In March 2018, I wrote a blog Sustainable Fashion & Wildlife where I stated that we would have a better chance of reducing the unchecked demand for (illegal) luxury wildlife ‘products’ if work was being done to embed reducing the desire for endangered species into the newly evolving ethical and sustainable fashion industry strategy. Since then I have expanded my research into the claims of the sustainable fashion and luxury industries, and it is clear that they are a long way from genuinely taking wildlife into account when looking at their supply chains and more. I would like to outline just some examples in this blog and also make a case for a number of key steps that the luxury industry needs to take to show real commitment to transparency and traceability of the (endangered) species they use, like feathers, fur and exotic leathers.

As I have written about before, the illegal trafficking of endangered species cannot be decisively tackled until the system facilitating and monitoring the legal trade in endangered species (CITES) is modernised. But bringing the CITES global trade permit, monitoring and management system in to the 21st century is not the only thing needed; to ensure that endangered species are not over-exploited by trade they must be factored into the evolving sustainable and ethical fashion strategy. Currently the legal trade in endangered species is not considered by this growing movement. Let’s consider some examples for why these are the crucial first steps to a sustainable trade in animal body parts.

Sustainable Fashion Strategy – Let’s take just 3 examples:

Example 1:  February 2019 Fixing Fashion Report – The report on clothing consumption and sustainability correctly states Fashion: it shouldn’t cost the earth. But it currently does, in a May 2019 IPBES Report, the trade in flora and fauna was confirmed as the second biggest threat to species survival. So, it is disappointing that this UK parliamentary report contains only two mentions of the word ‘wildlife’ (page 9) and only in relation to climate change. There is nothing about the legal supply of wildlife body parts (and endangered species more broadly) to the (luxury) fashion industry.

Example 2: Is very similar example 1, as demonstrated by the work being done by the Global Fashion Agenda. In their 2017 Pulse Report, the word ‘wildlife’ features only once and in the 2018 Pulse Report the word ‘wildlife’ is not mentioned at all. A second of their publications, the 2018 CEO Agenda highlights Supply Chain Traceability is top priority. For wildlife (and endangered species more broadly) supply chain traceability is impossible until the CITES permit system is upgraded from current 1970s paper based system it is currently, but the retailers using wildlife body parts in their production lines haven’t made a contribution to upgrading this system in the decade it has been discussed.

Example 3: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition states on its website that it is the apparel, footwear, and textile industry’s leading alliance for sustainable production. Behind this statement is its development of its Higg Index which it defines as “a suite of tools that enables brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes — at every stage in their sustainability journey — to accurately measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance. The Higg Index delivers a holistic overview that empowers businesses to make meaningful improvements that protect the well-being of factory workers, local communities, and the environment.” Well not for wildlife and endangered species it doesn’t, because there can’t be supply chain traceability or transparency until CITES adopts a secure electronic permit system as the basis for trade in flora and fauna.

And given that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has over 250 members, it is very telling that CITES is NOT one of them.

Fashion Theory

In highlighting the crisis in the trade of endangered species, I was delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate on an article with Dr Catherine Kovesi University, a historian at the University of Melbourne; one of Catherine’s areas of research is the discourses of luxury consumption.

The article, titled Mammoth Tusk Beads and Vintage Elephant Skin Bags: Wildlife, Conservation, and Rethinking Ethical Fashion, explores the fact that wildlife is not currently factored into the evolving sustainable fashion strategy. It is published in Fashion Theory.


