From blouses to sarongs, suits to ties, and lingerie to pajamas, silk is still widely used by the textile industry, finding its way into sheets and pillowcases as well as handkerchiefs and headscarves. What some people may not be aware of, however, are the less-obvious places silk shows up, including parachutes, bicycle tire casing, cigar bands, replacement heart valves, and sutures for surgery.
We tend to associate silk with the silkworm due to the fact that, in its production, silkworms are killed by the hundreds of millions every year. However, silk is a fiber naturally produced by a number of different insects, including spiders, whose silk reserves have also been exploited in medical and military experiments.
Although synthetic silks made from lyocell (a type of cellulose fiber) can be difficult to distinguish from the real thing, sadly, the archaic practice of using silk from insects remains as common as ever.
Just prior to their metamorphosis into moths, Bombyx mori pupae spin silk fibers to weave their cocoons. In nature, the moth chews his or her way out of the cocoon once the transformation is complete. But in the fabric industry, silk is mass produced through the breeding and domestication of silkworms on what are essentially moth factory farms. When the caterpillars enter the pupa stage of their development, their cocoons are plunged into boiling water. This kills the silkworms and begins to unravel the longer fibers.
Approximately 15 silkworms are killed to produce a single gram of silk. Although it is very occasionally harvested after the moth has broken free, the strands are considerably shorter and the finished product is not commercially viable on a large scale.
There are other methods of producing silk that do not result in the death of the insect; however, there are still ethical issues to be considered. “Ahimsa silk,” for example, is made from the cocoon of the Bombyx mori moth after the moth has chewed through and discarded it. The silkworms used in this method of production are still domesticated and, just like other domesticated farmed animals, are bred for the purposes of production at the cost of their own health and well-being. The adult moths cannot fly because their bodies are too large and the adult males cannot eat due to underdeveloped mouth parts. The same would be true of moths in large commercial operations, but they are killed before reaching adulthood.
Abstaining from silk, like honey, may draw pause from new vegans. Do insects feel pain? Is it important for humans to consider the interests of insects against our own? Do insects have interests? It’s true that the depth of our understanding is limited about these issues, but that does not mean that we should ignore the moral concerns such questions present. Surveying the opinions of “experts” will yield mixed results, but any objective observer can see that insects react to stimuli, pursue pleasure, and flee from threat.
We should not remove insects from moral consideration just because our knowledge about these tiny beings is incomplete. Being vegan is about embracing a worldview that is starkly different from the dominant premise that other beings exist simply to fulfill human desires. The reality is that we do not need to exploit insects, and there is no justification for using them as a resource for our own ends.