As the people who have followed Breaking The Brand and, now, Nature Needs More know, we have always openly shared our thinking, research, insights and ideas. This post explains why we created the Style Icon Afternoon Tea, introduced in the last blog, to raise funds for our next RhiNo demand reduction campaign in Viet Nam.

In the coming months and years, Nature Needs More will be exploring if we have a better chance of reducing the demand for (illegal) luxury wildlife ‘products’ if we work to embed demand reduction into the ethical and sustainable fashion industry strategy. While the conservation sector does much good work, from a biological perspective, I have seen too little evidence that it can get its head around the wildlife trade from a consumer perspective. As a result, it is stuck in a ‘business as usual’ approach and too slow to respond to evolving consumer desires and motivations.

Vegan Movement Showing The Way (hand-on-heart, I have to say up front, I am a vegetarian and not a vegan, yet)

I have watched the rise of the vegan movement with great interest and have been impressed by their achievements. Up against the powerful and well-resourced farming lobby groups, they appear to have had a greater impact on consumer education, improvements in animal welfare, corporate social responsibility in the food retail sector and evolving consumer behaviour, than the traditional animal welfare organisations. Their achievements have been particularly impressive when people with a commitment to a vegan lifestyle have come together to form an organisation, an example being the success of Animals Australia.

So, if the vegan movement has been that catalyst for change for farm, and other domesticated, animals, can the growing ethical and sustainable fashion movement become the catalyst to drive change for the use of exotic wildlife? Given Nature Needs More’s particular focus is the wildlife trade (both illegal and legal), together with the commoditisation of the natural world, the possibility and benefits of embedding demand reduction for exotic wildlife in to the ethical/sustainable fashion strategy is something we have been researching and will explore in the coming months.

In addition to everything else, the fashion industry has status with and can influence the buyers of these products, the conservation industry does not and cannot; and, to be frank, while their primary focus is keeping their ‘free-trade’ donors happy, they never will.

Sustainable Fashion & Wildlife

Some great work is being done in the ethical and sustainable fashion movement to build awareness of issues, such as with the documentary The True Cost or to define what sustainable fashion is, for example Green Strategy’s seven forms of sustainable fashion.

Building Awareness Helping Define Strategy

While this movement is asking many good questions, including:

  1. How is an industry that generates so much profit unable to support millions of its workers properly?
  2. How can the fashion industry’s significantly reduce its creation of mindboggling levels of waste?
  3. What must it do to challenge and change the chemicals used in manufacturing process?, and,
  4. Tackle the levels of water usage in the industry

a topic, in the main, missing from the discussion is fashion’s impact on the wildlife trade and how it drives poaching activity.

Nature Needs More believes an additional pillar is needed in the sustainable fashion strategy – Beyond Sustainable Fashion, for items that can’t be produced ethically and/or sustainably. As yet, tackling unsustainable use of wildlife products, and the impact of poaching through the desire for luxury wildlife products (legal and illegal) are not a prominent in the overall industry strategy. In addition, some ideas that may, in the first instance, be a positive in the sustainable fashion movement can also lead to negative consequences.

Some Examples

A perfect example of this is the ‘buy vintage’ pillar in the industry strategy. The unintended consequences are promoting demand for products that are illegal today, such as turtle shell, elephant skin and rhino horn.

Example 1: Tortoiseshell – As the linked article from the Gentleman’s Gazette states “ Though much harder to find and very expensive, it is possible to find frames that are made from bone, horn, shell, or wood. Original Tortoiseshell glasses are very difficult to find these days. As such, they often fetch prices north of $10,000.” Communicating rarity and linking it to desirability is a key driver of price. The luxury sector knows that where the elite lead, the middle class will follow. When this is linked to wildlife, the desire created for these types of products creates a supply chain reliant on poaching, weak domestic trade monitoring and toothless international trade conventions.