Recent years have seen marked consciousness-raising in the arena of ethical fashion. Despite inherent difficulties in tracing a complete ethical supply chain back to source, sustainable fashion movements have helped to highlight the need for prominent fashion industry role models on the one hand, and awareness of those who produce what we consume on the other. Yet, repeatedly in such discussions, one of the most fragile components of the luxury fashion business is left out of the conversation – wildlife and endangered species. To date there have been parallel discourses in ethical fashion and in wildlife conservation that rarely intersect and are indeed often in unintended opposition to each other. Even those who attempt to promote an ethical path, or who buy vintage rather than new fashion items of wildlife products, often unwittingly contribute to the accelerated demand for wildlife fashion products from present-day endangered species. The desire to be ethical can, in some instances, even contribute to illegal poaching activity. This article unravels for the first time some of the complexities of the conservation dilemmas involved in the wearing of ancient, vintage, and present-day wildlife products. In doing so it argues we should place wildlife center stage, as an equally important element, in rethinking what it is that we wear.

Factor Me In Campaign

For this reason, in 2018 Nature Needs More developed and piloted a campaign titled #FactorMeIn, we will build on this campaign in the months to come.

CITES CoP 18  – August 2019

During the CITES CoP 18 mid-conference break, Donalea Patman of For the Love of Wildlife and the Nature Needs More team took a 4 hour drive to Milan, to take a look at what was on sale in one of the top fashion destinations in the world.  The first thing to note from Milan’s luxury retail sector was how difficult it was to pass a store that didn’t contain fur, exotic leather or feathers; the place was teeming with wildlife body parts.

Donalea posed as a customer who wanted to take something ‘special’ back to Australia from her Italian holiday, but thought it best to check if she needed a permit to get her special purchase through customs “You know the documentation, CITES I think it is called????”

The general response was that all their leather and fur was sourced ethically and from trusted suppliers, who followed all the guidelines and that the importer met all Italian regulations and laws. Another pattern of comments was that the products were made from the by-product of the meat industry, as locals eat the meat (do you know someone who eats mink??). We were served by people who when asked the very simplest question about ‘regulations’ clearly didn’t know anything, despite responding as if they did, believing the customer knew even less. It was interesting to note how often the ‘charming, male manager’ was called over to reassure the ‘naïve female consumer’. This was just a few hours of empirical testing but, given it was in one of the world’s luxury shopping capitals it served to show how much needs to be done to challenge the trade to show a greater commitment to regulation and transparency.

As we work to push industry to implement genuine supply chain traceability for endangered species, we will try to harness the resurgence of the SHEconomy (an issue we will be discussing in the future as a way to ensure true power for female consumes) but not in the way that is currently discussed by retail, which may be better expressed as the sheCONomy.

While there are huge profits to be made from using animal body parts and effectively no regulation, there is too much incentive for industry to invest in ensuring consumers stay naïve and/or desensitised to the plight of animals in the highly lucrative trade of species that are wild or undomesticated (such as python, crocodile, mink, manta ray, marabou stork, fox etc).

Fur – It’s A Body Part NOT A Fabric

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fur industry. I would like to draw your attention to two articles on fur from just the last few weeks:

  1. Melissa Singer – Sydney Morning Herald, Australia (26 Sept, 2019): One ‘Scandi 2.0’ brand insists fur is still a reasonable material highlighting Danish label, Saks Potts, who work with Kopenhagen Fur and counts Kendall Jenner a celebrity fan, are about to launch in Australia.
  2. Jane Dalton – The Independent, UK (22 Sept, 2019) Dogs and puppies found ‘neglected and starving’ in cages at Poland fur farm. The dogs were found alongside foxes that were destined to be killed for their pelts. It was not clear why dogs were being kept at the farm or whether any had been slaughtered for their fur.

There is insufficient regulation in the fur industry and we know from experience from a range of industries that self-regulation in too many instances means no regulation.  The article by Jane Dalton is just one of many that highlights that the fur industry has not committed or invested in strong animal welfare standards in decades; but a 2016 National Geographic article, Why Fur Is Back in Fashion shows it has invested in desensitising young designers and new customers to fur. The article states:

Much of the fur trade’s recovery stems from its strategic wooing of young designers like Fan and, in turn, young customers. The leading fur auction houses began bringing in designers and design students at the height of the antifur movement. The ambition was for all designers to have “flirted with the material” early in their careers, said Julie Maria Iversen of Kopenhagen Fur. The aim has always been to move beyond furrier shops and fur departments, and make fur just another fine fabric, available wherever clothes are sold.

