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Historically, silk, which has been held in high regard and considered a luxury fabric, has held an important place in the wardrobes of both royal families and the general public for centuries. While it is often promoted as a completely natural and luxurious fabric, the fact that a material comes from nature and is positioned as high-priced does not necessarily mean it is good for the planet. As our awareness of ethical and sustainable fashion grows, it becomes inevitable to question the practices behind the materials we are accustomed to and to generate new alternatives. As the fashion industry undergoes a transformation shaped by increasing awareness of the environmental and ethical impacts of our choices, innovative, sustainable, and ethical alternatives to traditional materials are emerging every day. One of these alternatives is vegan silk.
Beyond Shine: Exploring the Backside of Luxury Fabric
Traditional silk production involves the use of silk worms, especially the Bombyx mori species, to create a fine and shiny fabric. Silk worms spin cocoons from a protein called fibroin produced in their salivary glands. This process is actually the cocoon-spinning phase that silk worm larvae create as a protective casing for their pupal stage. Silk, on the other hand, is the fiber that silk worms weave to make these cocoons, and in the silk industry, these cocoons are typically boiled or filled with gas to make it easier to extract the silk thread as a whole, which kills the pupae. This live boiling process is often used in the silk industry because it allows delicate silk to be produced. It is estimated that about 6,600 silk worms are needed to produce just one kilogram of silk.
Silk worms are raised in controlled environments and undergo a series of processing steps. They are kept alive for much shorter periods than their natural lifespan, confined to limited spaces, and raised solely for silk production. In nature, silk worms emerge from their cocoons as moths, but in the silk industry, they are prevented from doing so to preserve the length of the silk fibers.
The silk industry not only contributes to animal exploitation but also requires significant resource consumption, including high water and energy usage, as an environmental impact. Additionally, intensive chemical processes involved in silk production such as dyeing and finishing lead to water pollution and soil degradation. Despite the silk industry long portraying silk as a natural and environmentally friendly choice, studies have shown that silk actually causes much more freshwater pollution compared to cotton. The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report by Boston Consulting Group also ranked silk second on the list of materials with the highest impact, following cow leather, another animal-based material.
Vegan Silk: An Ethical and Sustainable Choice for Conscious Fashion
Often, brands position polyester materials as vegan silk alternatives, leading customers to believe they are purchasing an ethically sourced product. However, polyester fabrics, which are petroleum-based, are environmentally harmful alternatives.
As the fashion industry moves toward more ethical and sustainable practices, eco-friendly alternatives to traditional silk have emerged. Ethical silk, also known as plant-based silk or Cupro fabric, is one of these alternatives.
Vegan silk fabrics can be made from various materials: cotton waste (regenerated cellulose fiber), pineapple, banana, soybean, eucalyptus, nettles, pine, and more. These plant-based vegan silk options are biodegradable, meaning they naturally break down in the environment over time without harming it.
In contrast to traditional silk farming, which requires significant amounts of water and energy, vegan silk production is more resource-efficient. The process often involves organic farming practices that reduce the need for synthetic chemicals and water. Vegan silk is typically produced using natural dyes and fewer chemicals, preserving water resources and soil quality.
Vegan silk is both ethical, as it does not involve exploitation, and has a significantly lower ecological footprint. It is hypoallergenic, breathable, soft, and has a flowing texture. It is highly resistant to wear and is lightweight.
Cupro is made from cotton linters, a waste product of cotton production. While it is a byproduct of cotton processing, Cupro allows for the production of sustainable fibers. This lightweight and breathable fabric is considered an alternative to vegan silk, and it generates much less wastewater compared to cotton production. Cupro's motivation is to reduce the waste generated by the cotton industry, thus promoting environmental responsibility and paving the way for a circular economy.
Third-party laboratory tests conducted by Innovhub have shown that Cupro is biodegradable at the end of its lifespan. In just two months, it loses half of its original weight when buried in soil. Furthermore, it reduces the need for high-chemical processes during dyeing due to its ease of coloring. It rapidly absorbs and wicks away moisture from the skin. This fabric is highly versatile and easy to care for; it can be machine-washed with cold water and ironed. It also requires less detergent and water for cleaning, leaving fewer detergent residues compared to cotton and many other fibers, thus posing no threat to health.
While exploring the darker side of silk, it is possible to discover vegan silk as a promising beacon of light. Similar to plant-based leather, this innovative alternative demonstrates the potential to transform fashion with an ethical, cruelty-free, and environmentally conscious approach, allowing us to enjoy the elegance of silk without compromising our principles or the health of our planet.