So what happens when there is a desire for tortoiseshell is created but customers need a much lower price point? A 2017 survey  summarised the results of visits to souvenir shops and stands in tourist destinations around Latin America and the Caribbean to assess the level of trade in turtleshell (tortoiseshell). Surveyors identified more than 10,000 products at over 200 locations (of approximately 600 stores and artisan stalls visited). The Too Rare To Wear initiative has been created with the goal of reducing the demand for endangered hawksbills through a targeted educational educational campaign aimed at tourists.

Tortoiseshell (turtle shell) Tortoiseshell (turtle shell) jewelry, trinkets and souvenirs

Nature Needs More believes ‘Too Rare to Wear’ is a good vision that should be embedded in the ‘beyond sustainable pillar’ of the overall ethical/sustainable fashion strategy, covering all wildlife products used to promote and project a luxury lifestyle.

Example 2: Elephant Skin – As second example where the implications of the vintage strategy have not been fully thought through is for exotic leather, such as elephant skin. The internet is now awash with companies set up to fulfill the high demand for authentic pre-owned designer goods. In recent months, I have seen several pre-owned elephant skin bags for sale.  In mid-2017 conservation groups highlighted the disturbing trend in elephants being poached for their skin, saying the demand for elephant skins has caused an unprecedented surge in wild elephant killings. What is all the more disturbing is that when elephants are killed for their skin, rather than their tusks there is less discrimination on the age and sex of the elephant targeted. The big males are targeted for their tusks, now skin has been added to the demand mix, the number of female elephants targeted is reducing the ability to rebuild elephant populations.

In addition to this illegal activity, their is a growing legal supply chain and, understandably, concerns about the ability to monitor the integrity of the legal supply chain.

Hermes Clutch Bag Elephant killed and skinned for
jewelry and accessories

Example 3 – Mammoth Ivory (Antiquities)

It is very rare that Michelle Obama puts a foot wrong, but her decision to wear mammoth ivory jewelry certainly put her out of step with many. Too many articles called the jewelry eco-friendly and sustainable, completely missing the point that any market for, even legally sourced, ‘vintage’ products provides opportunities for laundering ivory from post-ban killed elephants. In most instances consumers will not be able to distinguish between ‘true vintage’ and laundered products without expensive and time-consuming methods such as carbon dating.

Global warming has provided access to previously closed stores of mammoth ivory and designers have used this to create everything from jewelry to objet d’art and in doing so triggered the desire for something very rare and very unique. But what this has also done is providing another opportunity to launder ivory from recently killed elephants in to a legal market place and drive up to industrial levels elephant poaching. So how is this done?

  1. Poachers have apparently been colouring elephant’s tusks to make them look like mammoth’s
  2. While traveling in China, I have seen ivory retailers displaying signs saying mammoth ivory has the same colour and lustre as new ivory!

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, to highlight the need for a strategic, rather than ad-hoc, approach to solve this issue from the luxury industry, with the support from those who have a significant influence on what the general public desire, particularly the cashed-up upper-middle class. As mentioned earlier, we must acknowledge that where the elite lead, the middle class will follow. The whole luxury industry is based on this knowledge and so is the wildlife poaching industry. The desire deliberately manufactured for these types of products creates a supply chain reliant on poaching, weak domestic trade monitoring and toothless international trade conventions. Our precious wildlife need the luxury industries and fashion influencers to be clear on the impact they have on consumers and their desires. Therefore, for fashion to be truly ethical and sustainable, it needs to go beyond labour issues, energy and water use and chemicals and waste generation. It needs to look at what desires it creates and what the potential consequences of those desires are, outside the narrow confines of ‘fashion’ itself.

Strategic vs. Ad-hoc Approach

There is evidence to show that when the fashion industry and the fashionable influencers take on an issue, it can help drive behaviour change in a broader group and drive it quickly. Surprisingly there are few examples of this, but two great ones are the Murderous Millinery and One Dumb Animal campaigns, that were over 80 years apart!

