How Sustainable Are Silk Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
A cocoon made by a silkworm caterpillar can be unraveled into one continuous silk thread of impressive length. Such thread can be weaved into a fabric with beautiful luster and the properties to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Yet, modern-day commercial production of this wonderful ancient fabric is tainted with sustainably and ethically questionable practices. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are silk fabrics?
Silk is generally not a sustainable fabric. Silk production uses a lot of land, water, and energy. Silk fabrics tend to have a high life-cycle carbon footprint as they often require steam ironing. Also, most domesticated silkworm moths are killed in their cocoons.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of silk fabrics used for clothes and accessories. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with silk fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Silk Fabrics
Silk fabrics are generally not sustainable. Sourcing and processing silk protein fibers are resource-intensive. At the usage stage, washing and caring for silk fabrics have high environmental impacts.
It is also important to take note of the cruel end met by the majority of domesticated silkworms whose cocoons are used as raw materials for silk fabrics.
“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”Oxford Dictionary
To understand the sustainability of silk fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of silk fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothing items and accessories made with silk fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of silk fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of silk fabrics||Sourcing raw materials for silk fabrics is not sustainable. The raw materials for most commercial silk fabrics come from the cocoons that silkworm caterpillars produce to wrap around themselves during their transformation into silkworm moths. The main food for these larvae is the leaves of mulberry trees, which often require significant land and water to grow. Heavy overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is common in mulberry cultivation, even though the species generally don’t need such agrochemicals.|
|Manufacturing of silk fabrics||Large-scale commercial silk manufacturing is energy and water-intensive, making silk processing unsustainable. The process starts with collecting silk protein fibers from the cocoons produced by the caterpillars of the silkworm moth species. Then, the yarns go through various mechanical and chemical processes, including degumming, weighting, dyeing, and weaving.|
|Transporting of silk fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with silk fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Silk fabrics typically travel from silkworm-rearing facilities or forests, where the cocoons are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of silk fabrics||The usage of silk is generally not sustainable. Many silk fabrics require dry cleaning using harmful solvents. Silk clothes are also prone to wrinkles, resulting in high energy demand for steam pressing. However, silk is a strong natural fiber that can make long-lasting clothes.|
|End-of-life of silk fabrics||The end-of-life stage for silk is generally sustainable because untreated silk is fully biodegradable and compostable.|
Overall, we can say silk is generally not a sustainable material. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, a pillowcase or a dress, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the raw material (silk protein fibers from silkworm chrysalis), the manufacturing process, the transportation distance, and vehicles used during transport.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy silk fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Silk Fabrics
Sourcing raw materials for silk fabrics is not sustainable. The raw materials for most commercial silk fabrics come from the cocoons that silkworm caterpillars produce to wrap around themselves during their transformation into silkworm moths. The main food for these larvae is the leaves of mulberry trees, which often require significant land and water to grow.
Heavy overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is common in mulberry cultivation, even though the species generally don’t need such agrochemicals.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Silk Fabrics
The raw materials for silk fabrics come from the cocoons of caterpillars from various silkworm moth species. These cocoons or chrysalis are for metamorphosis, the process where a caterpillar transforms into a moth.
Most silk manufacturers source the cocoons of Bombyx mori moths farmed indoors, often with a controlled temperature and moisture.
- After hundreds of years of selective breeding, this moth species has lost its ability to fly, see, camouflage, and fear predators.
- Bombyx mori moths, or so-called domestic silkworm moths, depend completely on humans for their survival, which is exclusively indoors and under controlled conditions set by the farms.
- The natural food for Bombyx mori caterpillars is mulberry leaves, but these voracious leaf munchers also eat the Osage orange or lettuce foliage.
Some silk makers source cocoons collected in the wild for their wild silk fabrics. These cocoons are spun by caterpillars of other moth species living in the wild. Their diet includes plants available locally (rather than exclusively mulberry leaves).
