(43) Silk: ethics, sustainability and culture

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INTRO: Silk is a material that is of great cultural significance, particularly for cultures and religions that are ancient and have evolved thoroughly overtime, carrying forward traditions and customs that had been put in place thousands of years ago. However, with time, the human race has evolved substantially as well, and our perspectives have also had to undergo radical changes. One such change is our understanding of our impact on the planet through the nature in which we consume the resources provided by Earth, and how our unsustainable, unhealthy and unethical practices has left the world in turmoil. What once was seen as a symbol of elegance and culture is now seen as a symbol of exploitation and we are now having to ask ourselves how we can uphold our cultural values with the values of being a sentient being. This episode discusses the ethics, sustainability and cultural significance of silk, and why we must address the various problems with the material to better understand how we can protect worker rights and lives of other organisms whilst also staying close to our cultures.

When we begin to transition from being consumers to ethical consumers, and then hopefully to consumer activists, the nature of our consumption patterns also undergo drastic changes. The time when we used to blindly pick up any item from a store and not pay attention to the materials the item was made from, the place in which the item was grown or produced, or even whether the company producing the item contributes to worker rights abused and/or environmental deterioration, feels very distant. Maybe we can’t even remember those days anymore.

Our lives change when we start paying more close attention to the smaller details, when we begin to make more complex connections to events in our lives, and what appeared to be simple is no longer simple. Even though we may try to revert back to our old ways of ignorance, we can’t help but being faced by reality.

This realisation happens at various points in our lives; sometimes as children, sometimes as adults and sometimes on our death beds. This realisation also happens within various contexts: realising the toxicity of a relationship that was pretty much dead, realising the animal rights abuses of the dairy and meat industry, realising the dangers of walking by yourself at night, particularly as a woman, realising the political corruption in your home country. Whatever the realisation is and whenever it happens, our perspective of the world, the complex world and our societies, change for, in most cases, the better.

Transitioning from a vegetarian to a vegan had a much larger impact on my spiritual journey than my transition from meat-eating to vegetarianism, despite this transition occurring at the age of 7 when children often struggle to change their diets. I would attribute this to my cultural and religious values that compelled me to stop eating meat because from a young age, I was able to understand that the chicken I was eating was in fact alive before they arrived on my plate ready to eat. However, when I made the decision to transition to veganism at the age of 19, despite the transition being easy in terms of my diet already primarily being plant-based, I had to make a larger effort to change my perspective as I previously believed that vegetarianism was enough to meet my core value of animal rights protection. When I finally realised that vegetarianism didn’t meet my morals to the point that I was comfortable, and when a series of realisations after becoming a vegan made me understand that veganism meant much more than having a plant-based diet, I understood that my decision to become a vegan was not only morally correct, for myself, but also would be the beginning of a journey that would help me transform to a version of myself that I long desired for.

With veganism came the beginning of a journey full of realisations of the realities of the world I live in, particularly human societies and how capitalism has driven us to a state of despair, how we have put human gain before any other organism and how Earth, the bearer of all life on this planet, has been commodified into a lifeless resource bank created for human benefit. For me to feel more in tune with my spiritual values, I needed to make changes in the way in which I consumed goods and services, but also how I processed knowledge and utilised it as a tool for transformation instead of becoming overwhelmed with what I was learning.

One of the biggest changes I had to make was with my dietary consumption, but straight after that was my contribution to the fast fashion industry and how much I could change my consumption patterns within my budget. The beginning of Mind Full of Everything really signposted the beginning of these series of changes within myself, because I started to actively research into the harsh reality of the fast fashion industry and the extent to which my favourite brands back then would put worker rights, non-human animal rights and environmental protection on the line for monetary benefits. I could no longer access these brands that were catered to my budget because I couldn’t forget the abuses being allowed by these corporations. Fast-track to the present day and I have been able to leave those brands behind whilst also discovering new ones, but I still have a long way to go in my journey. My consumption pattern of fast fashion pieces has changed in the sense of buying pieces that I know will last and that I will use on a regular basis, however, most sustainable fashion is still beyond my reach due to the expense of each product, which makes the company economically unsustainable for me to purchase from. Therefore, the most sustainable option right now is to buy from companies that provide vegan and recycled clothing/accessories ranges and also buy things that I can share with my mum and sister who are the same size as me and also have similar fashion tastes.

