Silk Stories Part 3: White Space or Twelve Million People Don’t Matter

Written by Veronica Kassatly

I am grateful to Mr. João Berdu of Brazil’s Vale da Seda for his assistance in preparing this series. All silk data that is not otherwise attributed, was provided by Mr. Berdu. jberdu@valedaseda.com.br

In the first two articles in this silk series:, “Silk Stories Part 1: The Bodies of Bodhisattvas Transformed, the Manifestation of Unparalleled Generosity” and “Silk Stories Part 2: Yellow Peril or Green Dressing,” we examined some of the double standards and fabricated environmental, social, and animal cruelty claims that are leveled against silk production. In this third and final article, we look at a second double standard employed by sustainable fashion to demonize silk: the notion that carbon offsetting applies to all trees but mulberry trees. And we take a quick look at the harm that billionaires, their brands, and their funded initiatives have done to some of the poorest on the planet – not to mention to climate change.

Image courtesy of João Berdu

Carbon sequestration

The main input in silk production, other than the silkworms themselves, is mulberry leaves. And mulberries – black or white (caterpillars fed white mulberry leaves produce finer silk) – are trees. Sustainability Inc.’s enthusiasm for trees is well known. To quote ProPublica: “All trees consume carbon dioxide, releasing the oxygen and storing the carbon in their trunks, branches and roots. Every ton of carbon sequestered in a living tree is a ton that isn’t contributing to climate change.”

So mulberry trees, at the same time as they produce leaves to feed the silkworms, also sequester carbon.

In 2016, Vale da Seda, Brazil, created a tool: SILKO2 PRO. This algorithm estimates that for 1 kilo of 100% silk, “After discounting the carbon footprint, CO2 sequestration made by mulberry trees necessary for production of silk has left a credit of 709.57 kilos.” One kilo of silk fabric sequesters 710 kilos of CO2.

Bafflingly, Kering Group’s flagship brand Gucci has enthusiastically embraced carbon sequestration, so one would have expected them to champion the carbon sequestration afforded by mulberry trees. Instead, the brand claims to be carbon neutral by partnering “with Redd+ – a UN project to reduce emissions from deforestation – on four projects that support forest conservation in Peru, Kenya, Indonesia and Cambodia to offset carbon emissions it cannot eliminate.”

A more obvious place to start, surely, would be by focusing on sourcing raw materials that offset carbon, by planting and supporting trees in their very production. According to the Guardian: “Gucci will be reliant on its environmental profit and loss report to identify where greenhouse gases are being emitted so they know which areas need to be reviewed as well as finding out what needs to be offset.”

https://kering-group.opendatasoft.com/pages/material-intensities-2020/ screenshot taken 02/11/21

So let’s look at what Kering’s EP&L says about the carbon sequestration in silk production.

The screenshot above shows what Kering/Gucci claim are the GHG emissions in silk cultivation. As you can see, when it comes to costly silk, Gucci’s faith in the ability of trees to sequester carbon has quite simply evaporated. Silk production is not only not shown to be carbon negative, Kering/Gucci claim that silk cultivation actually adds to GHG emissions. As the screenshot below shows, Kering claims that polyester, on the other hand, emits virtually no GHGs in the extraction process.

https://kering-group.opendatasoft.com/pages/material-intensities-2020/ screenshot taken 02/11/21

A carbon credit is a tradeable permit that gives its holder the right to emit one metric ton of carbon dioxide or a chemically equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas like methane.” Even now that the average price of carbon credits in the EU is apparently over €50 per MT, it is still clearly a lot cheaper for Kering brands to claim carbon neutrality by buying polyester at 50 cents per pound, plus a carbon credit to offset a ton of emissions for €50, than it is for them to buy silk at $31 per pound and offset only 323 kilos of carbon emissions in the process.

Silk farmers are silenced

The voices of silk farmers are nowhere to be heard in the sustainable fashion space. Their impact on the environment is consistently exaggerated, and the role of silk in poverty mitigation is consistently ignored. The fashion industry-funded initiative Textile Exchange (TE), for example, whilst claiming to “envision an enriching global textile industry that protects people and planet by positively impacting climate, soil health, water, and biodiversity,” in fact offers an array of partial and misleading information on silk, promoting the same double standard as the rest of the sector.

