Written by Veronica Kassatly
I am grateful to Mr. João Berdu of Brazil’s Vale da Seda for his assistance in preparing this series. All silk data that is not otherwise attributed, was provided by Mr. Berdu. firstname.lastname@example.org
My last article for Fibershed, and the first in this series of pieces on silk: “The Bodies of Bodhisattvas Transformed, the Manifestation of Unparalleled Generosity” provided some history and cultural context for silk production, and questioned the Western cultural imperialism that underlies many silk ‘sustainability’ assertions. In this second piece in the series, I examine fashion’s acquiescence to – or perhaps exploitation of – vegan supremacy in sustainability analysis, and the partial and selective manner in which both costs and benefits are assigned to silk production.
Cruelty to animals
A claim that is regularly muddled in with silk’s environmental impact by the MII and many, many others is that silk is ‘cruel’ because it kills caterpillars. That billions more caterpillars are killed annually in the production of our salads and tomatoes is conveniently excluded from this vegan cultural supremacism.
Instead, ‘studies’ are produced purporting to show the pain felt by the silkworm pupae. But no studies are undertaken of the pain felt by tomato hookworm caterpillars (the caterpillars of the five-spotted hawkmoth) when they are sprayed with the biological (and therefore organic) pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt). Their gut walls rupture, ultimately killing them. It appears to be a slow and painful process, or as this gardening site puts it: “… be aware that starvation can take days. Many gardeners who have previously applied only chemical pesticides are used to the immediate effects on insect’s nervous systems.”
Chemical poisoning does appear to be quicker, but death by Permethrin – which overexcites the caterpillar’s nervous system causing muscle spasms, paralysis and death – does not sound painless. The least pleasant death of all, however, surely occurs when, as part of biological controls practiced in conventional and particularly organic horticulture, the caterpillars are eaten alive by parasitic wasps.
Vegan website Surge speaks with horror: “The cost to the silkworms is terrible with thousands boiled, gassed or steamed alive for just half a kilo of silk.”
Actually, each cocoon produces a single filament of silk about 1,200 meters long and weighing approximately 1.0 gram. Some 20% of this weight is silk fiber – 0.2g per cocoon. So around 2500 caterpillars are killed for every 500g of silk. It is true that 5,000 caterpillars per kilo of silk is still a lot of caterpillars. But a search of the Surge website to find a comparable estimate of the numbers of caterpillar deaths due to pesticides yielded only: “DEBUNKED: Do vegans kill more animals through crop deaths?”
This piece talks extensively about mice and it would appear that whilst the deaths of caterpillars are of huge concern to Surge when they occur in silk production, when it comes to animal deaths in vegan crop production, caterpillars – indeed all insects – are completely forgotten. Their deaths, and the pain they must suffer are not even mentioned in the article, and how many billions of arthropods are harmed annually in the production of a vegan diet is not calculated.
Surge, WRAP and virtually every other blog or article castigating silk for the death of caterpillars also fail to note that in China – where most silk is produced – pupae form a protein- and amino acid-rich addition to rural diets. And whilst China has made significant progress in lifting its population out of poverty and hunger, the World Food Program estimate that some 56 million rural Chinese still live in poverty, and that nationally, 9% of children are stunted through malnutrition. China’s most recent famine is within living memory Between 1959 and 1961, somewhere between 15 and 55 million Chinese died. The 1942-43 famine in Henan killed 2-5 million; the Sichuan famine of 1936-37 resulted in perhaps 5 million deaths; the Chinese famine of 1928-30 may have killed as many as 10 million people; whilst the great Qing famine of 1907, with a death toll estimated at 25 million, may have killed as many, or more, as Mao’s great famine, a little over 50 years later. In short, between 1907 and 1961, a timeframe of less than 60 years, as many as 100 million Chinese – somewhere between the entire population of Germany or Japan – may have died of famine. The millions more who will have been malnourished and their growth stunted can only be guessed.
It is hardly surprising then that as with the Navajo and their concept of sheep, the wonder of a creature that can both feed and clothe informs the Buddhist view of the munificence of higher beings, the cycle of life, and the role of silkworms. For the average rural Chinese, the notion that eating caterpillars is ‘bad’ and next generation ‘meat’ the solution to their problems must appear both patronising and incomprehensibly wasteful.
It is disappointing that rich western brands and affluent vegan initiatives, from ASOS, to the MII, PETA, and Stella McCartney, have no problem whatsoever with grisly caterpillar deaths – whether the poor creatures are eaten alive, starve through paralysis, or die from ruptured guts – as long as that cruelty is for the benefit of the global north. But they attack silk production relentlessly for cruelty when the caterpillars’ painless deaths (they are about to metamorphose, so are presumably insentient) will benefit some of the poorest in the global south.
It is even more disappointing that sites claiming to offer consumers ethical advice, such a Good on You, not only endorse, but actually celebrate this double standard: “Under pressure from consumers and animal welfare groups like PETA, ASOS has recently decided to stop using silk by the end of January 2019. A huge step for the fast growing retailer, ahead of other companies like Zara, H&M and GAP that are only starting to ban mohair.” This ‘sustainability’ guide continues by opining: “New technologies are also helping create new and better alternatives to silk,” without stopping to consider why on earth we would need to replace an industry that has offered income to the poor and marginalised – particularly women and the old – for millennia, in the first place.