Apart from reducing consumption, ensuring your consumption is of natural materials is the next important factor in improving your consumption patterns, and your choice of natural fibres, or even synthetic ones if you are unable to opt for natural, can be based on multiple factors that are in line with your core values. You may choose a material that suits your sensitive skin, that has minimal greenhouse gas emissions, that is of plant origin and not animal, that has been produced by garment workers who have been paid a fair price and who work in a safe environment, that is long lasting and of lower maintenance, that is expensive so that you can wear the piece to a special occasion, that is affordable and fit for everyday usage. Whatever your choice, keeping in mind what you value in life and prioritising those corporate values that match your personal values to the extent in which you feel most comfortable (because unfortunately not everything you value will also be valued by your favourite companies), will help you be more mindful about your consumption.

Aligning your personal values to corporate values can be a gruelling task, especially when you don’t have a big budget and enough free time to do your research. As the fashion industry undergoes radical changes to meet sustainability and ethical standards put in place by governments and consumers themselves, this task of alignment has become even more difficult; the consumer is now left with even more options to look through and assess in their own time. One such task is choosing what sort of materials we choose and avoid when purchasing fashion items, even by companies that we feel align best to our personal values.

One such material, that I have had to come to a conclusion about, is silk, a natural material that embodies elegance and culture but one that has left people like myself in confusion over the ethics of the material.

Silk production and weaving originate from ancient China; the earliest known examples of silk weaving date to 2700 BCE and originate from the site of Qianshanyang. Silk is an animal fibre produced by certain insect larvae for building cocoons and webs. In commercial usage, silk is mostly sourced from the cocoons of domesticated caterpillars of several moth species of the genus Bombyx, also known as silkworms. The Chinese were able to identify that the cocoons of silkworms can be spun and woven into a luxurious material that would soon become an essential part of the Chinese rural economy. A single cocoon can produce a 0.025mm thick thread that can stretch to over 900 metres long; several filaments are twisted together to make a thick enough thread to be used to weave the material and then be dyed and painted with natural materials such as powered silver, powered clam shells and inks from vegetable matter.

Sericulture, the production of silk and rearing of silkworms for this purpose (early commercial silk production) that has been dated to 3600 BCE, soon became a key source of income for small farmers. As weaving techniques advanced, so did the desire to own this precious material across the empires of the ancient world. The material became China’s most valuable export, which gave this trading network the name of the Silk Road, that connected East Asia to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India, including the Indus Civilisation where little is known about their language but contemporary archaeological evidence suggests trading networks between the civilisation and ancient China.

Artifacts of luxury clothes, fans, wall hangings and even paper from these regions can be traced back to the Chinese origins of silk, however, some accounts show that by 2000 BCE India had adopted sericulture and silk production and the country was selling their own raw silks and silk clothing to Persia, with Japan following suit a few centuries later. Persia soon became a centre of silk trade, with silk dyeing and weaving also taking part in Syria, Egypt and some European countries. China is still the world’s largest silk supplier, with India being the second largest producer of silk and silk products.

Due to the rich history of silk production, it’s expected that silk will be of cultural significance for both these countries. Speaking for myself, Hinduism classes silk as a holy material and is used for many rituals, prayers and ceremonies such as weddings. When you visit Hindu temples, you will see, at least in India, people donating silk materials and saris to the temples for the murtis (statues) of Gods and Goddesses to be draped in these revered clothes. Silk is gifted to others on special occasions and silk is worn as a statement of wealth and prosperity, but also culture and stories interwoven by artisans to create timeless masterpieces.