The silk protein fibers extracted from such cocoons often vary much more significantly in length and color compared to those from Bombyx mori caterpillars.
Some examples of wild silk varieties are:
- Tussah silk, coming from China and Korea
- Tasar, muga, and eri silks native to India and several other countries
- Attacus and Cricula silks from Java, Indonesia
- Tensan silk in Japan
- Kalahari wild silk in southern Africa
- Landibe silk in Madagascar
- Sanyan silk in West Africa
- Epiphora silk in Sudan and West Africa
- Rothschildia silk in Argentina
Wild silk is generally considered more sustainable and ethical than commercial silk. We will have a look at the reasoning in the next sections.
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Silk Fabrics Impact the Environment
The raw materials for silk fabrics are protein fibers produced by silkworm caterpillars to form their chrysalis or cocoons.
In most commercial settings, sourcing these materials bear the environmental impacts of growing mulberry trees in high numbers, as the silkworm larvae have a voracious appetite for mulberry leaves.
Sourcing cocoons from wild silkworm caterpillars reduces these adverse impacts.
Growing Mulberry Trees for Silk Fabrics Production Uses a Lot of Lands
Domestic silkworms Bombyx mori are ravenous eaters of mulberry leaves. It takes a huge amount of leaves from many trees to feed them from larvae to pupas.
Let’s look at a scenario when the estimated yield for an acre of land used to grow mulberry trees is 4.55 tons of leaves:
- Such an amount of leaves are enough to feed silkworm caterpillars which make around 440 lbs of cocoons, resulting in 88 lbs of raw silk.
- Considering one set of pajamas made with high-quality silk weighs approximately 19 lbs, one acre of mulberry-cultivating land, with this supposed yield, is not quite enough for 10 sets of pajamas.
The land footprint for mulberry cultivation varies depending on whether the crop is irrigated (lower) or rain-fed (higher). Irrigated mulberry cultivation tends to take up less land to produce one unit of silk fabrics than rain-fed systems, according to a case study of silk produced in Malawi. This is because irrigated mulberry trees have more leaves, thanks to always having enough water (while rain-fed trees sometimes suffer from water stress during drought periods.)
However, it is important to note that irrigation requires blue water (freshwater). In contrast, the rain-fed system uses exclusively green water (rainwater stored in the soil), as we will discuss below.
Growing Mulberry Trees for Silk Fabrics Production Can Have a High Water Footprint
A significant amount of water (and energy for pumping) is often needed to irrigate mulberry-cultivating lands. According to a study of silk production in Malawi, the average freshwater footprint of mulberry cultivation varies from 24,800 to 37,000 liters per kilogram of silk.
In comparison, the global average water footprint of cotton plant irrigation is 1,832 m3 for 1,000 kg of cotton fibers (or 1,832 liters per kilogram of cotton fibers.)
Mulberry trees, grown for silk production, have a much higher irrigation water footprint than cotton plants cultivated for cotton production.
We must note that mulberry trees can be cultivated in rain-fed-only conditions. However, significant rainfall in the farming regions is necessary. According to a case study in Malawi, rain-fed mulberry cultivation requires, on average, 79,300 liters of green water per kilogram of silk.
Unnecessary Synthetic Fertilizers and Pesticides Are Routinely Applied in Mulberry Cultivation
Mulberry trees don’t require fertilizers and pesticides to grow, yet large-scale commercial farming systems often use them to increase leaf production and protect saplings.
Agrochemical runoffs can contaminate the grounds and nearby water bodies. Making chemicals also requires energy.
Farmers can opt for manure-based instead of fossil-based fertilizers, yet applying animal waste on land can lead to eutrophication. The excessive nutrient load can lead to harmful algae blooms and “dead zones” in streams, rivers, and lakes.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Silk Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Silk production originated in China. The trading of silk for other commodities was the start of the trading network linking the east to the west and the rest of the world – one that we refer to as The Silk Road.
