Formerly a luxury trade, the silk industry is at a crossroads. New sandwashed silk brought a wider range of affordable silk brought a wider range of affordable silk products within the reach of millions of consumers during the 1990s. Competition from high-tech synthetics has eaten away market share. Raw silk prices have plummeted by half, to the point that they threaten the sustainability of this industry.
Traditional producers are cutting back on labour-intensive silk production, as urban industries lure farmers from a business in which incomes dropped radically in recent years. Meanwhile, millions of livelihoods are at stake, especially in rural areas, for this traditional and environmentally sustainable product.
In 1988, this magazine published its first article about silk and silk markets. At the time, one could readily encourage newcomers in developing countries to start sericulture and silk production - under certain conditions - in order to get involved in an expanding trade. Ten years later, the market has changed dramatically for the silk sector in developing countries.
* Exclusive, and for women only. Silk was a luxury product for Europe and North America, destined only for those who could afford its exclusivity and high price. No silk products in large quantities were available to customers in medium price brackets. About 90% of silk products available in Western markets were meant for women only.
* Rising silk prices, increasing production. The world market raw silk price was US$ 45 per kilo and would climb to US$ 51 the following year. China was the major producer (about 60% of the total of 67,000 tons). China had been moving steadily towards processed silk products; in 1980, 49% of the exports were raw silk, and in 1988 this had declined to 25%. In terms of sheer production value, China's lead was followed by India, Japan, the USSR, Brazil and the Republic of Korea.
* Consumers. Asian countries - especially Japan, India and Thailand - were also significant silk consumers. Japan was the world's largest consumer.
* No restrictions. No quotas restricted international trade in silk and silk products.
* Some export promotion. Some generic silk promotion activities in Europe were conducted by the European Commission for the Promotion of Silk.
* Silk democratized. Sand-washed silk made its debut in the early 1990s in most Western markets. Silk garments were sold at the height of the boom not only in department stores, but in supermarkets and even in coffee shops. Today's silk products are not just for women, but also for men and children.
* Price dropping and production centres abandoned. The world market price for raw silk was about US$ 26 per kg at the end of 1998, having dropped about 50% from its high in 1989. China remains far and away the largest producer (70% of the total of some 72,000 tons). Japan's raw silk production slipped to about a quarter of its previous level (from 6840 tons in 1988 to 1902 tons in 1997). The Republic of Korea's fall was even more dramatic, from 1343 tons in 1988 to 110 tons in 1997. Silk production is declining steadily in Brazil, hampered by its dependency on Japan.
* Consumption down. With the sandwashed silk boom over and continued competition from other fibres, silk consumption is down. Silk producers in Asia, such as India and Thailand, remain significant consumers. Japan is still the largest consumer of silk and silk products. In China and Viet Nam, consumption is growing. Yet the overall regional consumption is down, the pace slowed by Asian recession, and by European processors opting for competing fibres.
* New quotas. Garments imported from China are now subject to quotas in the European Union (EU) and the United States markets.
* Promotion down. Virtually no global generic silk promotion activities remain.
Silk's humble origins
Silk has been linked with sought-after creations by the biggest names in haute couture. …