The Silk Roads in Contemporary Conversations: The Contribution of this Shared Legacy in Sustainable Textile Consumption

© Xiaoyi Yan - UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads

‘The Silk Roads in Contemporary Conversations’ is a series exploring the relevance of the Silk Roads in modern issues of interconnectivity and the impacts of changes, such as those caused by Covid-19, on the ways in which we exchange and interact with one another. These articles draw parallels from along the Silk Roads that reveal the ways in which these routes have historically helped people respond to the key issues of their time by establishing a basis for interconnectivity, exchange, knowledge transfer, technological development, and mutual respect and cooperation. 

Climate change and environmental degradation are undoubtedly defining issues of our time and it is clear that responding to these challenges will require more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. Although the urgency in tackling climate change is unique to our modern world, concerns over environmental issues have a surprisingly long historical precedent. For example, in 673 CE Cuthbert of Lindisfarne enacted legislation protecting birds on Farne Islands in Northumberland, UK, and during the Islamic Golden Age, a number of medical treatises by scholars such as Avicenna and Al-Kindi, considered the effects of water pollution and soil degradation. Furthermore, historical patterns of exchange, be it of trade, technology, or information, can offer useful perspectives on improving sustainability. As they have done throughout history, technological advances in a range of fields can help us meet the needs of the present and future and in this regard the Silk Roads, as one of the prime examples of interconnectivity contributing towards technological development and scientific advancement, can provide valuable insight.   

Perhaps the most famous innovation from these routes was sericulture, with the demand for silk textiles sparking exchange across vast distances. Possibly because they are so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget that the production of textiles constitutes a significant development that has shaped the world from the earliest days of the Silk Roads to the Industrial revolution and beyond. However, with the apparel and footwear industries accounting for roughly 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and the UN Economic Commission for Europe estimating the fashion industry produces ~20% of global wastewater, today textile and clothing production is under pressure to become more sustainable. Moreover, many garments are woven from non-biodegradable plastic based acrylic, nylon, or polyester threads requiring chemical treatment. In light of this, the use of plant fibre alternatives which, when grown in the right conditions, are more sustainable is being reconsidered. These fibres, unlike cotton, have a low water and energy need, can be made of waste materials, require less chemical treatment, and are biodegradable. Interestingly a number of plant fibres which meet these criteria, such as hemp, ramie, flax, and lotus flower, have extensive histories of use and exchange along the Silk Roads. 

In fact, across Eurasia, textiles have been produced from plat stem fibres since pre-historic times. Before cotton came to dominate, the textile cultures of the lands at both the eastern and the western ends of the Silk Roads were based around silk, wool, and bast (fibres derived from plant stems). The hemp plant was first used in Ancient China to make textiles, clothing, and rope, before knowledge of its production began to spread westwards via trade networks. The Scythians, a nomadic people occupying the Pontic-Caspian steppe who traversed the Silk Roads from the 7th to 3rd century BCE, played an important role in bringing hemp fabrics to Europe. Today hemp continues to provide a sustainable option for clothing and textile production as it can be grown using rainwater and without the use of chemicals.  

Another example of a sustainable textile is linen made from the flax plant. When grown in a suitable geographic zone flax produces limited waste and pollutants. The use of linen dates back thousands of years and it was popular throughout the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt where it formed an important part of the economy. There is even evidence to suggest that in in Ancient Egypt flax would occasionally be used as currency. Fast forward to the 13th century and trade fairs for textiles made from linen and other natural materials became the centre of economic life in many parts of Europe. Additionally, lotus flower fibres produced along the Silk Roads in what is today Thailand and Myanmar, have been used in the production of a luxurious fabric for centuries. The material is being increasingly ‘rediscovered’ as a sustainable option for producing clothing, particularly shirts similar to silk or raw linen, as unlike other microfibres, lotus fibres don’t shed microplastics into waterways.  

Plant fibres with the potential for sustainable use in textiles are not a novel innovation but one which played an essential part in the textile exchanges that occurred along the historic Silk Roads. Their use, however, is only sustainable when the plants are grown in the correct geographic region and as such their successful adoption will rely on interconnectivity, exchange, and continued technological development to make them more affordable. As the world perseveres in facing the many challenges presented by Covid-19 we have indeed already turned to the textile industry to provide re-usable facemasks as sustainable everyday alternatives to single use plastic masks. Plant fibres with long historical precedents of use and exchange along the Silk Roads have yet more to offer in the move towards sustainable consumption practices. 

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