China is now the largest manufacturer of silk fabrics, followed by India. Other big producers are Uzbekistan, Thailand, Brazil, and Vietnam.
Location-specific issues regarding the sustainability of mulberry cultivation for silk fabric production include the followings:
Chemical-Based Fertilizers and Pesticides Are Applied Unnecessarily
Even though mulberry trees can grow without agrochemicals, large-scale commercial farmers often use them to promote leaf growth and protect saplings.
In places like India, government subsidies in the agricultural sector give farmers the incentives to use these chemicals in excessive quantities.
For example, a life cycle analysis of cumulative energy demand on sericulture in Karnataka, India, shows that mulberry farmers apply certain types of fertilizer at 1.5 to 3 times the recommended quantities.
The excessive use of agrochemicals leads to environmental contamination, increased energy usage, and elevated carbon emissions associated with the sourcing stage.
Electricity Use for Irrigation Contributes to Elevated Carbon Footprint
The Indian government also subsidizes electricity used for agricultural activities, giving farmers little incentive to save electricity, such as when using the pumping systems. Since less than 20% of Indian electricity comes from renewable resources, high electricity usage will likely elevate greenhouse gas emissions at this stage.
Mulberry Cultivation’s High Water Demand Can Exacerbate Water Scarcity During Dry Season
The expansion of mulberry grown for silk production can intensify water shortages in producing countries during the dry season.
For example, research shows that the increased land use for mulberry trees in India exacerbates the country’s water scarcity in pre-monsoon months, potentially affecting eleven million people yearly.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Silk Fabrics
Large-scale commercial silk manufacturing is energy and water-intensive, making silk processing unsustainable. The process starts with collecting silk protein fibers from the cocoons produced by the caterpillars of the silkworm moth species. Then, the yarns go through various mechanical and chemical processes, including degumming, weighting, dyeing, and weaving.
How Sustainably Are Silk Fabrics Generally Manufactured
Here are the standard steps in manufacturing silk fabrics:
- Collecting the cocoons: The cocoons (or chrysalis) are spun by caterpillars at around day 35 of their life, containing two essential elements:
- A continuous fiber thread (silk filament) from 1,000 to 2,000 feet long (making up between 75% to 90% of the total weight of the cocoon): When silkworm moths emerge from the cocoon, they make a hole and turn the filament into pieces of shorter fiber threads, measured inches instead of feet in length.
- Sericin: the glue (or gum) keeping the fiber thread in the cocoon form
The majority of cocoons are boiled in water to prevent the mature silkworm moths from emerging, which would lead to the exceptionally long fiber thread to be cut short.
- Forming the yarn: A single fiber thread, or threads when the moth has emerged from the cocoon, is unraveled and loaded onto a reel, one after another, to form a yarn. Reeling can be done by machine or by hand. Sometimes, the strings are twisted in a process called throwing.
- Degumming: The yarn is soaked in hot soapy water, or bleached using chemicals, to remove the sericin gum.
- Weighting: Metallic salts are sometimes applied to the yarn to add body, luster, and physical weight to the silk fabric.
- Dyeing: This process can be done either before or after weaving to add desirable colors to silk fabrics. Sometimes manufacturers bleach the silk in this process.
- Weaving: The silk yarn is woven into silk fabrics.
Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage next.
Silk Manufacturing Is Energy-Intensive
Producing silk fabrics requires large amounts of energy, and if the main energy source comes from fossil fuels, it will increase the manufacturing carbon footprint.
Significant steps that demand energy in silk production are as followings:
- Heating water in different manufacturing steps uses energy
- The temperature and moisture conditions in silkworm-rearing facilities are controlled by electricity-powered machinery
- Transporting materials along various phases of the manufacturing process requires fuels
In most commercial settings, the cocoons are cooked in boiling water before the pupas mature enough to turn into moths, making a hole that breaks the filament to get out.