Murderous Millinery – 1890s

The commercial trade in bird feathers for millinery, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was decimating bird populations. As this article from the Smithsonian Magazine describes: The plume trade was a sordid business. Hunters killed and skinned the mature birds, leaving orphaned hatchlings to starve or be eaten by crows. “It was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by the plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed,” wrote William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoo­logical Society and formerly chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian. In a second article from NPR History Department: American fashionistas were in a frenzy over feather hats. Haute headwear made from real bird plumage was seen everywhere. Dense bird colonies were being wiped out in Florida so that women could make a fashion statement. The statistics were staggering. Good Housekeeping reported in its winter of 1886-1887 issue: “At Cape Cod, 40,000 terns have been killed in one season by a single agent of the hat trade.” On Cobb’s Island along the Virginia Coast, an “enterprising” New York businesswoman bagged 40,000 seabirds to meet the demands of a single hat-maker. The magazine questioned the sense — and sensibilities — of such inhumane behavior.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway, after reading an article describing the plume trade, enlisted the help of Minna Hall. They consulted the Blue Book, Boston’s social register, and launched a series of tea parties at which they urged their friends to stop wearing feathered hats. Some 900 women joined this boycott. Many of the exotic birds we still see today are around because of the work of Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall. These afternoon tea meetings culminated in the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The Murderous Millinery campaign demonstrates that for the behaviour change message to be effective with the actual customers it needs to elicit an immediate emotional response in the customer; to do this they are generally controversial. As the 1892 advert from Punch shows, the wearers of exotically plumed hats were made to feel like pariahs and this strategy was also used in the highly successful anti-fur trade campaigns of the 1980s.

One Dumb Animal – Anti Fur Campaign, 1980s

The anti-fur campaign of the 1980s by Lynx (now Respect For Animals) was using behavioural economics intuitively and long before it was formally studied. These campaigns were targeted for being sexist, which they are not. They simply target the people wearing fur coats and, in the main, they are women.

Key figures in the fashion and music industry donated their time and talents to a campaign that made fur wearers pariahs instead of providing them the elite status they desired. The ‘dumb animals’ campaign was shot by leading photographer David Bailey and featured the slogan: It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it. Linda McCartney also created images for the campaign (Rich Bitch, Poor Bitch).

It wasn’t lang before retailers closed their fur departments because of falling sales and Britain’s fur farms started to close down.

The success of those initial campaigns unfortunately hasn’t been sustained as fur has crept back in to fashion over the years. A recent article about London Fashion week was a mixed bag. The article stated that over 90% of designers taking part in LFW have confirmed to the British Fashion Council (BFC) that they will not be using fur, which is good. But research by the University of Copenhagen reports retail sales of fur in the UK in 2016 were £162m, up 350% from 2011, as inexpensive real fur has become commonplace in fast fashion. At least for some designers, not using fur it appears to be more about fur losing some of its luxury status rather than about ethical and sustainable fashion values. The article goes on to say “Fur has crept into the mainstream,” and “The reality is parkas with real fur trim are sold on market stalls”.

The decision to use fur or not is not one that should be based on fashion trends or potential luxury value. Instead, it should be based on principle. This is why Nature Needs More calls on the fashion industry and the fashion influencers to include a pillar in the the ethical/sustainable fashion strategy that outlaws the use of exotic wildlife products in any form; they are ‘beyond sustainable’. It is not just time for this to be part of the overall sustainable fashion strategy, it is long overdue; the Style Icon Afternoon Tea is one small step to raise the profile of the need for this.


Parts of the fashion industry are realising the huge impact the industry has on labour exploitation, energy, water, chemicals and waste. They have formed the ethical and sustainable fashion movement, a great step forward for an hugely influential, global industry. The current strategy of the sustainable fashion movement does not fully look at the impact the industry has on consumer desire, especially in relation to the use of wildlife products in fashion. The scale of this industry is such that any form of trend setting can wipe out entire species or create whole new industries in breeding animals for their use in fashion. Nature Needs More acknowledges that from a demand reduction perspective the fashion industry is critical to wildlife conservation and we want to work with the sustainable fashion movement to expand its strategy to include wildlife conservation and the illegal wildlife trade. We will explore how this could be done in our next blog post.

Subscribe to our blog posts: