By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business
- Awareness of silk’s harmful impact on the environment, workers and moths is on the rise.
- Labels including Stella McCartney, Maggie Marilyn and H&M are substituting silk with plant-based versions that mimic the feel and drape of silk.
- Some early-stage firms are looking to partner with fashion houses to develop recycled silk.
Most supply chains have some dirty secrets, and silk’s supply chain is no exception: worms are boiled alive in their cocoons; some regions reportedly rely on child and forced labour; extracting the threads is an energy-intensive process; and silk dyes are often harmful to the environment. As sustainability becomes a priority, brands are looking to source and process silk in a more ethical and environmentally friendly way — or replace it with something else entirely.
Plant-based alternatives find a market
“Cruelty-free alternatives to conventional silk are starting to gain traction,” Kayla Marci, market analyst for Edited, writes via email. The number of products sold online made of 100 per cent cupro — a silk alternative derived from cotton waste — has increased 66 per cent year-on-year, she says, noting that cupro availability has increased among US luxury and premium retailers especially. Long used in jacket linings and as a substitute for silk trim, the product has the same sheen, drape and hand feel of silk.
Silk-like materials are also being made out of other kinds of plant or agricultural waste, including oranges, bananas, milk and rose petals, which use cellulose as the raw material.
Salvatore Ferragamo was the first luxury fashion house to use silk-like Orange Fiber, made from Italian citrus juice by-product. The brand’s 2017 capsule collection featured a knitwear twinset with a printed decorative panel made of 67 per cent Orange Fiber and 33 per cent silk (the base of the cardigan and shirt was a cotton-viscose blend). H&M has also used the material in a “conscious exclusive” collection. British fast fashion retailer Asos, which last year announced it would no longer use silk as part of a ban on a host of animal-derived materials, is exploring replacements including Naia fibre, which uses cellulose from wood.
New Zealand designer Maggie Marilyn has used a silk alternative derived from rose petals to create a cuffed-sleeve blouse (USD 345) and the slip of a mini dress (USD 570). While it’s a relatively strong fibre that’s machine-washable and resistant to pilling — and costs less than ethically produced conventional silk — Marilyn says it is only suitable for “soft, draped garments as opposed to anything with structure”.
She and her team are working with supplier Oritex to create a denser version of the material as well as varieties that mimic organza and silk satin. They are also exploring more structured alternatives derived from banana and milk processing wastes.
Synthetic spider silk garners buzz
San Francisco-based Bolt Threads manufactures synthetic spider silk that claims to be identical to the Kevlar-strength fibre with which spiders weave their webs. Made from fermented yeast, the material has appeared in several Stella McCartney designs, including a yellow knit dress exhibited at the MoMA in 2017, as well as Bolt Threads’s brand of ties. Priced at USD 314, a limited run of 50 promptly sold out in 2017.
Despite industry enthusiasm, some critics are concerned about Bolt Threads’s use of biotechnology. Fibershed, a California non-profit that promotes regional textile and clothing production, published a report last year detailing concerns about the adverse impacts of genetically engineered materials on fragile ecosystems and farmers’ livelihoods, including the potential to introduce new types of toxins and contaminants into soil and waterways.
“We realise the importance of minimising risk to the environment in how we handle the final output and waste from our production,” Anastasia Kuznetsova, senior marketing specialist at Bolt Threads, writes via email. “We use the same industry-standard safety techniques that have been used for yeast processing for decades and are constantly looking for ways to improve our process.”
Rethinking traditional silk
Cocoon Biotech and Spintex Engineering are two technology start-ups working on recycled silk. CEO Ailis Tweed-Kent says Cocoon Biotech is in early discussions with fashion houses to collaborate on recycling used and excess silk; that could find not only a second life in fashion but also in consumer health products like skincare and eye drops. Spintex is also developing technology to re-spin waste silk into new fibres, CEO Alex Greenhalgh says.
Peace silk is silk that purports to be more ethical because it is harvested without killing the worms inside the cocoons. But, it hasn’t shown the same quality level that luxury designers demand. Stella McCartney has said the thread tends to break and must be woven back together, and Maggie Marilyn also says it’s weak and prone to seam slippage.
Some question whether peace silk is really more ethical than conventional silk. Emma Scarf, ventures analyst at Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good, says that the moths used for commercial silk production have been bred for that purpose for so long that even if they are allowed to live past the cocoon stage, they don’t live for long. “They’re incapable of looking after themselves,” she explains. “I wouldn’t say it’s a vegan or even vegetarian process.” She adds that wild silkworms called Tussar worms are a better option in this regard, as they are more self-sufficient. They also, of course, do not qualify as vegan.
Last year, Everlane announced its clean silk initiative, which it says cuts down on both the energy used and toxic chemicals released by the silk production; eventually, the silk will also be farmed organically. The brand’s roadmap addresses the key environmental impacts of traditional silk, but not necessarily the ethical concerns of vegans or vegetarians.
“I see a big push toward vegan and vegetarian interests,” Scarf says of the companies that Fashion for Good partners with, which include Kering, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Target and Adidas. Vegan substitutes to leather and wool have been bigger priorities, but she says that demand has moved silk alternatives “really high up on our list.”