A claim used by vegan activists and fashion executives alike to target silk per se, when it actually applies to all Indian production, is the persistence of bonded labour in the Indian economy. The practice is illegal, but to quote an Al Jazeera report published in September 2020: “Debt bondage is India’s most common form of slavery despite being outlawed 40 years ago. Still, millions of bonded labourers work in fields, brick kilns and rice mills to clear their loans.”
In short, it is more than likely that that vegan staple Indian Basmati Rice is tainted by bonded labour. In the rush by vegan supremacists to demonise silk, however, that inconvenient truth is simply forgotten. The ‘silk slaves’ claim is repeated by Good On You, who refer to a 2003 report, and make no attempt either to ascertain whether there has been any improvement in silk workers’ conditions in the almost 20 years since the report came out, or to center the debate within the broader discussion of debt bondage in India. Vegan website Surge does the same – albeit it also refers to a 2021 report by the CNN Freedom Project documenting the fate of a mother and daughter forced illegally to work in a silk factory by a criminal.
A search of the Surge site for the discussion of slavery in Indian rice production, however, came up empty handed. The site’s response to the simple query “rice” was: “Your search did not match any documents.”
Bonded labour is a disgrace, a blot on the face of Indian development and indeed a significant impediment to its success. Headlines like “Silk Slaves” make snappy clickbait. To claim that the issue is specific to silk and a justification for buying polyester instead is, however, quite simply false, hypocritical, and trivialises the gravity of the persistence of bonded labour in the modern Indian economy.
As also noted in “Harm in the guise of doing good”, Kering Group – the owners of Gucci and other luxury brands – despite claiming to align their business model with the UN SDGs, don’t consider the role of fiber production in promoting global human development, let alone give it absolute priority. Interestingly also, a June 2021 report by the Changing Markets Foundation found that in a sweep of the Spring/Summer 2021 collection of the Kering Group’s flagship brand Gucci (traditionally a luxury house based on silk and leather), an astonishing 32% of items contained cheap fossil synthetic fibers like polyester.
Kering’s EP&L finds polyester every bit as environmentally beneficial as VC backed Higg Co.’s MSI does. Kering claims that the group’s 2020 polyester fiber purchases – much doubtless derived from fracked feedstock – came at negligible environmental cost: a mere €1 per kilo for polyester sourced from Pakistan, and €7.5 per kilo for polyester fiber sourced from China.
In 2018, Duke University calculated that water used per well for hydraulic fracturing across the USA had surged by up to 770 percent between 2011 and 2016, and “The volume of brine-laden wastewater that fracked oil and gas wells generated during their first year of production also increased by up to 1440 percent during the same period.” We note that 2016 was 5 years ago – the same number of years as saw this 770% increase in water used per well, and the 1440% increase in water pollution. And there is every reason to believe that this exponential increase in water use/pollution to obtain the feedstock for polyester has continued. When we look at Kering’s EP&L however, as the screenshot below shows, water consumption and water pollution in U.S. polyester material extraction are considered so negligible that they are not even visible, and the total environmental impact of U.S. polyester feedstock, according to Kering, is less than 2 € cents per kilo.
The Kering group’s 2020 purchases of silk, on the other hand, purportedly came at enormous environmental cost in cultivation, averaging €68/kilo for silk from India and €33/kilo for silk from China.
Interestingly, as you can see from the screenshot below, Kering claims that the vast majority of Chinese silk cultivation’s negative impact comes from its water consumption, which is valued by Kering at €58 per kilo. This is interesting because the International Sericulture Commission maintains that all Chinese silk is rainfed. Indeed, historically, Chinese silk production has been integral to financing and maintaining flood prevention schemes. That is an additional social and environmental benefit from silk production, not a cost.
Kering Group does not reveal where and how they are arriving at their EP&L impact values. Higg Co, which owns the MSI, however, obtains the purported impact of raw bivoltine mulberry silk from a single 2014 LCA by the University of Oxford. This was based on a study of 100 farmers in Tamil Nadu in 2006, updated with Recommended Practices on manure and fertiliser application, etc., as published by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2013. That none of this data is either geographically representative or current is self-evident. Worse, the farmers concerned were some of the least efficient silk farmers anywhere on the planet – using 100% irrigation of the most wasteful kind, no solar power, and having made no attempt to develop the market for their co-products. Yet the world’s leading brands, and the MII – not to mention any number of ‘sustainability’ sites and fashion publications – all claim that silk is ‘unsustainable’ based on the nonsensical notion that those 100 Tamil Nadu farmers in 2006 accurately represent global silk production in 2022.
Sustainable fashion’s hypocritical and self-serving stance towards silk does not, however, end there. In the next article in this series, we will consider some of the other ways in which fashion contrives to portray expensive silk as a social and environmental nightmare, with the subtext that far cheaper substitutes such as viscose, and particularly polyester, are ‘more sustainable’.
- Read the next article in this series: Silk Stories Part 3: White Space or Twelve Million People Don’t Matter
- Check out the entire silk stories series: Silk: Caught in a Web of Deceit