Silk Stories Part 1: The Bodies of Bodhisattvas Transformed, the Manifestation of Unparalleled Generosity

Written by Veronica Kassatly

I am grateful to Mr. João Berdu of Brazil’s Vale da Seda for his assistance in preparing this series of articles. All silk data that is not otherwise attributed, was provided by Mr. Berdu.

Western Cultural Supremacy does not automatically equate with sustainability

My previous article for Fibershed: “Harm in the guise of doing good”, documented the issues the Navajo people face with the prevailing dogmas of ‘sustainable’ fashion. These denigrate the Dine’s visceral connection with sheep, label sheep farming environmentally harmful, and Navajo wool, worthless. As leading social scientist Hakan Karaosman points out:

“Environmental and social crises are intertwined; however, more vulnerable, disenfranchised populations are affected more dramatically. Decarbonisation and sustainability transitions must be just; we can tackle the climate crisis only when we put people in the centre.” And Karaosman calls for “a cultural transformation through democratised, decolonised, empowered, and inclusive actions to craft a people-centred transition to a just fashion system.”

Sustainable Fashion fails utterly to do this at present, and, just as in Navajo wool production, the cultural and religious significance of silk production in Buddhist countries is overlooked and discarded. For these, and for many other cultures, the human race does not exist in a void. We are just one component in a cosmic vision. We have our place and our role. So do animals, and so do plants. In Navajo ideology, killing not just animals, but also plants was only permissible under clear and present need, and before taking its life, a prayer asking the permission and forgiveness of the living entity was required.

Similarly, Buddhism prohibits killing – no matter how lowly the animal – for personal gain. Yet traditional Indian Buddhist regulations included silk among the materials permitted by the Buddha for use in monastic attire. And Indian scriptures often instructed devotees to donate silk to the sangha. Whilst in China, Buddhist monasteries were active participants in the silk trade. This apparent dissonance between Buddhist beliefs and the practice of sericulture is resolved simply – the killing of silkworms is different. Stuart H Young of Bucknell University provides a detailed historic analysis. According to Young, the earliest written evidence of sericulture in China includes invocations of a certain ‘‘silkworm deity’’ and dates from c.1600–1100 BCE. Textile historian Mary Scheoser quotes a summary of the evolution of Buddhist thought on the topic:

“Rather than being hapless victims of the slaughter, silkworms are self aware agents of compassion, leaping into the fire with eyes wide open. They are the bodies of bodhisattvas transformed, the manifestation of unparalleled generosity unleashed upon the evils of worldly suffering. Silkworms voluntarily and gladly give up their bodies, their lives, in a glorious art of self-sacrifice that is essential to ease the terrible pains of destitution. Silkworms represent the path of the Buddha, and the seeds of their virtuous deaths will beget the greatest holy beings of Buddhism. In this way, the process of sericulture and especially the killing of silkworms is depicted as a noble sacrifice, enabling the fulfillment of bodhisattva vows and promoting the greater Buddhist goods of perfected compassion, generosity, and the ultimate end of suffering.”

To this day, the Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, offers his visitors a white silk scarf, or Kata, made not of nonviolent or ahimsa silk, but of light, shiny mousseline, that can only be produced with yarn reeled from non-perforated mulberry silk cocoons. Every modern U.S. President, with the exception of Mr. Trump, has received one. The Kata is pure white to symbolise truth, honesty, and warm-heartedness, and smooth silk to symbolise non-violent behaviour.

A more modern interpretation of the value of silk production in creating a just and harmonious world is provided by sericulture authority, João Berdu:

“At a time when we need conscious consumption, the energy of these silkworms turns into messages of respect for the environment, poverty alleviation, and social responsibility. In Brazil, mulberry cultivation in rural areas generates one working position for each 10.000 square meters of mulberry trees, which are planted and grown without pesticides. Such a planted area of 10.000 square meters of mulberry will mitigate about 81.000 kg of CO2 per year. The leaves of mulberry trees on the same area and period are enough to feed silkworms that will produce about 111 kg of silk fiber. Transformed into apparel this silk will leave a carbon footprint of about 2.800 kg of CO2 during its entire lifecycle. Thus, the mulberry trees absolutely necessary to silk production mitigate about 30 times the carbon footprint generated during production and use of a silk item.

Silk products are made and used to last longer, passing through generations and silk is as sustainable as the fashion industry aims to be one day.”

To provide an inkling of just how sustainable silk is, it is helpful to consider for how many centuries, and indeed millennia, some areas have cultivated raw mulberry silk year after year, generation after generation, on the same land, and in much the same manner. In Neolithic ruins in Zhejiang, archaeologists found a utensil with images of silkworms. The utensil dates from 4,000 B.C.