If it is the case, cooking the cocoons tends to be the most energy-intensive part of silk production. A cradle-to-gate life-cycle analysis of cumulative energy demand in silk production in Karnataka, India, reports a 51% share of energy usage from cocoon cooking.
However, this analysis also found that silk is 1,000 times more efficient in its energy of formation than the synthetic fabric polyethylene.
Silk Manufacturing Can Contaminate The Grounds and Water Bodies
Though chemicals used in silk production often have lower environmental impacts than large-scale commercial cotton or synthetic fabrics, they still can contaminate the grounds and water systems if the wastewater is not treated properly, which is unfortunately not uncommon.
Silk production often includes the following chemical processes:
- Remove sericin
Where Are Silk Fabrics Usually Manufactured
The world’s top silk textile producers are:
- North Korea
GHG Emissions During Manufacturing Silk Fabrics Vary Depending on Location
Because silk fabrics production is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) would significantly reduce carbon emissions at this stage.
According to Our World in Data, the shares of renewable energy in primary energy in silk-producing nations vary significantly among silk producers. The difference between the silk-producing country with the highest percentage of renewable energy (Brazil) and the silk-producing country with the lowest share of renewable energy (Uzbekistan) is a staggering 17 times.
Specifically, renewable energy shares in the top 8 silk producers are as followings:
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- India: 9.31% renewable energy
- Uzbekistan: 2.65% renewable energy
- Thailand: 7.11% renewable energy
- Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy
- Vietnam: 22.73% renewable energy
- North Korea: (no data available)
- Turkey: 16.52% renewable energy
Silkworms Are Usually Killed In Large-Scale Commercial Silk Production
The cocoon of a silkworm moth is made with one continuous silk thread with a length of up to 200 feet, qualifying silk as a filament fiber – the only one from the natural world.
- Yet, when a silkworm moth is ready to emerge from the chrysalis at the end of its transformation, it secretes a fluid that dissolves one end of its temporary shelter, breaking the filament in the process.
- What is left are fibers of much shorter lengths, resulting in lower quality of the silk produced.
- Because of this, most large-scale commercial manufacturers of silk fabrics cook the cocoons, killing the moths to prevent them from breaking the precious long silk threads.
- Only a small amount of moths are allowed to emerge so they can lay eggs to hatch larvae, repeating the cycles.
On the other hand, peace silk or cruel-free silk are made from cocoons from which all moths can emerge. However, the Bombyx mori moth species, which have been selectively bred for a long time, have lost the ability to fly, move, or even eat. It means that once they come out of the chrysalis, they will completely depend on humans and must stay in captivity for the rest of their remaining short life.
Alternatively, wild silk made from cocoons left by the wild cousins of silkworm moths in forests is a more ethical option. However, wild silk fabrics are both rarer and inferior in quality.
Silk Production Impacts Workers And Communities Both Negatively And Positively
Silk production is labor intensive, whether it starts in silkworm-rearing farms or the forests.
Silk fabrics are often made in places where labor costs and labor protection are low:
- There is evidence of child labor and slavery in silk production. The four most significant silk-producing countries (China, India, Uzbekistan, and Thailand) are reported by the Global Slavery Index to be associated with high modern slavery risks.
- Fumes from cocoon cooking and chemicals used in several processing stages can harm workers’ health. That includes burns, skin irritation, and damage to organs including the lungs, kidneys, and liver.
However, silk-making can benefit local people who have done this traditional craft for centuries. The income from collecting cocoons or weaving fabrics can provide economic freedom, especially for women.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Silk Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with silk fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Silk fabrics typically travel from silkworm-rearing facilities or forests, where the cocoons are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of silk clothing items, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From silkworm-rearing facilities or forests, where the cocoons are collected, to yarn processing factories, called filatures
- From yarn factories to textile manufacturers
- From textile manufacturers to sorting centers/physical shops
- From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer house
- From the consumer house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of
Traveling Distances of Silk Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for silk fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that silkworm moth farming, yarn processing and fabric finishing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents.
