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Asos is Banning Silk—Should Other Retailers Follow Suit?

In the grand hierarchy of animal fibers to ban—foremost of which would be fur, obviously—silk doesn’t seem to warrant as much attention. Animal-rights crusader Stella McCartney deploys silk “from traditional sources in Como, Italy,” regularly at her luxury house, so how heinous can it be?

Well, plenty heinous, if you care at all about living creatures. “Approximately 3,000 silkworms die to make every pound of silk,” Tracy Reiman, executive vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Sourcing Journal. “To obtain the material, distributors boil the worms alive inside their cocoons.”

Still, when Asos, Britain’s No. 1 online retailer, pledged in June to ban silk, along with mohair, cashmere, feathers, down, teeth and bone, from its site by January 2019, not everyone was completely on board.

“They’re insects; I don’t think silkworms are going to notice,” a somewhat befuddled shopper named Thomas told the BBC after the news broke. “I think sentient animals definitely, but things like worms—it’s not going to be such a big deal is it?” Marc Bain, fashion reporter for Quartz, wondered how much pain silkworms can feel. Writing for Australian Vogue, Clare Press, its sustainability editor at large, praised silk as a beautiful, breathable fiber that she, an “animal lover who thinks very deeply about human impacts on nature,” is only happy to wear.

Then there was Orsola de Castro, co-founder of the international grassroots movement Fashion Revolution, who questioned whether Asos’s new policy would do more harm than good.

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“Asos will need to replace those products with other equally soft, silky and fluffy materials and, inevitably, the fear is that the alternative will increase the production of fabrics made from plastic-based fibers such as polyester, which are potentially just as bad, if not more harmful to the natural world and the animals living in it in the long run,” de Castro wrote in a blog post. “And therein lies the contradiction: In order not to harm goats, geese, ducks and silkworms, the risk is that other forms of life, including us, will be harmed in the process.”

Even without Asos explaining itself—which it declined to do so at length—it’s easy to see why swearing off silk would be tempting. (In an online FAQ, it said it was banning mohair, cashmere and silk because they “make up a small percentage of Asos’s total fiber mix, and we believe we do not need them to produce great fashion.”)

The silk industries in India and Uzbekistan are rife with stories about bonded child labor. There’s the grisly “boiling worms alive” situation, of course, and the risk of finding itself in PETA’s crosshairs. But notably, veganism is on the ascent, driven by millennials who are “most likely to consider the food source, animal welfare issues and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions,” Fiona Dyer, consumer analyst at GlobalData, told Forbes in March.

Sixty percent of the Asos’s clientele in 2016 consisted of this notoriously bleeding-heart demographic, which wields $4 trillion in spending power, according to data compiler Slice Intelligence. That same year, the e-tailer captured 2.9 percent of the total online apparel market for millennials. Mitigating lingering risks from a fiber you don’t avail much of anyway is the savvy thing to do. But what about brands that roll out silk on a larger scale?

Nixing silk

“Banning traditionally made silk is a positive first step for businesses wishing to address animal cruelty and sustainability in their supply chains,” said Qiulae Wong, head of product at Common Objective, a U.K.-based business platform that helps businesses grow in ways that benefit both people and planet. “With the numerous innovative alternatives that exist today, as well as more humane forms of cultivating traditional silk, those who are concerned about the 600 billion silkworms killed each year have plenty of options.”

Like de Castro, Wong cautions from turning to petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester as an alternative. “They can have a heavy environmental impact and shed microplastics into waterways,” she said.

Though Ahimsa or “peace” silk, derived only from the vacated cocoons of happily metamorphosed moths, is one option, PETA’s Reiman isn’t a fan.

“Although sellers of ‘peace silk’ claim to be ‘humane,’ no certification authorities exist to guarantee that standards are upheld, and there have been reports of conventional silk being sold as ‘peace silk,’” she said.

Better options, she said, include milkweed seed-pod, silk-cotton tree and ceiba tree filaments or manmade viscose that doesn’t stem from ancient and endangered forests. Planet-friendlier synthetics exist, too, such as recycled polyester, which Joshua Katcher of Brooklyn’s Brave GentleMan incorporates in the “future silk” linings of his vegan men’s suits, belying the idea that luxury should require some kind of “great sacrifice” from a living, breathing organism, he said. Reiman also praised material-innovation breakthroughs such as Orange Fiber’s “silk,” made from leftover citrus peel, and Bolt Threads’ Microsilk, a synthetic spider silk that utilizes proteins bioengineered from yeast.

