Business & Biology

Silkworms: Where Does It End?

unrequited MURDER

If we use the hands and the feet to protect the head, does that mean that we go too far in treating them as less important?

—Wang Yang-ming, Neo-Confucianist philosopher, 15th Century

The garment industry is riddled with ethical dilemmas. Most people today would agree that selling humans into slavery and forcing them to pick cotton is immoral, but clearly, that was not always the case. As society evolves, so too does its morality. Slavery gave way to sharecropping, which was replaced by gainful employment. As the world grew more global, we were increasingly reminded of sweatshops, child labor, and their moral implications. Now, as machine manufacturing appears to be on track to solving some of our clothing concerns, there is still the question of a fabric’s origin.

Silkworms, for example, create large quantities of silk for harvest, but according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), those silkworms are slaughtered by the 3,000 per pound of silk. And because the silkworms feel pain, we’re left with yet another moral quandary. But don’t despair, there’s hope!

The latest method of silk production involves yeast, in much the same way that synthetic insulin is produced. By using recombinant DNA from silk-spinning spiders, yeast colonies can create industrial quantities of silk matrix. It’s like brewing beer but for clothes.

“That’s great,” I hear you exclaim. “We’ve finally developed an ethical way to produce natural fibers. Case closed. Huzzah!” But what happens when we discover that the silk-brewing process results in a certain number of yeasts dying? What if part of the yeast colony must be killed off as production demands slow? How many lives would be at stake? Millions? Trillions? More?

Most living creatures have negative response mechanisms. Even single-celled organisms have receptors that warn of external danger. If “sentient” microorganisms are being “killed” in a textile-making process, is that acceptable? And if society decides that it’s not acceptable, then where does this ethical argument end? What about the quality of the yeasts’ living and working conditions? Free-range microbes, anyone?

The ethics of textiles is one example of a broader, ever-changing morality. Over the course of history, what is ethically acceptable has evolved as societies have evolved. Behaviors once thought to be unimaginable become commonplace (ex. Divorce), and common practices become unthinkable (ex. Slavery). The unethical becomes ethical, and vice versa—the dynamic cycle is in constant flux. This is why judging the transgressions of the past is somewhat futile.

The ethical question here is one of finding harmony—a balance between our individual wants and needs and the consequences those may have on the rest of the world. Take this quote from 15th Century Neo-Confucian philosopher, Wang Yang-ming:

We love both plants and animals, yet we can bear nurturing animals with plants. We love both animals and men, and yet we can bear butchering animals to feed our parents, provide for religious sacrifices, and entertain guests. We love both parents and strangers. But suppose here are a small basket of rice and a platter of soup. With them one will survive and without them one will die; there is not enough to save both parent and stranger. We can bear preferring to save the parent instead of the stranger.

Ethical dilemmas are about our place in the world, our interconnectedness. We’re each connected in different ways—our parents are different, our friends are different, our preferences, experiences, and strengths are different—and those connections are unique to us. With each person coming from a somewhat different place, all pulling in slightly different directions, we must trust that a harmonious balance will be reached.

Throughout history, making textiles has often pitted people’s ethical standards against their economic incentives. When taken to extremes, modern ethical arguments can seem absurd; however, having stricter ethical standards is a sign that society has become more inclusive, more interconnected. The fact that some people feel connected enough with the natural world that the fate of a small moth larva has become an ethical dilemma is encouraging (albeit slightly comical). How different this is from the subhuman status assigned to slaves less than two centuries ago.

It may be hard to believe that human slavery could have ever been widely accepted, but let’s go back to that example. Slaves have now been largely replaced by machines. Is it possible that humans may one day begin to see machines, not as appliances created for singular purposes, but as mechanical slaves? As those machines become smarter and more aware, will there be a moral obligation to grant them freedom? Or is that taking morality too far? Where does it end? (Or does it?)

In Fashion: “What will people wear in the future?” The Economist. Film (2019). https://films.economist.com/infashion/ (Source)

“What’s Wrong with Silk?” PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. FAQ online, Accessed: June 2019 (Source)

Lent, Jeremy. The Patterning Instinct. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2017. (Amazon)

Pollack, Susan H., et al. “Child Labor in 1990: Prevalence and Health Hazards.” Annual Review of Public Health 11.1 (1990): 359-375. (Source)

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