However, what appears to be of aesthetic, cultural, religious and sentimental value has a darker origin that many of us have failed to acknowledge in the past and even in the present, one that questions whether the beauty of silk can really be diminished by the abuse of both human and non-human organism rights to live happy, healthy and autonomous lives.

When silkworms mature into moths inside their cocoons, they are able to secrete a fluid that eats through the cocoons and allows the moth to emerge and fly away to continue on their life cycle. However, when doing so, silk moths end up damaging the cocoons the silk industry relies on, therefore domesticated silkworms, the most common being the Bombyx mori, are only allowed to live up to the stage of being within the cocoons when they are boiled alive to keep the silk cocoon intact. Despite each cocoon providing a silk thread of up to 900m of length, it can take about 2500 cocoons to produce approximately a pound of silk fabric, therefore 2500 silkworms are required to be killed to retrieve enough material to be woven into silk. Whilst silkworms delicacy may exist in some parts of East Asia, most silkworms killed in the production of silk are discarded as waste material, leaving people to question whether silk can be truly sustainable as a natural and biodegradable fibre, let alone ethical.

Surprisingly, silk has a worse environmental impact relative to other natural fibres, having the highest GHG emissions per kg than any other fashion material, including synthetics. Production of silk requires substantial amounts of energy, with silk farms needing to be at controlled temperatures and harvesting of cocoons requiring hot water and air. Most silk farms depend on the cultivation of mulberry leaves which also requires a lot of water and can exacerbate water scarcity issues, especially in countries such as India. Silk that isn’t certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) will most likely use harsh chemicals, large doses of fertiliser and dyes that can pollute waterways and impact the biodegradability of the fabric. This leads into issues around violations of environmental and human rights of workers who are exposed to harmful chemicals and/or working under contracts, often referred to as modern-day slavery.

A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch found that around 350,000 children are involved in silk production in India, children are working at every stage of silk production, from boiling cocoons to carrying baskets of mulberry leaves and embroidering saris. Children can work 12+ hours each day, either 6 or all days of the week, and that too under constant mental and physical pressures of work but also abuse by management. Children as young as 5 years old will earn from nothing to Rs 400 per month, which equates to ~ USD $8. Children are also faced with other dangers in their working environment such as machines and sharp needles. Vapours of sericin (one of the proteins produced by silkworms to create the cocoons) during boiling of cocoons, along with diesel fumes from machines, and poor ventilation puts children and adult workers at risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Constant exposure to hot water and chemicals often leave children and adults with blistered and raw hands that are also prone to infection. With over 7.9 million workers in the Indian silk industry, supply of labour is not of concern to owners of silk factories, therefore competition for these jobs is high and since children’s rights are far easier to be violated than adults, employers take the opportunity to take in unskilled and underaged workers from impoverished households, desperate for any source of income, who can be paid a fraction of the wage of adult workers.

To ensure child workers remain in the industry, factory owners offer workers loans that they know the workers will be unable to pay off due to their low wages and so workers pay off by overworking. There are many factors playing into such bonded labour, but a leading factor is the contemporary caste system, which erases the concept of social mobility and bonds lower casts, such as the Dalits, to poverty for generations. The report by Human Rights Watch stated that the children interviewed for the report, within the states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, were almost all bonded children and were either Dalit or Muslim. Despite Indian law prohibiting bonded child and forced labour, this is the horrid reality of many poor Indian children and adults that is a product of political corruption and prevents proper policing of working conditions.

Due to the human/animal rights abuses occurring in the silk industry, the rise of ethical silk has given consumers of silk, a proposed ethical alternative to their favourite material. Ahinsa silk, also called Ahimsa silk, is the proposed peace and cruelty-free silk, where silk is produced without harming or killing silk worms. Ahinsa is the Sanskrit word for non-violence, and is a doctrine within Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. It’s this doctrine that the production of cruelty-free silk began.

