Culture is difficult to change, especially when the vile truths of some cultural traditions are hidden from us. This isn’t to say that culture should be abandoned. On the contrary, culture is something that should be fiercely protected, but not at the expense of animal welfare. Our culture gives us a sense of belonging, community and identity and one of the key components of British culture is the royal family.
Perhaps the biggest, and most watched, royal celebration of the 21st century with a global audience of more than two billion, was the marriage of Kate Middleton to Prince William. For many, the most anticipated part of the ceremony was seeing, for the first time, Kate Middleton’s dress. Unfortunately, although beautiful, the dress was made at the expense of countless animals.
The Queen, Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge all wore dresses made from, or using, appliques of silk. The silk industry is abhorrent, but it is a material that is so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that silk is often misunderstood as a natural fabric akin to cotton. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Animals are boiled, roasted or frozen alive to cultivate silk, and the worst part is that there are so many alternatives which are cruelty-free. Similarly to the ‘leather-is-a-by-product’ lie, people are fooled by the the fabric’s name and the origin of the product. How many people really know the truth about silk? The sad truth is that if leather was renamed ‘preserved skin from a dead cow’, then silk would be called ‘a coffin made from silkworm spit’.
Why are silkworms treated so badly?
Hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of silkworms are destroyed before they have even have the chance to transform into moths, all due to the silk industry. And what for? A wedding dress? Enjoying one of the best days of your life should not mean the exploitation and murder of hundreds
Most people’s reaction to moths is one of utter disgust. Is it their size that makes people think that they are so different from the puppies and kittens they coo over? Or is it their dark colouring which makes people think they are dirty or evil?
For some reason butterflies don’t receive the same digust, even though both species come from the same order of animals: Lepidoptera. Moths are actually fascinating creatures with the ability to feel and with the same right to life that we have.
Aren’t silkworms, and moths, valuable to the environment?
Moths are incredibly important parts of our ecosystems for many reasons. They are key pollinators (second only to bees for their pollinating prowess), ensuring biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Moths are also a source of protein for many other species in the food web including birds and reptiles.
Moths are indicator species — this means that they are very sensitive to changes in the environment. Therefore, moths are often used to track anthropogenic impacts on the environment and help humans manage activities sustainably.
In addition to this, moths have a fascinating lifecycle. Silkworms take only ten days to hatch from the egg. The silkworm will then eat mulberry leaves non-stop for over a month. Once the silkworm has reached the optimum weight, over 10,000 times as heavy as they were when they were born, they will attach themselves to a twig.
How does a silkworm make silk?
The silkworm will begin spinning a cocoon – this produces the silk. This process can take anywhere between three and eight days. The silk is produced in liquid form by two glands in the silkworm’s head. Each fibre of silk can be thousands of feet in length.
Once spun, the silkworm can stay cocooned for approximately two weeks, before eating their way out of their chrysalis and evolving as a beautiful moth. Adult moths have incredibly short lives of around just a week which gives them enough time to reproduce. Some species of moth have such short lives after metamorphosis that they don’t even develop mouths to eat — they simply reproduce and die.
What do humans do to the silkworms?
Over 6,500 silkworms are killed to make just one kilogram of silk. The eri silkmoth, bombyx mori and tussah moths are most commonly used to create commercial silk.
Silkworms are boiled, frozen or baked to death. This is to preserve the silk threads before the worms chew their way out of the cocoons. The silkworms create their own coffins. The fates of the silkworms which are allowed to transition into moths is just as disturbing. Silkworms allowed to live reproduce the next generation of silkworms. The male moths are discarded and female moths are crushed alive when they are no longer needed.
Silkworms are crushed so they can be examined for diseases which could affect the yield of the silk — this is how these beautiful insects are seen… as commodities. Millions of silkworms are killed every year for their silk. Is there any use or purpose for silk that is important enough for such a death toll? We don’t think so.
Insects feel pain; they suffer. Scientists do disagree on to what extent an insect can feel pain, but they have discovered that insects do have a physical response to pain and produce endorphins, just like us, to help reduce the sensations of pain. Moths may not feel pain the same way as humans, but that doesn’t justify the death of billions of animals.
What are the alternatives?
The most frustrating part is that these deaths are unnecessary. Silk is not an essential fabric. We can replicate silk using cruelty-free plant-based materials such as rayon, nylon and polyester. Rayon is a man-made silk-like fibre which can be dyed in a range of colours. It is made from cellulose, a plant-based material.
As people have started to become aware of the cruelty of the commercial silk industry, peace silk (also known as Ahimsa silk) has become more prevalent in the fashion market. Claiming to be cruelty-free, companies who sell peace silk say that they collect the purposeless silk cocoons after the moths have emerged. The problem is that although some companies may well be doing this, you will never know for sure. Even if you could be sure, these companies still domesticate and breed animals for a product they produce, making peace silk non-vegan.
Sadly, in the same way that many chickens have been bred to make them larger and more ‘meaty’, domesticated moths have evolved to become so large that some species, notably the bombyx mori, are now unable to fly. Moths have been over bred to maximize silk output without giving a thought to the welfare of these animals.
The silk industry is another example of the thoughtless ways humans impose power over other ‘inferior’ creatures. Taking from animals and killing them without acknowledging our similarities means that we are living with domination, not co-operation, and that is something that needs to change.