Microsilk isn’t so much a silk substitute as it is a synthetic-fiber one, said Dan Widmaier, founder and CEO of Bolt Threads.

“Our goal has never been to replace silkworm silk, but rather to create new materials that have unique benefits,” Widmaier told Sourcing Journal. “In terms of sustainability, we’re more interested in replacing polyester and other petroleum-derived fibers, which have known negative impacts on people and planet, and are orders of magnitude more prevalent in the textile market than silk.”

Stella McCartney will have Bolt Threads to thank, however, if she’s someday able to repent of her Como-silk-using ways. (She has used peace silk, too, though she says the threads often break and must be woven back together.) The designer has called the Bolt Threads’ technology “revolutionary.”

“It creates cleaner, closed-loop processes for manufacturing, using green chemistry practices,” she wrote on her website. “It also produces less pollution, creates long-term sustainability and it is vegan-friendly because it is entirely made from yeast, sugar and DNA.”

No to GMOs?

McCartney’s is not sentiment that is universally embraced, however. In a joint report released in September, technology watchdog ETC Group and Fibershed, a natural textile collaborative based in California, cautioned that synthetic biology’s “high-tech and high-risk” approach to novel fiber production is anything but natural or sustainable.

By scaling up these fibers, particularly those that adopt non-food feedstocks such as glucose from corn or sugarcane as a starting point, synthetic biologists could impose undue pressures on the ecosystem, the organizations warned. The rapid growth of industrial-scale biosynthesis, they added, also risks the creation of new, potentially dangerous sources of industrial pollution, which they’ve dubbed biotech waste—b-waste for short.

“Conventional biorefineries, analogous to breweries, routinely experience escapes of cultured yeast via air, water, waste streams, workers and other pathways of exposure,” the report’s authors wrote. “How will biosynthesis fermentation waste be managed? What impact will unintentional or accidental release of synthetic organisms have on ecosystems and biodiversity?”

These aren’t mere hypotheticals, either. In 2013, a Brazilian biofermentation plant run by Amyris leaked roughly 5 gallons of a solution containing transgenic yeast, designed to produce diesel from sugarcane, into the environment. Though appropriate measures were taken to contain the spill, regulation of biotechnology in many countries is spotty at best. There is simply no way of knowing how many spills—“intentional or accidental”—go unreported in a growing number of biosynthesis fermentation sites worldwide, ETC Group and Fibershed argued.

Equally dire, by competing with so-called “truly sustainable” natural fiber economies, such technologies could undermine the livelihoods of millions of producers across the globe.

For Bolt Threads and its ilk (AMSilk, Dupont and Spiber also churn out bio-fibers), Neth Daño, the Philippines-based co-executive director of ETC Group, had especially harsh words.

“The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South depend on farming natural fibers for textiles—it’s such livelihoods that these Bay Area biotech bros are targeting when they boast they want to ‘disrupt’ apparel,” Daño said in a statement. “Many farmers play a key role in protecting regional ecosystems. If their economic lives are disrupted, we’re not just losing a chance to create better fiber systems, but potentially creating land use changes and ripple effects of poverty and ecological crisis that reach far beyond farmers.”

The International Sericultural Commission (ISC), a silk trade group based in India, concurs. Though silk makes up less than 0.2 percent of the global textile market, silk is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that plies a unit price for raw silk 20 times that of cotton, according to the International Trade Centre, an agency with a joint mandate with the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. (The annual turnover of the China National Silk Import and Export Corporation alone, it notes, is between $2 billion to 2.5 billion.)

Dating back 5,000 years, sericulture, the practice of rearing silkworms, is practiced in more than 60 countries. China and India are by far the leading silk producers, together employing 8.9 million workers and accounting for 97 percent of the world’s silk stocks.

“Sericulture can help keeping the rural population employed and to prevent migration to big cities and securing remunerative employment; it requires small investments while providing raw material for textile industries,” the ISC wrote on its website.

Suffice to say, there are no easy answers, for either the companies that create silk products or the people who wear them. 

Fashion Revolution’s de Castro perhaps sums up the debate best. “Right now, nothing has a simple solution,” she said. “Almost every step comes accompanied by a fair amount of inevitable contradictions. Likewise, Press of Australian Vogue acknowledges that everything comes with a “cost of some sort.”

“It’s up to the individual to balance those costs according to their own moral compass,” she added.