro comes from a fiber also known as cotton linter, the fuzz surrounding cotton seeds which is otherwise discarded. This material is silky and biodegradable. Some cupro is made in a closed-loop system, where there is a near 100% recycling rate for the water and any chemicals used in the material processing.

This dress is by ethical vegan label Avesso

Bamboo Lyocell

Bamboo is a sustainable plant to harvest as it is fast growing, and doesn’t require any pesticides to grow. Further, it respouts itself. Unfortunately, a lot of bamboo material is chemically wasteful. Bamboo lyocell however can be made very sustainably. Ethical brand Ettitude creates their silky bamboo lyocell sheets in a non-toxic, closed-loop system which saves 98% of water used. The material is hypoallergenic and thermo-regulating.

Satin

Made from both rayon and polyester, this material is synthetic, and has less than half the environmental impact to produce than silk, according to the Global Fashion Agenda. Lots of brands use this material!

Some brands even use recycled r-PET to produce their satin, such as ADKN, a vegan, ethically made brand from England.