Is mulberry silk ethical and are there kinder alternatives?
Very few fabrics have maintained their cultural relevance and defied passing trends quite like silk.
Prized and pricey, silk has been around for thousands of years, and surprisingly enough, the modern production process behind the material hasn’t changed in any significant way ever since its invention in 4000 BC.
However, not all silk is created equal, and if you’ve been researching how to spot the best-quality fabric, you’ve definitely come across mulberry silk as the go-to silk type for luxurious dresses and bedding.
But is mulberry silk ethical or environmentally sustainable, and how is it actually made?
How is mulberry silk made?
All types of silk are made using the discarded cocoons of silkworms, with both domesticated and wild species being used to source the raw materials.
Mulberry silk is made by weaving the secretions of domesticated silkworms, specifically the Bombyx mori moth species which feeds on mulberry leaves — hence the name!
Silkworm larvae, like all other species of moths and butterflies, spin themselves into a cocoon to then re-emerge as moths, and it is exactly from these thick cocoons that producers get their silk.
In order to unravel all the silk strands, manufacturers boil the larvae’s cocoon in hot water, with the silkworm still inside, to dissolve the natural gum (called sericin) holding the structure together.
After winding the individual strands on a reel, the threads are spun together using a wheel.
The last step of the production process is the finishing, where silk threads are treated with chemicals to enhance their durability, add fire resistance, or banish creases.
How is it different from other types of silk?
The main difference between mulberry silk and other types of silk comes down to its unparalleled quality and versatility: The natural fibre is not only completely odourless and hypoallergenic but also incredibly soft and durable with a luxurious feel.
In comparison, other common varieties of silk such as Eri silk and Tussar silk feature a rougher look and less of a smooth feel.
Eri and Tussar silk
Eri silk, made from the caterpillar Samia ricini, doesn’t involve the domestication of the silkworms and instead allows them to leave the cocoon before it’s boiled, finally unravelling the threads without reeling them.
The end product is a short fibre with a textured wool-like finish, much like Tussar silk (also spelled Tussah silk), which is instead made by using the secretions of the antherea Mylitta species of silkworms.
Spider silk, as the name suggests, comes from spiderwebs instead of silkworms, and it is considered much stronger and more elastic than mulberry silk, though not nearly as high-yielding.
It is specifically because mulberry silkworms yield greater quantities of silk and produce such soft threads that the silk industry has been focusing on the mulberry variety for so long.
So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that around 90 to 95% of all silk products available on the market are made with mulberry silk!
Is mulberry silk ethical?
But while this popular type of silk is the go-to fabric for nearly all silk textiles, one key question remains: Is mulberry silk ethical?
Given that it’s both an animal product and a material that is exclusively produced in developing countries like China and India, there are some important ethical considerations we need to make…
One of the main ethical issues with mulberry silk revolves around the treatment of the insect it relies on, the humble mulberry silkworm.
When the harvested cocoons are boiled in water to be unravelled, the silkworm inside of them remains trapped and is inevitably killed in the process.
According to PETA, roughly 3,000 silkworms die to create just one pound of silk, meaning that billions of them lose their lives every year.
While some people believe that insects like silkworms and silkmoths don’t feel pain or are even sentient, these species have a central nervous system that responds to external stimuli, including pain.
In addition, mulberry silkworms have been domesticated for thousands of years, meaning that they are now completely incapable of living in the wild. Sadly not only have they been denied a natural life cycle but have also been bred to make silk production easier.
For example, the adult mulberry silkworm can no longer fly like its wild counterpart, and in turn, males cannot find a mate without human assistance.
These are troubling practices that contribute to the issue of animal cruelty in the fashion industry, making conventional silk unsuitable for vegans and consumers who want to avoid products made from animal exploitation.
Impact on local communities
When considering whether mulberry silk is ethical, we also need to look at the people behind the finished fabric.
Mulberry silk is mainly produced in India, China, and across Southeast Asia, where sericulture (the production of silk) is a lifeline for hundreds of rural populations.
But while the industry has lifted many out of poverty, exploitation is rampant: According to a CNN report, employees in India are working under slave-like conditions to pay off debt. At the same time eye and skin issues from inhaling carbon monoxide and frequent contact with boiling hot water are not uncommon.
To make matters worse, child labour has also been found in the silk industry in India and Uzbekistan.
If consumers want to support silk farmers without funding unethical labour practices, it’s best to look for organic silk manufacturers that are transparent about what goes on in their factories (although they do still boil the silkworm).
Can silk be produced ethically?
The sericulture process is not without its ethical faults, and as more people are discovering just how their silk items are made, ethical mulberry silk is becoming more popular.
Ahimsa silk, also known as “peace silk”, is usually the first alternative that comes to mind when talking about cruelty-free silk.
Mulberry peace silk is made using the discarded cocoons of mulberry silkworms, which are allowed to transform into moths and not be boiled alive. The threads are shorter due to the moth being allowed to break the cocoon so it has a slightly rougher feel.
According to a Beauty Without Cruelty report, however, Ahimsa silk producers still kill their silkmoths. Female moths are kept captive to lay eggs and males are kept in a refrigerator and then simply discarded after they are no longer able to mate.
The production of wild silk, which refers to different types of silk including the Eri variety, also allows wild moths to come out of their protective cocoon before collecting the threads.
However, there is currently little to no information about how the cocoons are harvested and whether manufacturers really wait until the silkworms have completed their metamorphosis to use their cocoons.
Buying deadstock silk to avoid supporting the industry directly might be the best course of action for conscious consumers, and for an even more ethical option, bamboo silk makes for a great alternative.
Lightweight and ultra-soft, organic and untreated bamboo silk is made from bamboo fibres. This makes it a biodegradable and sustainable cruelty-free and vegan alternative!
Another great alternative to silk is cupro, which is made with waste from the cotton plant. It is much cheaper but mimics the properties of silk. For more about this great fabric see A vegan silk option? What is cupro fabric and is it sustainable?
All in all, finding true ethical mulberry silk is still a big challenge, as there is no third-party certification attesting to the practices behind the marketing.
What about sustainability?
Silk is a durable and biodegradable natural product, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable from cradle to grave.
In fact, the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report has found that silk is the second-most environmentally destructive material after leather, due to its global warming potential and its use of fossil fuels.
High energy usage
The biggest problem with mulberry silk is energy usage: Silk farms have to be kept at a set humidity and temperature, even in the hot climates of Asia, requiring plenty of air conditioning and humidity control.
Both the drying process and the boiling stage also require a lot of energy.
The dyeing process is also a concern. Acid dyes and reactive dyes are both part of conventional silk manufacturing, and as types of synthetic dyes, they are both associated with excessive water use, disruption to marine life, and water pollution.
Fewer pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals
However, silk uses significantly fewer pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals than fabrics like conventional cotton, as mulberry trees can easily be grown organically.
The true price of silk
There are still many things we don’t know about the impact of this luxurious fabric, including whether ethical mulberry silk is really all that it’s marketed to be.
But between vegan-friendly fibres like bamboo silk and silk garments made from recycled/deadstock fabric, we might be able to find some kinder alternatives.
Save for upcyclers like Ian Snow, Lisa Taylor, and Tweedy Clothing, recycled silk is yet to break into the mainstream, but we’ll be keeping our eye out for updates!
For more on ethical and sustainable fabrics, read What is the most sustainable fabric? Your ultimate guide and to learn more about biodegradable fabrics have a look at Styles that don’t last forever, which fabrics are biodegradable?