Ahinsa silk production and commercialisation is credited to a retired government officer in India called Kusuma Rajaiah, who holds a patent and trade mark for Ahinsa silk. Rajaiah has applied his 40 years experience of sericulture, as well as the spiritual concept of Ahinsa, to make this silk. He believed that silk could be created without killing silkworms and began to weave this peace silk in 1990 but this hasn’t come without challenges. Rajaiah admits that Ahinsa silk production is labourious and time consuming, compared to conventional silk production. Farmers need to wait for moths to break out of the cocoons before retrieving them, checking if all moths have left and then spinning them into yarn. Because of this, farmers can only produce up to 30% of silk compared to conventional silk producing 95% silk from a single cocoon; as a result, Ahinsa silk is expensive and a single sari can cost up to USD $233. There are also no middlemen so weavers get direct benefit from Ahinsa silk sales and are not exposed to the sorts of hazards found in conventional silk factories.

Rajaiah also claims that Ahinsa silk will be more popular for Western countries and has yet to be picked up by the Indian market, but because of the rising popularity, many Ahinsa companies take advantage of this cruelty free production and wrongfully claim their silk to be Ahinsa silk, a form of green and ethics washing. There is no genuine way to distinguish between conventional silk and Ahinsa silk.

There are multiple ways in which the silks can be produced by this cruelty-free method. Eri silk is produced by castor plant-fed domesticated silkworms that are not harmed in the process. Tussar silk, most popular in the Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, is produced by wild Tussar silkworms that are allowed to leave their cocoons before the cocoons are harvested from forests. Some companies use the term “wild silkworms” to let customers know that the worms are free range and are in fact living in an environment that imitates their natural habitat. On average, wild silkworms produce silk fabrics that are more durable, and the materials tend to have less chemicals on them, but every farm producing silk from wild silkworms doesn’t have to be Ahinsa silk.

The idea behind Ahinsa silk is one that everyone hopes was the idea from the very beginning. It makes sense to wait for the moths to leave the cocoons before harvesting them, however, that was not the case thousands of years ago and it’s clearly not the case now, that the demand is much higher. Compared to other textiles, silk only makes up 2% of the global textile market yet it’s worth 20x more than what cotton is for the same volume of fabric produced, making the 2021 silk market value up to $17 billion.

Rajaiah has shown that Ahinsa silk can be created, yet even he admits there are many challenges in producing this non-violent alternative. If silk companies can produce a larger volume of silk material at a faster rate, and also cheaper, why would they convert to Ahinsa silk?

Additionally, there have been many reports of Ahinsa silk production treating silk worms and moths in the same way as conventional silk production. Rajaiah sources cocoons from the Sericulture Federation, but a report by Beauty Without Cruelty India found that once moths emerge from the cocoons, male and female moths are kept together for 3 hours to allow them to mate and then females are segregated and placed in trays to lay eggs, whilst the males are put into a refrigerator, so are kept in semi-frozen conditions. They are brought out again to mate as more females continue to hatch but once the ability of male moths to mate is diminished, they are thrown away into a bin and many are crushed in the process. Once females have laid eggs, they are immediately crushed in a mixer and their remains checked with a microscope for any diseases; if any diseases are detected the eggs they have laid are also discarded. Healthy eggs are then sold to silk farmers who rear the caterpillars into silk caterpillars to produce cocoons and the cycle is repeated.

Ahinsa silk only looks at the ethics of production right when the moths emerge, because then the cocoons haven’t been boiled or sun-dried with the moths inside. However, the process of selective breeding and the cruelty of discarding both male and female moths is not considered in the production of Ahinsa silk. The moths that emerge are also not healthy moths; they have been bred in captivity for a long enough period that has prevented many to fly or even move properly, therefore their lifespan after hatching is not nearly as long as moths in the wild. Bombyx mori in the wild have now gone extinct and can only be found in silk farms.

Even with silks such as Tussar, which use wild moths, comes the question of the ethics in commodification of silk worms and whether it is fair for us to make luxurious material out of the hours of hard work silk moths put in to create cocoons for themselves. Just recently, scientists have confirmed that fish are indeed sentient beings, yet the evidence for sentience within insect species has long been found, despite the fact limited research exists for evidence showing silk worms and moths do feel pain. There are multiple studies to show that earthworms, bees and other moths produce chemicals similar to those produced by the human brain when we feel pain.

