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Op-Ed | Why Chanel’s Exotic Skins Ban Is Wrong

While well-meaning, the French luxury house’s move to stop manufacturing products made from snakes, crocodiles, lizards and other reptiles will hurt animal conservation efforts and local communities, argue Daniel Natusch, Rosie Cooney, Tomas Waller and Grahame Webb.
Crocodile Chanel bag | Source: Getty Images
  • Daniel Natusch, Rosie Cooney, Tomas Waller,
  • Grahame Webb

Luxury fashion brands save species. Fact. But the recent announcement by Chanel that it will no longer use reptile skins, will not save species. In our opinion, as leaders within the world's largest and oldest conservation organisation, the decision may be well-meaning, but it is wrong. It will adversely affect the conservation of wild animals and the livelihoods of the people who live with and depend on that wildlife.

We understand Chanel's announcement is motivated by concerns regarding animal welfare and traceability, increasingly highlighted by media campaigns opposed to them using animals. We strongly support efforts to ensure high standards of animal welfare in all industries, and salute the efforts of companies exercising leadership in this regard. But stopping the use of these animals raises other serious problems.

Globally, there are urgent and growing threats to the conservation of wild species and habitats, with some wild populations declining due to poaching and their habitats being lost to agriculture. With reptiles, the luxury goods companies sourcing wild skins have empowered people to engage in excellent conservation programs, in many countries. These programs are thrown into jeopardy by the new measures, particularly if it sets a precedent for others.

It was only last month that CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the major UN body safeguarding wild species in trade — provided tangible examples. It showcased conservation projects from around the world in which wild species were being used sustainably, supporting indigenous and local livelihoods, and motivating people to protect and conserve species and their habitats.

It is distressing for us to even consider that such outstanding examples of conservation, many of which involve sustainable and careful use of reptiles for skins, may collapse because of this well-intentioned but misdirected decision.

Instead of working to make improvements, Chanel has decided to take the lazy option.

It is widely acknowledged in conservation policy — most recently at the London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, and by Prince William — that indigenous and local communities who live with wildlife need to gain meaningful benefits from it to support and actively engaging in conservation and protection. Well-managed and sustainable trade in wildlife has proved to be an effective incentive to conserve, and the consequences of removing the incentives are serious and disturbing.

There are so many positive examples of reptiles, in particular, benefiting from sustainable use. Trade in skins from lizards (Yacare Caimans) from Bolivia has supported healthcare and food for the Tacana People, and other indigenous South American tribes, for over thirty years. It helped support effective management and protection of forest and wildlife on ancestral lands.

In Australia, indigenous Aborigines gain income from royalty payments for saltwater crocodile eggs collected from their lands. The income improves people’s lives and motivates initiatives to protect wetlands, through combating invasive plants, like the giant sensitive trees taking over floodplains, and animals like feral wild pigs, that have devastated freshwater turtle populations in the swamps.

In Indonesia, 150,000 people benefit from harvest and trade in reticulated pythons, which the science confirms is sustainable. The ability to harvest natural resources confers significant livelihood resilience on people, especially in times of economic volatility.

Nile crocodile eggs from the Tana River in Kenya provide income to local people, only because farms export skins. Morelet’s crocodile from Mexico is used commercially and, in Quintana Roo state alone, 4686 hectares of wetland, with 100 other threatened species living in it, is conserved. The list of positive conservation and livelihood case histories is too long to elaborate here.

Apparently, many millennials prefer to buy products that are "ethically sourced." But the irony is that the economic use of wild animals is far more ecologically sustainable (i.e. ethical) than domestic animal production. Bovine leather is sourced from cattle, now grown on monocultures of grass, which were once natural forests. Wetlands are drained for agriculture. Massive amounts of fertiliser and herbicide are integral parts of cattle production, but at the cost of damaging wild plants and animals. Then there are erosion and carbon emissions; both linked to agriculture.

Many millennials prefer to buy products that are 'ethically sourced.' But the irony is that the economic use of wild animals is far more ecologically sustainable.

Yet wild reptiles are a natural renewable resource, that need original habitats to survive. The more value they have, the greater the incentives to protect rather than destroy natural landscapes. Unlike domestic animals, the ecological footprint of reptiles is zero. These animals are meant to be there. And in an ironic twist, their sustainable utilisation for skins keeps them there.

Brands like Chanel were driving forces behind conservation around the world through purchasing animal products. Now they are boycotting the species, livelihoods and the conservation agenda. This is not to imply there were no adverse issues with the sourcing of skins. There undoubtedly were and still are. But the problems are trivial against the backdrop of the conservation and livelihood benefits that the fashion industry has made possible. No industry is perfect from the outset. But instead of working to make improvements, Chanel has decided to take the lazy option. Yet we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good — the result is large-scale harm, for both people and planet.

Sadly, it appears that those with a vested interest in preventing any use of animals by people, who embellish problems, have influenced this decision. If only those people understood or cared about the irony of their interests — the problems they have created for conservation and livelihoods.

In the face of growing environmental pressures on wildlife, and increasing social pressures on fashion companies aimed at creating moral outrage, the need for calm, analytical, informed and evidence-based approaches to decision-making is becoming stronger and stronger. There is no other way to truly ensure resource use on our planet becomes more and more sustainable.

As leaders within the world’s largest and oldest conservation organisation, we urge other fashion companies to better inform themselves about the broader benefits their industry creates, and about the consequences of taking rash decisions that undermine them. We stand in solidarity with the fashion industry, its sustainable use of wildlife species and the benefits they are generating. We hope that others will do the same. Ultimately, the fate of many species — including vulnerable members of our own — depends on it.

About the authors:

Dr. Rosie Cooney is the Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's (SSC) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group.

Mr. Tomas Waller is the Chair of the IUCN SSC Boa and Python Specialist Group.

Prof. Grahame Webb is the Chair of the IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group

Dr. Daniel Natusch is a member of all of the above groups.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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