The silk misinformation on offer from TE includes:

1. The assertion that only 300,000 households are involved in the production of raw silk worldwide, suggesting the sector is of little importance, and supporting the position of the aforementioned MII that silk is a “white space’ waiting to be filled by alternative fibers. Astonishingly, TE published this piece of blatant misinformation whilst linking silk production data to a webpage of the ISC, which also states that some 9 million people globally are involved in sericulture.

The latest data provided by the sector shows that in reality, about 8.5 million workers are employed in the silk sector in China (from cocoon production to silk fabric production). The mulberry silk industry provides employment to 3.4 million people in India (from cocoon production to silk garment. NB Eri, Tasar and Muga silk provide income and employment to another 5.9 million). And there are 85,000 silk-rearing families in Thailand. So at least 12 million people – and we have not included sericulturists in Uzbekistan (450 thousand), Vietnam (101 thousand), or Brazil (5 thousand).

It is unclear why, instead of using the ISC’s readily available numbers, or better still, reaching out to the leading silk organizations and asking them, TE appears to have searched the internet for a source that would diminish silk’s importance.

2. The fashion industry’s usual application of double standards towards silk: TE claims “The manufacture of silk has negative implications on animal welfare, toxicity associated with the dyeing and finishing process of silk textiles, and water and energy use.” Their 2020 Material Change Insights Report neglects to mention the cruelty to arthropods inherent in all agriculture, including the TE favourite, organic cultivation. Moreover, silk is the sole fiber in the entire report for which any reference to toxicity in dyes and finishing is mentioned. Indeed, despite their persistence and toxicity the PFAs/PFCs/PFOAs much used by TE founder, Patagonia, are not mentioned at all, and TE’s preferred fibers make no attempt to promote the use of PFAS-free treatments.

In referring to silk’s high water and energy consumption, TE are, of course, basing their claims on sister organisations’ the SAC/Higg Co.’s MSI. As for TE, impact is calculated in collaboration with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Higg.” How unscientific those claims are has already been discussed.

Another example of Fashion’s deliberate demonisation of silk is the wildly inaccurate production data provided by the CFDA Materials Index, including the claim that: “About 3,000 cocoons are used to make one yard of silk. One hectare of mulberry trees yields 11.25 tons of leaves, producing around 200 kg of cocoons, but just 40 kg of raw silk.”

In reality, about 300 cocoons will make one yard of silk fabric (0,9144 cm x 0,9144 cm). One hectare of mulberry trees yields 40 tons of leaves. And that is enough to produce around 654 kg of cocoons and 111 kg of raw silk. Where the CFDA gets its numbers from they don’t say, but that has stopped nobody from repeating them.

Yet another favourite piece of scaremongering favoured by fashion bloggers and the CFDA alike is that silk is “weighted’ with toxic metals – this myth appears to borrow from silk production in the nineteenth century – and to quote João Berdu, nowadays, “No one weights silk”.

It is not that the silk sector has not tried to remedy some of these misconceptions – if and when they hear of them (to my knowledge, no initiative or enterprise has actually reached out to silk organisations or producers to ask for data and analysis) – but to no avail. As mentioned in my first piece for Fibershed, the ISC contacted Textile Exchange’s sister organisation the SAC repeatedly before filing a complaint with the FTC. Whilst Mr. Berdu sent a lengthy email to the CFDA correcting their false assertions on February 25, 2021. The CFDA’s silk claims, however, remain unchanged.

The Consequences

So, what impact has all this self-serving nonsense had on silk’s producers? What has happened to their incomes, their ability to meet their own needs, and their freedom to live the lives that they value since 2010/12, when sustainable fashion first started promoting the claim that silk was an unsustainable fiber?

Silk farmers are some of the poorest people on the planet, and “In developing countries most of the environmental problems are caused by under-development.” That is a quote from The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, of June 16, 1972. This certainly was the case for the silk farmers studied in 2006. In fact, the Oxford LCA itself ​​mentions that with investment, the farmers could have obtained water savings of 66% by switching to drip irrigation. Whilst if they had been able to adopt solar dryers, they would have reduced their electricity consumption tenfold.

As the 1972 UN report points out, the best way for developing countries to reduce their contribution to climate change is through considered development. To achieve this, the report goes on to recommend “the transfer of substantial quantities of financial and technological assistance and concludes adequate earnings for primary commodities and raw materials are essential to environmental management since economic factors as well as ecological processes must be taken into account.”