These zealously cultivated relationships have paid off.  Affordability, a word not formerly associated with fur, serves what Iversen called “the fur journey…..We start with the young consumer buying a fur key ring, then maybe a little later she has more money for a fur bag,” she said. “Eventually she buys a full coat.” It’s “all part of the agenda, to inspire the upcoming generation of women.” 

And so we are back to the sheCONomy! Be it fur or exotic skin the investment in desensitising and normalising these ‘products’ for a new generation, started with key rings and leather bracelets. The aim is to get the new consumer to buy a fur coat or head-to-toe python skin; sadly it seems to be working when you see too many influencers wearing these type of products and new designers pushing fur to millennials.

So while Nature Needs More does work tackling the demand for endangered species by publishing demand reduction campaigns, this can only ever by a short-term fix, to provide some breathing space for certain species to survive in the wild, by undermining the current motivations for consumption. When so much money and effort is spent by industries to re-manufacture the desire for these wildlife body parts, it is imperative that these industries deal with the systemic problems in the trade, including the adequate resourcing of the systems that facilitate the trade in species.

Philanthropy, Philanthrocapitalism Or Just Corporate Hypocrisy?

There is a growing scrutiny, and to a greater degree interrogation, of corporate philanthropy; more people are asking is it just corporate hypocrisy allowing a redirection of a fraction of the spoils of neoliberal capitalism, in the name of generosity, to try to address the problems created by an economic and political system that allowed those spoils to accrue in the first place? A 2014 paper, Questioning generosity in the golden age of philanthropy: Towards critical geographies of super-philanthropy, one question the authors ask is: “Is philanthropy diverting attention and resources away from the failings of contemporary manifestations of capitalism?”.

Whilst we could have chosen any number of companies, we give the example of Rolex. Undoubtedly, Rolex has donated to a great number of environmental projects under its Perpetual Plant program. But, while Rolex and other luxury brands don’t invest in modernizing the system that facilitates the trade in endangered species they benefit from (we deliberately showed an image with a Rolex leather watch strap) then it is vital that more people question motivations and statements as: How watch companies are helping to save the planet – Rolex.

In the run up to this year’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards, Livia Firth, Founder of Eco Age, who created the awards stated ‘We [the industry] have turned a corner finally’. Firth clarifies the event focuses on fashion’s social “handprint” rather than its environmental “footprint”.

The (luxury) fashion industries is ignoring its impact on the legal (and illegal) trade in endangered species. As one transnational crime investigator as CITES CoP18 stated “Rolling out an electronic permit system [within CITES] would have an immediate, positive benefit in driving down the illegal trade. It hasn’t been done to-date because too many countries [and the trade] want to maintain ‘plausible deniability’ about the abuses of the legal trade and the laundering of illegal items the paper system allows.”

Steps To A Solution

If the luxury industry wants to be seen as evolving its ethical and environmental standards in relation to the endangered species it profits from, it needs to, in the first instance:

  1. Cover the US$30 Million roll out cost of the eCITES Base Solution globally (all 183 signature parties) by CITES CoP 19, in Costa Rica in 2022
  2. Integrate this eCITES Base Solution in to any governance and transparency framework it uses, such as the Higg Index, to ensure its supply chain can be tracked from source to destination to minimise the possibility of laundering illegal product in to the legal marketplace.
  3. Factor wildlife in to the evolving ethical and sustainable (luxury) fashion strategy – while we currently have #WhoMadeMyClothes, as a result of the Rana Plaza tragedy, we also need #WhoTookMySkin
  4. Not only invest in driving up desire to the next generation of designers and costumers, but also invest in cleaning up the regulation and ethical behaviour of the industry.

These are not big asks for a luxury industry that is making US$1.25 Trillion annually.

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