More than 5,600 fashion products made from illegal wildlife for dozens of luxury brands including Gucci and Michael Kors were seized by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from 2003 to 2013, according to a study released earlier this year by two researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. According to the study, only about 10 percent of the fashion products made from illegal wildlife were found and confiscated, meaning many thousands more reached the fashion market.
Since 2013, the USFWS no longer discloses the names of wildlife importers, making reliable data from recent years hard to obtain. But despite recent decisions to ban the use of exotic skins by brands like Chanel, Victoria Beckham and others, there is strong reason to believe that the illegal trade in reptiles for fashion goods is still thriving.
“The fashion industry remains the largest importer of illegal wildlife to the USA and has the potential to impact the status of wild populations,” says the John Jay study, which was authored by Gohar Petrossian and Monique Sosnowski and published in the journal EcoHealth.
“We are by no means attempting to vilify any brands or the luxury fashion industry, but rather highlight system failures that need attention,” said Sosnowski. The study does not suggest that fashion brands were intentionally smuggling goods made from illegal wildlife.
And yet there is a very large and specific problem at the intersection of luxury goods and animal welfare. For millennia, the display of animal parts has been a way to showcase power and wealth; the rarer an animal, the more valuable a material is often perceived to be. Meanwhile, the cruelties and ecological consequences of these goods remain largely hidden in the supply chain, shrouded by millions of dollars in aspirational marketing and industry lobbyists.
All of the products examined in the John Jay study were exported to the United States from Europe or Asia, but the origins of the raw materials used to make them reveal a vast, global network spanning at least 32 countries. In fact, the US and Vietnam were the top two countries of origin for the raw materials used in the goods seized by the USFWS cited in the study.
The fashion industry remains the largest importer of illegal wildlife to the USA.
When the USFWS confiscates a product, it’s due to violations of laws or treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibit the trade in endangered, threatened or otherwise protected species.
Of the 5,607 fashion items that were seized by the USFWS between 2003 and 2013, nearly 84 percent were made of reptiles that had been turned into bags, shoes, belts and other luxury accessories. Reptiles are of special concern because the majority of reptile species remain unlisted by conventions like CITES and are therefore often unprotected by regulations.
What’s more, investigations by the International Trade Centre and PETA have uncovered methods for farming, trapping and killing reptiles that are particularly cruel. Live snakes are nailed to walls or inflated to death with air compressors or water hoses to stretch their skins. Lizards have their heads bashed in and crocodiles and alligators have a metal rod stabbed through their spinal canal from neck-to-tail to paralyse them before they die. And because killing methods can be crude as well as cruel, animals are sometimes skinned while still alive.
The John Jay report makes it clear that efforts to more thoroughly understand the complex trade in reptiles are often hindered by large information gaps made worse by criminals in the supply chain who forge permits, fudge paperwork and smuggle or launder animals through ranches. But efforts to protect animals are also muddied by industry-appointed scientists who idealise the trade in reptile skins with overstated claims on conservation and job benefits.
The marginalised and indigenous communities who often supply reptile skins can often be harmed by dependency upon the whims of fickle fashion industry trends, but they’re also invoked to justify practices unrelated to them, like crowded crocodile farms. It’s telling to see that 96 percent of the value of exotic skins is captured by the European fashion industry, with hunters and local communities sometimes making just 0.5 percent of the final value of a high-end handbag.
Illegally traded wildlife is rarely a topic of discussion in the mainstream sustainable fashion movement. As the fashion industry scrambles to reinvent itself during this pandemic, it must not forget animals. The reality of the exotic skins trade stands in startling contrast to how these products are marketed. Herein lies a test for a fashion industry that says it wants to be better.
Can revelations on how exotic skin products are made shift the fantasies that we develop and propagate around them? It’s time for change. As the authors of the John Jay study point out, “if species are beautiful enough to carry as a handbag, they should be beautiful enough to let live sustainably and fulfil their ecological roles in the wild.”
Joshua Katcher is a fashion designer, educator and the author of Fashion Animals.
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