A report by Swedish scientists back in 1979 found that earthworms produce enkephalins and beta endorphins that are similar to opiates in the brain, helping them to respond to sensations of pleasure and pain, even helping earthworms to endure pain. The scientists also found that these substances were found within the immunoreactive nerves in the cerebral ganglion, which is the earthworm’s equivalent to a brain. To what extent and the nature of the pain earthworms experience hasn’t been explained in the report, but the fact that earthworms can distinguish pain from pleasure is hard evidence for sentience in worms.

A study by Bateson et al. in 2011 found that agitated honeybees were able to anticipate bad outcomes after experiencing distressing events by displaying pessimistic cognitive biases, similar to humans exhibiting negative emotions after a distressing event.

A study in 2008 found that moths can remember things they learned as caterpillars before metamorphism. The scientists made tobacco hornworm caterpillars smell the pungent ethyl acetate gas and then gave each caterpillar an electric shock whenever the caterpillars would go near any objects smelling of the gas within large canisters. The caterpillars soon learned to avoid objects smelling of the gas because they understood that smelling the gas will result in a shock. Once the caterpillars built their cocoons and emerged as moths, despite their bodies and brains undergoing vast changes, the moths avoided ethyl acetate when the researchers gave the moths a choice between fresh air or air smelling of the gas. The moths had learned not to go near the gas even as adults. This ability to remember transfers to other more important things moths need to remember, such as which poisonous flowers to avoid and the safest areas to lay their eggs.

Just because we cannot understand the ways in which insects and even animals portray their detection of pain, and any negative emotions after a distressing and painful experience, doesn’t mean they cannot experience pain that we mammals can experience.

Silk is a material that is symbolic of human incompetence in attempting to acknowledge that every emotion and feeling is valid, regardless of whether these emotions are of a human or a silk moth. Whether silkworms and moths feel pain the way we do is an invalid question because the right to live healthy lives should be granted to all walks of life.

At first I was left divided in moving away from silk, and the culture tied into the material, the same way that I was left divided when I chose to omit dairy from my diet. Just like silk, milk and honey, both animal products that I had to give up as a vegan, are considered as holy substances that are present in all Hindu ceremonies and offered to God in festivals and temple visits. When I first turned out an offering containing milk by my mum, she felt hurt and said how I shouldn’t have turned down something that is so religious and deemed as pure. It was in that moment that I realised that my decision to leave animal products behind was one that would remove a part of culture away from me, a culture with an ancient history and one that I am very proud to be part of. But I also knew very well that my culture and religion have given me more than just milk, honey and silk, my Indian culture has given me morals and values that are rooted in righteousness and Ahinsa, values that prioritise life over commodities and respect over luxury. The values that taught me from a young age that every being deserved to live a life full of freedom and joy, whether the being was in the form of a stationary tree, a human or a small silk moth.

As the Hindu proverb, from the holy Bhagwad Gita, says, “traditions need to change with time”. What was once seen as pious and pure does not need to be viewed in the same light, and traditions that were once upheld can indeed be dismantled and reimagined to fit the period of time we are living in now.

OUTRO: Whilst it may be easy to boycott silk as someone living in a Western country, there are multiple factors that are in play when such a material is tied to your own cultural heritage. Silk for me is not only part of a culture that now needs to be left behind but has now become a symbol for hope and change, a change in cultural norms that continues to cherish the beauty of culture but in a non-harmful way. It’s difficult to address the human rights abuses that comes with the silk industry, and the certainty of these abuses transferring to other textile industries if silk demand was to decline is high, but if we can provide countries like India with alternatives that can help to stop both silk moth and worker rights abuses, change can happen. Visit mindfullofeverything.com for additional resources and episodes, and follow the podcast on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for listening to the Mind Full of Everything podcast, I hope to see you hear again in the next episode.

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