Whilst villages like Jili in Zhejiang Province – where the climate and water were ideal for sericulture resulting in a distinctive and superior fabric – once clothed the Qing emperors, a practice that has been able to continue uninterrupted in the same area for millennia, with no loss of productivity or adverse consequences on the local population, is the definition of sustainable. But in Jili in 2010:

“only a single decaying factory in the area still processes silk, and the villagers raise silkworms only twice a year, a sharp drop from five times a year in the 1980s … Like some of the other villagers, Mr. Wang said he did not raise any silkworms this spring because the local residents did not make much money from selling cocoons last year.”

Skills that date back 6,000 years are being lost as we fill the bank balances of fashion billionaires and drown in a sea of polyester.

With its complete disregard for any culture not its own, and for any value system not guided by western market metrics, the ‘sustainable’ apparel sector ignores all of this and attacks silk production relentlessly, employing an array of unsubstantiated and misleading claims and assertions, and an astonishing dual standard.

The conclusion is obvious. We cannot continue to allow ‘sustainable’ fashion to march roughshod over traditions and cultures that date back hundreds, or even thousands of years, simply because those who hold different values are currently poor, vulnerable, and unable to retaliate.

The Attack:

To quote the Materials Innovation Initiative (MII): “Often referred to as the ‘Queen of Fibers,’ silk is synonymous with luxury.” Some of you will remember the MII from my previous article for Fibershed: “Harm in the guise of doing good”. The MII contends that the world’s “TOP FIVE MOST ENVIRONMENTALLY DAMAGING MATERIALS ” are all farmed. And the worst offender is silk. As noted, the MII bases its ‘sustainability’ claims on Delaware registered for-profit Higg Co’s Material Sustainability Index or MSI. According to the MSI (which conflates sustainability with environmental impact and doesn’t measure socio-economic or cultural impact at all), the purported average impact of generic, global, polyester fabric is only 36.2/kilo, but silk is an environmental nightmare, with an average impact per kilo of fabric of 1086. That is exactly thirty times the average impact of generic polyester fabric.

How is that possible?

It isn’t.

But sustainable fashion demonises silk, in several ways – not evaluating the environmental impact of silk production on a level playing field, is just one of them – and I am going to show you how they do it.

Please note, I am not suggesting that all this misinformation is any kind of conspiracy. As I hope to make clear, it is quite simply evidence of the efficacy of the capitalist system. As Milton Friedman warned us it would be, it’s the inevitable outcome of the current, entirely unregulated market for sustainability claims. And since capitalism is nothing but a set of rules, the solution is simple: we must demand that the rules be changed. Sustainability claims and sustainability accounting must be regulated – ASAP.

What I am talking about here is the fact that silk is extraordinarily expensive. Raw silk currently sells for US$68.4/kilo or $31/lb. Whilst polyester staple, which the apparel sector – from Farfetch and Kering to WRAP and the Higg MSI – all claim is ‘more sustainable’ fluctuated between 42 and 51 U.S. cents per pound (all prices mill gate E. China) throughout 2021. Weight for weight, silk costs roughly 67 times more than Polyester.

Clearly then, there is a significant benefit to brands in telling consumers that silk is unsustainable, substituting polyester on “CSR” grounds, and selling the garments concerned at the same price as their silk predecessors. Equally clearly, no brand is going to pay either initiatives or commercial data providers to demonstrate that silk is more sustainable. The opposite, however, obviously applies.

In short, without anyone needing to conspire with anyone, the current market incentives all align for silk to be portrayed by multiple different sources – and for multiple different reasons – as unsustainable. And that is precisely what has happened.

There are, however, new forces and new economic incentives pushing in the opposite direction. Perhaps these will change the way that silk is portrayed in the sustainable apparel sector. To quote Stuart H.Young:

“Perhaps no civilization is more deeply enmeshed with a specific material commodity than China is with silk … ancient Greek and Latin terms for ‘China’ translate as something like ‘the land of silk.’ Silk was produced in China for at least five millennia before the Common Era, and traders along networks of ‘silk roads’ spread this prized Chinese textile commodity throughout Eurasia. Silk was a standard medium of exchange not only in trans-regional trade and diplomacy, but also within the domestic economies of most Chinese dynasties ”

Under the circumstances, it seems unwise for large fashion brands to risk incurring the CCP’s wrath by blatant misrepresentation of silk production, at a time when China is so actively promoting its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative – reviving and expanding the old Silk Road between Europe and China. The BRI is the world’s largest infrastructure project and is generally regarded as the centrepiece of China’s international economic policy. Its very name references the role of Chinese silk in developing global trade and civilization, and corporations like Kering and H&M, whose future growth projections are so dependent on sales in China, would be wise to remember this. This is particularly the case for H&M, which has already suffered serious financial losses due to its ill-advised forays into Xinjiang in the promotion and development of Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton, and so might have been expected to have already learned its lesson.

For now, however, misrepresentation of silk production remains the order of the day. These misrepresentations almost all fall under five different headings. Beginning with the second article in this silk series, we will examine these one by one and see for ourselves how many are actually substantiated.