Silk is a signature part of the Hermès identity, making it a key focus area for the company to drive its biodiversity objectives forward.
Hermès sources most of its silk through a local partner in Brazil, which works with smallholder farmers in the state of Paraná in the Atlantic Forest region. Working in the world’s most biodiverse country comes with a profound opportunity for positive impact, and Hermès is approaching it with a collaborative, research-based framework.
In 2020, the company collaborated with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) to conduct a conclusive study titled Hermès Silk Supply Chain: Impacts on Biodiversity. From cultivating the mulberry plants to rearing the silkworms and processing the fibers, it assessed the risks and opportunities for biodiversity loss and gain throughout the silk production process in Brazil.
Textile Exchange spoke with Hermès about the study’s key takeaway that silk production in Brazil can be celebrated for its positive environmental benefits, and the actions that its production partner is already taking on the ground to protect and conserve biodiversity in the area.
Textile Exchange: What are the links between Hermès, silk and biodiversity?
Hermès: Hermès is committed to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation, and silk is a signature material for us. It features across our whole product range, most famously in our iconic scarves and ties. Since silk is such a key resource, we make sure its production reflects our sustainability principles.
The silk sourced for Hermès is mainly produced in Brazil where the company has developed a long-term partnership with local experts. It’s a natural, renewable and biodegradable material. The rearing of silkworms (bombyx mori) is also linked to mulberry cultivation since silkworms are fed exclusively with mulberry leaves.
Textile Exchange: How did you further evaluate the opportunity to connect silk production with biodiversity conservation in Brazil?
Hermès: In 2020, Hermès collaborated with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), a leading institution in the field of biodiversity, to review the biodiversity impact of our Brazilian silk supply chain.
The resulting report aimed to assess our current approach to silk production by looking at three main elements of the process: mulberry cultivation, silkworm rearing and silk processing. It considered how our existing actions are likely to benefit biodiversity and identified additional areas in which we could further improve our impact.
It highlighted how, for example, mulberry cultivation can be considered a form of “low external input agriculture” (LEIA) in Brazil, which reduces use of inputs including seeds, agrochemicals, irrigation, water and fuel from outside the production system. The expected benefits of reduced inputs such as pesticides is reduced impact on insect and soil diversity and consequently on bird, amphibian, reptile and mammal diversity.
Textile Exchange: How does your supplier work with the farmers on the ground?
Hermès: Hermès has been sourcing its silk via a local supply chain partner which works with smallholder farmers in the state of Paraná in the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil, a global biodiversity hotspot, for decades.
Our supply partner works in partnership with over 2,500 farmer families to feed the silkworms and deliver cocoons. As the only silk export company in Brazil, it has a close relationship with its farmers and provides extensive support to enable them to meet strict company-set requirements that go beyond legislative obligations.
Textile Exchange: How are the impacts of silk production on biodiversity minimized?
Hermès: In Brazil, mulberry plantations provide many ecological services. They sequester carbon, improve water infiltration into the soil, recycle nutrients, boost soil fertility and carbon storage and prevent soil erosion.
Mulberry plantations are not associated with recent loss of natural habitat – in fact, in key silkworm production areas, natural forest patches remain and are retained in accordance with national law. These patches are home to many species of plants and animals that are of global, national or regional conservation value.
Since the silkworm is a very sensitive insect which cannot grow sustainably in the presence of chemical products, local farming techniques are adopted to conserve the soil and reduce the need for chemicals on mulberry farms. That means that mulberry cultivation uses significantly less agrochemicals than other agricultural crops in the surrounding farmlands.
Since corn, soybeans and sugarcane are cultivated using pesticides that are highly harmful to silkworm production in Brazil, our local partner supports research into pesticide use and promotes dialogue to reduce agrochemical use in neighboring farmlands to ensure a positive impact in its own fields. Its water use is also carefully managed to reduce pollution and demand through an extensive water recycling process.
Textile Exchange: What measures has your local partner already put in place to protect the environment?
Hermès: Our partner is a signatory to the UN Global Compact. It works with third-party environmental experts, and it has two internal environmental engineers. It also applies strict environmental standards of excellence to its integrated production and supply chain in accordance with ISO 14001 metrics and methodology.
The partnership agreement contract with each farm defines environmental requirements and draws attention to relevant legislation. Plus, visits to properties and plantations can be planned at any time during the season to provide technical assistance and verify performance.
Textile Exchange: Finally, what can we say about the Hermès Brazilian silk supply chain for biodiversity?
Hermès: CISL considers that “silk production in Brazil can be celebrated for its positive environmental benefits” and its review showcases the links between silk production and biodiversity conservation in Brazil. Enhanced cooperation with our local partner will help, according to CISL, continue the journey to “deliver a nature-positive silk supply chain.”