Sadly, that was almost 50 years ago, yet today, there is no evidence of fashion having made any attempt to transfer any financial and technological assistance to silk farmers, let alone “substantial quantities.” Nor does any effort appear to have been made by the ‘sustainable’ fashion industry to ensure adequate earnings from silk cultivation. On the contrary, in the space of five years, 2015-2020, global silk production has fallen by more than half – from 202,000 MT to 92,000 MT. Whilst in Brazil, a leading producer of the finest quality silk, to quote João Berdu of Vale da Seda: “In 1992 we used to have 6 filatures [spinning mills] in Brazil and about 19,000 silk rearing farmers. Since then, 5 filatures have closed down, only one remains, and the number of silk rearing farmers has fallen to 5,000.” Similarly, the Italian Silk Office calculates that Italian Industrial consumption of silk yarns in weaving totaled 3,150 tonnes in 2008, and only 1,870 tonnes in 2016.

Nivaldo Vilas Boas Simões, a Brazilian silk farmer, holds a silkworm taken from his rearing shed.

Global fiber consumption in 1992 totaled roughly 38.8 million MT, and the global population was 5.5 billion. For 2020, those figures were 96 million MT, and 7.8 billion people respectively. Not only did the global population increase by 2.3 billion since 1992, but per capita, fiber consumption rose from around 7 kilos per capita in 1992 to almost 11 kilos per capita in 2010 to over 12 kilos per capita in 2020. Yet this booming global market has not helped silk farmers. Global growth has not lifted the poorest in the fiber-producing community. It has, however, benefited the petrochemical industry – massively. Global plastic fiber production totaled 65 million MT in 2020. It was only 16 million MT in 1992.

Image courtesy of João Berdu

The relationship between these numbers and the false and misleading sustainability claims made by the major fashion corporations, their funded initiatives, and the various commercial data providers who supply them, seems self-evident and represents a significant wasted opportunity for global development.

A 2018 study found that in the Brazilian province of Paraná, seri-farmers were the smallest and the poorest in the agricultural community. The average seri farm size was only 2 ha, when the regional average was 50 ha, and given that in producing silk, farmers could easily earn double the minimum wage of US$264.00 per month at the time, silk production was clearly a huge boon to a relatively disadvantaged community. Thanks to the unjust and unsubstantiated campaign that everyone from the MII to Good on You has waged against silk, that opportunity has since evaporated. Current data shows that the yearly average income of a seri-farmer in Brazil is now only slightly higher than the minimum monthly wage.

In Thailand, on the other hand, recent data shows that silk remains a comparatively profitable enterprise for rural households. Roughly 85,000 small farm households rear silkworms, and some 30,000 also reel the cocoons and weave the silk yarn at home, maximising their value added. Research made in cooperation with the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture suggests that the annual net income per hectare generated in Thai sericulture is 46% higher than that generated in the next best cash crop opportunity – cassava production. Thai silk production also contributes to gender equality in that some 90% of those engaged in home reeling and weaving are female.

Mary Schoeser once stated: “My motivation when writing is to promote the study of a vastly under-published subject and to highlight the socio-economic context in which design must develop.

In offering a white Khata, the Dalai Lama offers the message: “If possible try to help others, if not, at least don’t harm them.” This is the message that silk farmers and their representatives would like to send to the major brands, to Kering, and particularly to Textile Exchange, privately held HiggCo – who own the Higg MSI – and to the MII.

If you will not help the poor of the global south, at least don’t harm them.

Share this Story:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

One thought on “Silk Stories Part 3: White Space or Twelve Million People Don’t Matter

  1. I love silk and repurpose and reuse silk when unable to find new reasonable clothing. It is good to hear some truths about it. Fast fashion and it’s capitalist roots must be seen in a true light.
    I am reading and learning more about unfairness and bias and feel we need a national expose in the popular press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Get The Latest Updates

Never Miss a Story

Join our email community to get the latest updates from Fibershed, from the fiber to the farm. 

The Latest from Fibershed

Recent Fibershed Stories

Join Our 7-Day Slow Fashion Challenge

Fast Fashion is harmful to workers, communities, and the environment. Resolve to make better clothing choices with this informative, fun, FREE challenge. For 7 days, we’ll send you helpful information and action items to set you on a path toward more thoughtful clothing choices.