Here are some scenarios for transporting silk fabrics:
- Silk manufacturers can source the cocoons from rearing facilities in China, reel the yarns in a processing hub in China, send the yarns to Vietnam for garment-making, and finally, across the Pacific for US consumers.
- The wild cocoons are collected in various forests in India and trucked to a manufacturing hub also in India to be turned into garments. The silk garments are sold to Asia consumers worldwide.
- Silk manufacturers source silk yarn in Brazil, make silk fabrics in Mexico, sew silk clothing items in the US, and sell them mainly in North America.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing silk fabrics that travel shorter distances.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Silk Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of silk clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- Large container ships
- Freight trains
- Long-distance trucks
- Short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes – for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing – are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering silk clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Silk Fabrics
The usage of silk is generally not sustainable. Many silk fabrics require dry cleaning using harmful solvents. Silk clothes are also prone to wrinkles, resulting in high energy demand for steam pressing. However, silk is a strong natural fiber that can make long-lasting clothes.
The usage phase is a main source of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, due to washing, drying and ironing. Compared to many other textile materials, using silk fabrics would be less sustainable because of the need for ironing and dry cleaning.
- Silk fabrics are prone to wrinkling and require regular ironing.
- Most silk fabrics require dry cleaning, using harmful solvents like perchloroethylene (or tetrachloroethylene). Exposure to tetrachloroethylene may cause irritation in the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and respiratory system. Hand washing would be a healthier and more sustainable cleaning option for silk.
However, silk fibers are exceptionally strong – four times tougher than steel thread of the same thickness. Cared for properly, it can last for a long time. The longer you use a piece of clothing, the lesser the environmental impact of each wear.
Also, being natural fibers, silk doesn’t shed microplastics into the environment while being used and washed.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Silk Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for silk is generally sustainable because untreated silk is fully biodegradable and compostable.
As a natural textile material, untreated silk can be left to degrade naturally in a landfill or be composted. Decomposing time depends on many environmental factors and if the fabrics are treated and blended.
Under optimal conditions, silk fabrics typically degrade within a year.
Also, pure silk can be composted as a carbon-rich element of a compost pile.
How Circular Are Products Made of Silk Fabrics
In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.
“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”Ellen MacArthur Foundation
As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.
Innovation towards a circular economy for silk production has been seen in utilizing manufacturing waste for healthcare products or being used in other sectors such as technology, food, and cosmetics.
How Can You Buy Silk Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying silk fabric products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the grasslands where sheeps are raised).
- STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
- OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100: A label for textiles tested for harmful substances.
Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are:
- B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts.
- Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Where to Buy Sustainable Silk Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that silk fabrics are generally unsustainable. It is largely because of the large land, water, and carbon footprint of growing mulberry trees as food for the silkworm caterpillars. However, silk can be produced more sustainably by increasing the efficiency of land, water, and energy usage and adding renewable energy to the grid. Also, wild silk is an ethical alternative that utilizes natural forests instead of putting strain on farmlands.
Here, we compile for you a list of such sustainable brands selling silk clothing items (in alphabetic order):
Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics
It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management
The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).
Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
- Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
- In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted.
When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown.
Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:
- Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often.
- Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items.
Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests
Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards.
When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals
The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like silk or silk. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.
Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives.
Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, silk or silk; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry.
Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers
Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours.
When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.
Silk fabrics made in large-scale commercial settings are generally considered neither sustainable nor ethical. Mulberry cultivation for rearing silkworm moths is resource-intensive, using a lot of land, freshwater, and energy. Many farmers also use pesticides and fertilizers unnecessarily.
Also, the silk industry is tainted with the ethical problems of the many silkworm moths being killed for the finest variety of these fabrics.
