The Truth Behind Silk: Cruel Luxury For People and the Planet

6 mins

Silk’s reputation as the most luxurious natural fibre contradicts major ethical concerns about its production.  According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) a massive 6,600 silkworms are boiled alive just to create one kilogram of the fabric while the industry is plagued with rumours of child labour. Rae Ritchie reports

For thousands of years, a web of trade routes have criss-crossed land and sea around Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  Then, as now, the UAE and Arabian Gulf were a lynchpin in the supply chain that we later labelled The Silk Road.

Silk was not the sole commodity traded on its eponymous trails.  Spices, for instance, were important too.  Yet silk stuck in the name in part because its cost conferred high status, and in part because of its strong association with the East.  This continues today, with China and India remaining the largest producers of of the fibre: 150,000 and 65,000 metric tons respectively each year.

Although no longer as exclusive as during the days of the ancient silk road, silk retains advantages over other fibres, both natural and man-made. As well as aesthetic and tactile appeal, it’s a breathable fabric that helps the body to remain warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. It’s also hypoallergenic and its soft texture doesn’t irritate skin conditions such as eczema.

Cruel Beauty

Yet in the twenty-first century, the advantages of this beautiful fibre no longer compensate for the cruelty involved in its production.

One aspect of today’s ethical concerns relates to the treatment of silkworms, specifically the bombyx mori whose silk is used for the vast majority of commercial production.

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Silkworms are not given the chance to develop into moths due to a demand for their material. Image: iStoxk

As the bombyx mori silkworm caterpillar grows, it develops holes on the sides of its mouth. From one, it excretes fibroin, a thread like substance that is the raw silk. From the other, it excretes sercin, a bonding gum. It does this continually for a few days, with the fibroin and sercin coming together to form a protective cocoon so the caterpillar can undergo metamorphosis into a moth.

After a period of 15 days, when the moth is ready to fly, it will chew through the silk from the inside and in so doing will severely shorten the length of the silk threads, decreasing their value. Farmers, to prevent this so-called damage and obtain a continuous length of silk, plunge the cocoons into boiling water – killing the silkworms just before they hatch.

Yes, the silkworms are boiled alive. And lots of them. It takes 10,000 silkworms to make one sari.

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The cocoons are plunged into boiling water to kill the silkworms and unravel the silk. Image: iStock

While the scientific community remains conflicted over whether silkworms are sentient and actually feel pain, studies prove they do in fact have a nervous system leading animal lovers and vegans to believe being boiled alive is a cruel and unnecessary human-induced death.

The ethical concerns do not end there.  In 2003, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the conditions of hundreds of thousands of children working as bonded labourers – bound to their employers in exchange for a loan that they will never be able to pay back as their wages are so low – at every stage of the industry.

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Child labour is rife in the silk industry. Image: iStock

When thread making, for instance, the non-profit organisation wrote that the children ‘dip their hands in boiling water that burns and blisters them.  They breathe smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead worms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers. As they often work in perpetually damp conditions, they also suffer from severe infections.

Other children assist weavers.  There they are regular beaten by employers or even chained to walls, while the time spent at work prevents them from attending school; the illiteracy that results further reduces their chances of ever escaping poverty.  At the same time, the hours spent having to sit at cramped looms in dark and damp spaces leaves them crippled by adulthood.’

Ethical Alternatives? 

As well as man-made fabrics such as nylon, polyester and rayon, ahimsa or peace silk, is marketed as an ethical alternative to regular silk.  Even its name supports its claim, with ahimsa being the Sanskrit word for ‘do no harm’.

With ahimsa silk, farmers allow the moth to pierce the cocoon and emerge from it.  This results in several shorter lengths of silk rather than one continuous thread and a more matte finish, but is accepted as a more humane process.

However, as with so many ethical issues, the argument is not straightforward. Although the chrysalis is not boiled alive, critics such as Beauty Without Cruelty India have raised a number of concerns about the supposed ‘do no harm’ process

The male moths who are used to breed the eggs are kept semi-frozen between mating sessions. At the end of their usable life, they are thrown away. The female moths who lay eggs are crushed to be checked for diseases; if any are detected, the eggs they’ve just laid are destroyed immediately. The moths that emerge from the cocoons cannot fly because generations of inbreeding have made them too heavy in proportion to their wings. They are not cared for by the farmers; they simply wither and die anyway. As a result, whether conventional or ahimsa silk, all the lives are lost.

Ahimsa silk therefore remains problematic. But among some of the designers using this fabric, it is just one element of a broader commitment to ethical practices.

A broad ethical vision informs Dublin firm The Ethical Silk Company.  Founder Eva Power explains that: ‘From the outset, I knew I wanted to run a fully transparent ethical company that I can personally stand over… I feel that ethical practices in fashion should be the norm, not an added bonus’.  As well as using ahimsa silk, this means solely working with Fairtrade and ethical tailoring units that use low impact dyes and recycled water in the production process.

The Ethical Silk Company items also incorporate heritage craft techniques such as block printing by hand.  Furthermore, 10 percent of profits go to two charities in Ireland and India.

This is a great example that even when there isn’t a perfect solution, there are often improvements.  With silk, our purchasing power can still make a positive difference.

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