Thus, it’s best to avoid buying silk clothes and accessories. If you have to buy this material, limit your purchase to organic, sustainably-made silk or wild silk.
To make it even more sustainable:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled silk clothing items and accessories.
- While using silk products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of silk products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- Science Direct: Life-cycle assessment (LCA)
- MIT SMR: Strategic Sustainability Uses of Life-Cycle Analysis
- European Environment Agency: Cradle-to-Grave
- Science Direct: Cradle-to-Gate Assessment
- Science Direct: Metamorphosis
- Britannica: silkworm moth | insect
- CFDA: SILK
- Science Direct: Handbook of Natural Fibres (Second Edition) | 19 – Wild silks: their entomological aspects and their textile applications
- The Silk Route: Silk Tussah
- LEAF CONAGRO: SERICULTURE VANYA SILKS – THE WILD SILKS OF INDIA
- Nature: Silk-producing Insects of West Africa
- Adelante EU-LAC TRIANGULAR COOPERATION FACILITY: Research on Native Silk
- Jungle Dragon: Domestic Silk Moth
- The Academy of Natural Sciences of DREXEL UNIVERSITY: Butterfly Life Cycle
- Silky Dream: Silk Weight
- MDPI: Water and Land Footprints and Economic Productivity as Factors in Local Crop Choice: The Case of Silk in Malawi
- COTTON TODAY: LCA UPDATE OF COTTON FIBER AND FABRIC LIFE CYCLE INVENTORY
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know
- Science Direct: Agrochemical
- Science Direct: Eutrophication
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: RESOURCE LIBRARY | ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY: Dead Zone
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: RESOURCE LIBRARY | ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY:The Silk Road
- Sewport: What is Silk Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- University of Oxford: Life Cycle Analysis of Cumulative Energy Demand on Sericulture in Karnataka, India
- The World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Science Direct: Advances in Water Resources | Water resources constraints in achieving silk production self-sufficiency in India
- Science Direct: Filament
- WorldAtlas: World Leaders In Silk Production
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Hydropower Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Geothermal Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Biomass Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Sustainable Jungle: Peace Silk: Ethical Fabric Or Sustainable Fashion Faux Pas?
- Collective Fashion Justice: Issues in the silk supply chain
- U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE | OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS: Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India’s Silk Industry
- CNN | THE CNN FREEDOM PROJECT: Silk slaves: India’s bonded laborers are forced to work to pay off debts
- GLOBAL SLAVERY INDEX: Home
- Silkworm Mori: THE SILKWORM |Occupational health problems in Silk production: A Review
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- Springer Link: Statistical analysis of use-phase energy consumption of textile products
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Tetrachloroethylene (Perchloroethylene)
- LALOUETTE SILK: WHY IS SILK CALLED THE QUEEN OF FIBERS? THE BENEFITS OF SILK
- Springer Link: Light can transform the secondary structure of silk protein
- THINK OF THE PANDAS: Is Silk Biodegradable? Can It Be Composted?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN DETAIL
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy
- Research Gate: Silk-based Drug Delivery Systems | CHAPTER 9. From Textile to Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Industry: Circular Economy Applied to Silk Manufacturing Wastes
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Home
- OEKO-TEX: Certification according to STeP by OEKO-TEX®
- OEKO-TEX: OEKO-TEX® Standard 100
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- All the Wild Roses
- Seek Collective
- The Ethical Silk Company
- Good on You: Greenwashing Examples: 8 Notorious Fast Fashion Claims and Campaigns
- The Guardian: Pulp fabric: everything you need to know about lyocell
- European Parliament: The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic)
- Science Direct: The challenge of “Depeche Mode” in the fashion industry – Does the industry have the capacity to become sustainable through circular economic principles, a scoping review
- Science Direct: Carbon Footprint of Textile and Clothing Products
- European Parliament: Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry
- European Parliament: What if fashion were good for the planet?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- McKinsey: Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
- Peta: Animals Used For Clothing